Honest discussions about race are needed to produce socially responsible leaders

Cartoon by Abby Ferry 16

Cartoon by Abby Ferry ’16

Race relations is hardly a black-and-white issue–instead, at South, it is a problem of invisibility. While we support the review committee’s decision to preserve “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a novel in the Honors American Literature curriculum, we also believe we can and should do more to discuss race relations inside the classroom.

With white populations from the feeder communities of Grosse Pointe Park, Farms and City averaging 91.2 percent, according to the 2010 census, it is easy to see why our community often ignores or addresses multiculturalism with ignorance. Blacks and other minorities are grossly underrepresented in the Pointes, and therefore in our schools. Don’t believe it? Let “The Tower” serve as an example–less than 1 percent of our staff is African-American. Still incredulous? Examine the diversity of the school system’s staff: three of a total 561 district teachers were African-American in the 2014-2015 school year, according to Grosse Pointe School System records. In fact, more teachers in our district have PhDs than are black.

With this in mind, how do we approach educational discussions on race when race is not fairly represented in our student body, our staff or our community?

The easy answer is to ignore our troubled national and local history, purporting that racism died with our grandparents and pretending that the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement does not penetrate a bubble in which there are so few black lives.

While simple and painless, this approach does not fulfill the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s mission statement goal to “challenge all students to realize their full potential.”  By curbing or censoring mature and honest discussions on race in the classroom, we deny our students the opportunity to think globally, gain empathy, learn from yesterday’s mistakes and realize their potential for positive leadership.

Parents of South students expect their children to be challenged academically, which is why hundreds of students enroll in courses like Honors Chemistry and AP Calculus. Many students struggle at some point in these classes.

Likewise, curriculum in honors and AP English classes should be equally as trying, especially during sensitive discussions of race relations. Using the “n” word in class is uncomfortable–and it should be.

But we also deal with uncomfortable topics in other areas of our English curriculum. In eighth grade, honors English students read about fathers forced to incinerate their own sons in Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night,” and the bloody massacre of thousands during the Reign of Terror in Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” Both of these novels are uncomfortable to discuss and read, yet they are both important because they develop a reader’s morality and sense of justice.

Evidently, the district believes 13-year-old students are mature enough to handle these disturbing themes. Therefore, why shouldn’t the district encourage high school students to tackle the comparably difficult, relevant and uncomfortable discussion of race?

Maybe if we had more discussions about race as a school, students would not mock our principal’s religious views on social media–maybe they would be the ones to stand up to similar injustices. Maybe we could unite as a student body, coming together not because of the color of our skin, but in consolidated opposition to the prejudice and xenophobia that is all the more dangerous when we choose to evade it.

As Mark Twain wrote in “A Tramp Abroad” “The most permanent lessons in morals are those which come, not of book teaching, but of experience.”

Equipped with the invaluable experience of classroom debate, discussion and inquiry, South’s students will learn not only by reading, but also from leading us into a more understanding and accepting future.