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Village youth say race is still an issue

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This is the fourth in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.

By Brooke Bryan and Lauren Heaton

Yellow Springs can be a supportive town for black youth to grow up in, according to a group of 10 current Yellow Springs High School students and recent graduates in recent interviews. But the village is not immune to the issues that tend to divide the community by color and burden some African-American families disproportionately. Instances of discrimination are very subtle, and can be unintentional, but they do occur here, the youth said, and they pose obstacles both of perception and in actual practice that young people of color are challenged to overcome.

But being black is not to be used as a “crutch.” Rather, being black is a rich experience with a deep heritage that youth said they wouldn’t trade for anything. But because of the way that history colors the present, there are conversations that need to happen — and the kind of dialogue necessary to bridge the race gap is not going to take place in the classroom.

Race becomes apparent

Socially, differences around race begin to manifest in tangible ways sometime around middle school, when youth grow into their own identities, according to four current students gathered by Yellow Springs High School Principal John Gudgel last week for an interview. Village youth seem to be more racially integrated in elementary school, according to sophomore Ameer Wagner. But in the higher grades, self-segregation is evident.

“Once you get older you can see the gap, it just splits. You can look around and see it,” Wagner said. “I don’t think it’s intentional, I think it’s subconscious.”

For junior Stephanie Scott, the experience of students of color becomes different from that of white peers when cultural forces make things different. Not being invited to a party as a child, and realizing later that everyone who was invited to the party was white is one way youth of color experience difference, Scott said.

“It’s like the world just kind of pushes that on you, that you are different,” Scott said.

Senior Matthew Rowe illustrated how social constructions of race begin very early, such as young African-American girls who grow up with white Barbie dolls.

“We’re just built from society to see white,” Rowe said.

But sometime around middle school, he said, there is a shift for many African-American and biracial kids who start to seek out examples of “black icons.”

“You start growing independent from the white stuff, and you start trying to look for more black stuff, because you want to know about the other side too,” Rowe said.

When you are in high school, you start to figure out who you are, according to Deandre Ellington, who lives in Springfield but attends Yellow Springs schools through open enrollment. It’s pretty natural to gravitate towards people who share similar interests, according to Ellington and Rowe, but when those interests are culturally prescribed, things become more complicated.

Educational experiences

In Ellington’s community, which he described as predominantly black, there are definite personas associated with race. For some of Ellington’s black friends, hanging out with white kids, or applying yourself in school, is akin to conforming to the standards of a different, culturally dominant race.

“I remember my friends asking me why I was acting so white, because I was being smart and answering questions,” Ellington said of his experience before he came to Yellow Springs schools. “In my environment, it’s almost like black people can’t be smart,” he said.

Ellington said he never saw himself graduating high school, much less getting good grades and heading to college, as has since become his path.

“A lot of kids don’t have the opportunities that I have had to look past their environment to see what’s coming up ahead,” Ellington said. “It’s not too much about being black, it’s about taking care of business and doing what’s important.”

One explanation for the black-white achievement gap in schools is that some students of color get caught in a cultural struggle that limits what goals they set for themselves, according to Wagner.

“There are silent standards that friends have. You don’t hear black kids talking with their black friends about the good grades they have. You hear them talking about being on the same level as everybody else,” Wagner said, such as getting low grades on an assignment or report card.

“Stepping out of the lines and achieving more than everybody else leaves you different.”

As a student of color who wants to excel, not only do you not hang out with the white people, Wagner said, but the black friends you hang out with feel you are different because you are smarter than them.

“It just leaves you in your own spot, in general,” he said.

And yet some black students feel they grow up at an educational disadvantage. Last week’s News story on diversity reported that a disproportionate number of African-American students are on IEPs and have lower grade point averages than their white peers. That data point was supported by Lisa Crosswhite’s experience that in her husband Jerome Crosswhite’s last year of coaching football at YSHS in 2008, 18 out of 20 of the team’s mostly black players were on Individualized Education Plans, an academic support program for students with learning disabilities.

The statistics don’t surprise one recent graduate, who felt that his IEP was grossly ineffective. This student, who did not want to be named, struggled through school, falling behind by several grade levels in math and reading, even though he was supposed to be getting extra help and tutoring. He has little faith in a system he feels left him unable to take advantage of scholarship funding he needed to get through college. Problems at school were compounded with an unstable situation at home, where he did not receive academic or other support. He moved out on his own before he became an adult, he says, and still struggles to get ahead.

