Leaning into Race and Ethnicity Discussions at ECFS

9 Oct 2018
ByJoe McCauley, Principal, Fieldston Lower

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. A river and freeway system divide the city, and I grew up hearing neighborhoods described as “the Black neighborhood” and the “Mexican part of town.” White neighborhoods were not described by their race; they were just neighborhoods. I attended an all-white elementary school that never discussed race, except when Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech was read or talked about once a year. I did attend a racially integrated high school, but the school was highly segregated from within. With this childhood, I grew up keenly aware of other races but not my own. The most popular message that I learned about ending or dealing with racism was to be “colorblind.” I graduated high school with more questions than answers. I made it a point to ensure that my college years were dedicated to learning about racism, the roots of it, and what I could do to fight against it. As an American history major, I took every class I could about race in America and the Civil Rights Movement and eventually focused my studies on the work of W. E. B. DuBois. What I didn’t realize, though, was that I had the privilege to choose this as a course of study. It was an intellectual pursuit — an honorable one, yes, but one that was removed from personal introspection and that I could learn about without consequence. It was not until I became an elementary school teacher that I began to truly contemplate my own race and understand its importance in how I interact with and influence my surroundings. I have worked in public schools that were predominantly non-white and independent schools with varying degrees of diversity. There have been times when I was immediately trusted because I am white and times when I have had to earn trust because I am white. I have taught students who have said racially insensitive things and students who have encountered hate and racism beyond anything I will ever experience. It was in these moments that I learned not to ignore my whiteness. Our students need role models in adults who look like them and in adults who do not look like them. All aspects of our identity matter, and I am learning to become more comfortable sharing my race and ethnicity with others. I have also seen firsthand that students see and talk about race. They live it and experience it daily. They will learn about race one way or another, and I am proud to be part of a school that values facilitating these conversations with trusted and loving adults. Our CARe affinity groups give each child a safe space to explore their racial identity and contemplate how their race affects their lives and those around them. To me, our CARe program is a perfect example of how we teach through progressive education and an ethical approach. Instead of learning about race intellectually or exclusively through the lens of history, we ask our students to engage in authentic conversations about topics that directly relate to them.

Last week, Laura Stewart led the entire Fieldston Lower faculty in a discussion around our CARe program, and the engagement and interest were impressive and inspiring. I feel very lucky to be part of a community that is willing to lean into these conversations and is seen as a leader in diversity work among our peer schools. I am looking forward to facilitating my own CARe affinity group and know it will be some of the most meaningful work I will be engaged in this year.