Talking About Race

In addition to teaching history I organize a weekly informal lecture series. Lectures take place on Tuesdays during lunch and only those students interested in the topic take part. These talks typically attract between 15-20 students along with a small number of faculty. Topics cover a wide spectrum. The best part for me is watching students and faculty sitting together and engaging one another on an intellectual level outside the classroom. Yesterday’s topic focused on the problem of race and the appropriateness of Black History Month. The speaker was an African-American woman and a Ph.D candidate in history at UVA. Her presentation was provocative with the intent of generating a dialogue among the students. We have a small black student body and most of them were in attendance. The audience was roughly 50% black and 50% white. The speaker left plenty of opportunity for discussion and students asked interesting and complex questions. The only problem from my point of view was that not one black student said a word – not one question or comment.

I have to admit to having felt just a little uncomfortable towards the end. Perhaps their silence should serve as a reminder that our black students do not feel comfortable talking about race – even in the company of a faculty that cares deeply and an African-American speaker. Perhaps this should serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to be a black student at this school. We have only a few African Americans on staff and no teachers in the Upper School. If you want to see a black employee at our school you need to arrive later in the day in time for the cleaning crew. I know the administration has tried to attract black employees, but for one reason or another it hasn’t worked. It seems to me that we do these students an injustice if on the one hand we strive towards an interracial/multi-cultural student body, but fail to follow through on mirroring that on all levels of our staff.

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