Some black youth have trouble generating interest in school partly because most of the curriculum is based on white European culture, according to Issa Walker, who graduated YSHS in 2006. Yellow Springs students learn about the history of white people, read books by white authors, play music by white composers — all of it taught by a predominantly white faculty. While he is interested in learning about other cultures, at some point, African-American students want to learn about the history of their own culture, too. Had he known there were black aboriginees in the Americas before Christopher Columbus sailed here, he likely would have taken a higher interest in history class, he said.

The mainstream education system alienates African-American students, making it “difficult for them to succeed” and “hard to fit in and feel like we’re as smart,” he said. “We didn’t learn enough about blacks — it’s like we had no history.”

Youth lack black role models

Black role models in the schools and in the community at large would be helpful, but there are few who are actively involved, the youth said. Some students chose to join the football team, Crosswhite believes, because they were looking for guidance from a black male leader. Especially the boys with disciplinary problems needed an authority they trusted to encourage them but also give them limits.

“These kids are looking for a male figure for guidance on how to become a man,” she said.

Attempting to develop into adults without role models either at home or in the community at large is challenging, Walker said. For guidance, youth then turn to the few black male figures present in their lives, recent graduates who are “still kids too,” and some of them end up smoking and establishing no solid goals, he said.

As a role model and advocate for black youth, YSHS Principal John Gudgel is invaluable, Walker said. Students trust he understands them because he grew up in the village and continued to teach and coach even while maintaining a leadership position in the school, Walker said. He makes especially the African-American students feel like “someone had your back.”

Walker found support through his family and Central Chapel A.M.E. Church, whose programs and congregation members encouraged him to be a leader instead of a follower. But for those who don’t have such relationships to ground them, youth can get carried away with the popular images that portray black culture as materialistic, competitive and egotistical, he said.

As an African-American young male, Rowe said he hasn’t grown up with many black male role models. The effect of this, he said, is that black male youth have the feeling that there is no one out there caring for them, so they focus on what they “have to do” in the here and now to feel OK, instead of what they “need to do” to get to a different place.

According to Rowe, Gudgel has fulfilled this mentorship role for many, and is considered a “hero” for many students of color.

Not only are there no black male teachers in the schools, Gudgel will retire at the end of the year, Scott said, which leaves only athletic role models for male black youth. It is a problem, she said, especially considering the wealth of black intellectuals like Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Du Bois that black male youth could be encouraged to emulate. Pushing black youth toward athletics as if it is what they were made to do is pushing a stereotype, she said.

Classroom realities

According to the current students surveyed for this article, students of color who want to excel feel they have to be on guard about how they present themselves to teachers and other authority figures. Some thought that, because as minorities they are associated with a pattern of lower achievement in school, students of color might be at an increased risk for subtle teacher assumptions that can negatively impact their individual evaluations.

Each of them described incidents in the classroom that made them feel they had been lumped into a stereotype by teachers. Still, each student emphasized the role of individual choice, and how important it is not to fall into the trap of using racism as a “crutch” to explain the achievement gap.

“You have to go a step farther than everyone else, because everyone is already looking at you like you are a minority,” Rowe said. “It’s just something you have to learn to adapt to and accept.”

For Scott, first impressions have a huge impact, so she has always been careful of how she presents herself to teachers. And she feels a duty to excel.

“As an African-American girl, I keep above the expectations that are set for me,” she said.

Students cited the presence of certain expectations, and lack of expectations, as examples that subtle race-based prejudices do exist in the schools. For instance, when a black student makes honor roll, it is a really big deal, students surveyed said. Then if that student doesn’t make honor roll the following quarter, students felt that their success had been perceived as a “fluke.”

One student thinks that if grading were blind, where teachers could not see the name of the student, that grades might be different.

Discipline at the schools sometimes gets leveled on an unfair basis by teachers who, perhaps unknowingly, engage in racial profiling, according to Issa Walker. Once a teacher blamed him and several other black students for an incident at school that had been perpetrated by a group of white students. The teacher later apologized, but the incident illustrated to Walker some truths about “what really goes on behind the scenes.”

Support from the home front

According to Walker, most of his African-American friends in high school were from single-parent households, and many of them didn’t get the support and encouragement they needed at home. Over the past decade, the YSHS football team has attracted many black students from lower-income or single-parent homes, according to Crosswhite, who is also a former YSHS cheerleading coach. Some of the players came to Yellow Springs to get away from social problems at larger schools, and many of them struggled academically and personally, she said.

While his father grew up in Yellow Springs, Kilan Brown, who graduated YSHS in 2008, lived between Yellow Springs and California, attending YSHS for his junior and senior years. Another recent graduate who did not wish to be named also grew up between Yellow Springs and surrounding communities. Brown perceives that a good percentage of his black peers came to Yellow Springs temporarily and weren’t committed, long-term members of the community. That meant, he said, that there wasn’t a strong black community to provide support either at school or at home.

