Every Wednesday our school holds what we call "Community Forum." It lasts for about 20 minutes and allows students to share their thoughts about issues related to school and beyond. Students are asked to stand when they speak and identify themselves to the rest of the Upper School. Faculty are also encouraged to take part. Most of the issues are raised by a small committee of students. Last week they decided to tackle the issue of race. We decided to show scenes from the move Crash and to break up into smaller groups to discuss it. We showed the movie last Wednesday and today broke up into small groups this morning for a 25-minute discussion.
I was with a group of about 15 students. It will come as no surprise when I say that these discussions are difficult to get off the ground. Many students feel defensive or uncomfortable while others struggle for the right language. We are a small private school that is predominantly white and upper middle to upper class.
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussion. While we did not spend much time talking about the movie we did talk about the way race shapes our individual perceptions and its manifestations in the Charlottesville area. Not everyone talked, but enough students shared their ideas. One student in particular, who was a student in my AP American History course last year, made some very interesting points. She admitted to being aware of the ways race has shaped American history and her local community, but wondered how we might begin to "unwind race." For some reason this has stuck with me the entire day. It’s perfect. Most people in the group were willing to admit that we learn to see our world through the lens of race and this lends itself to the idea of being wound-up in it.
I guess the main reason I like it so much is that it helps explain why I am so interested in the history of race in this country. I grew up just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey. As some of you may know Atlantic City is on an island along with the smaller towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport. I grew up in Ventnor. While Atlantic City was predominantly black my town along with the two others was white. What I still find hard to believe is that up until I attended high school I never really interacted with black people. My parents took me and my brother to the boardwalk and the amusement piers, but I don’t remember that many black families. And all of this took place on an island in southern New Jersey.
My own critical approach to the study of how race has shaped American history has in large part been part of a personal process of trying to "unwind" race from my own personal history. In the end it comes back to a kind of childhood curiosity or sense of wonder about the racial dynamics of my own home and how I was wound without even knowing it at an early age.