By Christopher Bowers
Dear White Parents of White Children-
As fall approaches and those of us with school-aged children are getting ready for the new school year. And some of us, especially with kids just entering school, are trying to decide which school is best for our child. There are many factors we consider: location, educational approach, class size, discipline approach, curriculum, aftercare programs, etc. Many of my conversations with other parents looking at schools for their kids have centered around diversity. I myself am a hetero, white, cis-gendered father of a white child and most of my conversations have been with other white parents of white children. It is to these conversations that I refer in this letter. We want our children to be at a school with a diverse student body, a school that cares and puts effort into what is commonly called DEI initiatives, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Despite the sincerity of these desires and the importance of the topic, these conversations have always felt awkward to me. It’s taken me some contemplation to figure out why. While we may have good reasons to want our kids to be a part of a diverse student body, those reasons don’t always have to do with the students that create that diversity. We want our white kids to make friends with students from all walks of life. We want them to have a more well-rounded education. We want them to have more nuanced social understandings. We want them to have. Yet, what does this want do for the non-white kids in these classes (should there actually be any) or kids who are queer or of various gender identities (should they feel safe enough to be open about it)?
We want our child to have a scholastic experience with a “more real” experience of the world, one that includes people with different cultural backgrounds, economic backgrounds, abilities, sexualities, genders, and identities. However, considering that so much of our country is actually not safe for these groups and specifically not for Black, Indigenous or People/students of Color (BIPOC) nor LGBTQ and Trans students, and given that most schools are still very much working to make their campuses safer, what does it mean to say we want our kids to have a more real picture of the world? While yes, our white children might see that a variety of kids exist, but what is the experience at the school for these kids that they are seeing, the kids that create this diversity? Will our kids see that children who are different from them in some way are often not safe, that they do not have the same access to resources, that they do not get treated by teachers and administration in the same ways that they do? Will they see that those children experience bullying at higher rates than students who appear to fit a dominant-cultural identity? And for parents whose kids are not white, heterosexual or cis-gendered, does the schools sense of diversity help them find a sense of belonging or solidarity, let alone safety at school? And if not, how will we explain that to our children?
I’m also troubled by how I myself have thought of diversity as a way for my kid to experience the world. It reveals that I am in some sense attempting to merely enlist BIPOC and queer students in the service of my children’s educational/life experience. Is this not just another form of making those students extras in my kid’s dominant cultural experience, as if to say, “your role is to provide diversity”? This is not the kind of relationship I want me or my kid to have with difference or with people in general. To do so is not to teach the value of diverse relationships, but to teach the harm of transactional relationships.
Again, we must ask how do kids that the school may tout as examples of their diversity benefit, particularly when we know that huge academic and safety gaps still exist in the educational system? For all parents, our quest for diversity should be a quest for justice. It’s not just about DEI. It’s about safety from bullying, equal treatment in the classroom, equitable school funding, restorative instead of punitive problem solving (particularly since the latter often disproportionately punishes non-white students). It’s about fighting laws that prohibit teaching about race and gender or teaching accurate history about genocide and slavery. And it’s about fighting laws that discriminate against freely and safely living one’s own gender identity in general but specifically at school. It’s about resisting policies that result in kids of color being more likely than their white counterparts to go to jail or less likely to go to college. We as parents can be working towards policies and approaches that make the scholastic environment one in which any student feels safe and respected enough to learn. Perhaps when us parents (along with teachers and school administrators) focus more on this, diversity will flourish at all schools.