However, a clear consensus between current students surveyed was discomfort with the tendency for teachers to ask students of color who are struggling academically if there are problems at home.

“When a black kid slips up in a grade, it always comes down to ‘well, how’s your family life’? Nine times out of ten it’s assumed that something is going on at home,” Wagner said.

Wagner said when white kids slip up, the expectations go up, too. White kids are told to step it up, study more, to get back on track.

“It has nothing to do with my home life,” Rowe said. “It has something to do with me. I either chose to make the decision to do the work, or I chose not to do it.”

And not everyone who grew up in a single family home was having problems. Matt Wallace, who graduated in 2003, grew up with his mother, McKinney teacher Aurelia Blake, and got solid support at home and at school. “Mom wouldn’t put up with me being a knuckle-head,” he said. “People are quick to point fingers at school,” but it’s the support that students receive at home that makes the difference, he said. “My mom was involved in my schooling — that’s what it comes down to.”

And he believed in the discipline he learned. “If you want good things to happen, you have to take certain actions,” Wallace said.

Support from the community

Several of those interviewed also mentioned the additional difficulty the local police and area police present, particularly for young black males. Brown, Walker and two others said that local police officers have stopped them in their vehicles for “suspicious” behavior, such as making eye contact with an officer, Brown said. Another youth was stopped for legitimate but minor infractions, such as driving without a license plate light. He had hoped the police would issue a written warning and allow him to get the light fixed, as he believes would happen to most white drivers, but instead the officer issued him a misdemeanor citation. One black male said that those $150 fines for minor infractions demoralize them and severely hamper their ability to sustain their independence as young students.

Though their experience is far from color-blind, many of the students still feel that Yellow Springs is an open-minded community with greater diversity of thought than they expect to encounter elsewhere.

“If I were somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t have as many white friends as I do,” Scott said. “Yellow Springs is really — not closed minded — but very into the way we do things together.”

This community-minded spirit gives students a comfort zone and allows them to go beyond the assumptions the wider culture places on them, current students said. Even when students of color feel they have experienced discrimination, they see it more as an unconscious assumption that someone, be it a teacher or a peer, just failed to think through. They do not generally experience racism that is intentionally harmful or hateful here.

Calling for dialogue

Race is a subject that should get talked about, students said. In the classroom, things get tense when race comes up, they said. For instance, when a literature or history reading uses what Rowe called “the n-word,” there is often a hesitation on the part of the white students in class, either to read the word or to speak it aloud.

This is one ramification of not talking about race relations in the community, students said. White students hesitate because they don’t want to perpetuate harmful ideas, or because they are uncomfortable. Black students then perceive their discomfort, wonder why they hesitated, and the cycle is perpetuated again.

One recent graduate finds it amusing that white kids he knows are not racist in spirit tiptoe around race issues, like hesitating to finish a joke. If there’s no race-based hang-ups, “why are you sweatin’ it?,” he said.

There are conversations that need to happen, students said, but not in the classroom. The issues are too personal, and many find it difficult to talk about race and prejudice. Having the conversations in a workshop or forum that is convened to talk about issues “from the heart,” can and does extend into the wider school environment, and back into the classroom. Current students cited recent forum efforts convened by Gudgel with the Human Relations Commission and the Bolinga Center as examples of productive dialogue that has potential to shift elements within the normal school setting. And they wish more teachers were involved.

“Looking back on my experience, I think being black has made it all the more richer. Through all the ups and downs, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Ellington said. “I’m proud of where I come from, and where my people come from.”

For all the people who have made strides in history to beat the odds, Ellington said it is important to keep striving. Too many people of color use the idea of racism as a crutch, he said, but at some point you have to put that behind you and move forward.

“I feel as if I’m stronger,” Scott said of being black. “I feel as if I’ll be able to accomplish whatever, because I’ve already been through it,” and because she has learned how to surround herself with people who “keep it moving forward.”

“I was always taught that it is a choice. You choose to get the grades you get,” Scott said. “There are a lot of things that play into it, but I don’t think it is just about you being black.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said that you have to give consent to feel inferior to another, Scott said, and if you respect yourself, and expect respect in return, most problems can be avoided. Teachers just need to talk to the students, she said, and students need to talk to each other.

“If you see the gap, but you are not trying to change it, then don’t talk about it,” Rowe said. “Don’t talk about it unless you are going to do something about it.”

The 365 Project will hold a student-led dialogue after the Elaine Comegys Film Festival screening of “What’s Race Got To Do With It,” on March 13. The community is invited to attend.

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