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Chicago

Oak Park Student: Why Black Students Need a Safe Space to Talk About Racism

Many of our Belief Gap pieces have dealt with the gap between adult and student expectations. This piece comes from a Chicago-area high school senior discussing a gap between students of different races and illustrates school leaders who are working hard to ensure a safe space for students of color to discuss racial concerns. An earlier version of this appeared in the Oak Park and River Forest High School student newspaper, Trapeze.
Recently, rumors have been flying surrounding what really happened during my school’s controversial “Black Lives Matters” assembly. Instead of being praised as courageous and innovative, our African-American principal and racially diverse school were criticized for “fostering segregation” and hosting an assembly where only African-American students were invited. The biggest question everyone asked of the February 27 gathering at Oak Park River Forest High School was, “Why wasn't everyone allowed to come?” This separation between blacks and the rest of the student body was met with many anonymous comments and “yik yaks” about how this is just furthering the problem of racial hostility. Some complained, “If there was an all-white assembly this would be a huge problem, but all black is just fine.” I attended the assembly, and it was clear to me why the event “excluded” whites and other minorities. School leaders wanted the assembly to be a safe place for African-American students to share experiences and opinions without risking the empty looks, the denial, and sometimes outright hostility they get when they try to share their feelings of racial misunderstanding and bigotry with white classmates. They also wanted to not have the surrounding presence of fear that comes with talking about race, the fear that someone will misunderstand or take something the wrong way. They wanted the assembly to be the first step in a bigger discussion with the school about race and the problems that our school still struggles with, including fewer black students in honors and AP classes and the growing achievement gap. Going through this school as an African-American student, it is often uncomfortable sharing experiences of racism in an all-white class. White students haven’t experienced the same kind of bias that black students experience, and it sometimes makes it worse when they assume they understand. This assembly was supposed to allow people to discuss what they have wanted to share with others, and actually say it in front of people who might have experienced the same issues. Allowing a safe space for anyone should always be honored. The truth is that people who are reacting badly to the concept of an all-black assembly obviously like to think race isn’t a problem anymore, or that we live in a colorblind society. I’m not sure whether they are ignoring it or are in serious denial. I feel like one of the biggest problems white students have with this kind of event is the intimidation factor. They are intimidated that for once something is happening that they are not allowed to be a part of. Being in the majority constantly makes you feel like you have a place, and that’s great, but in these situations, this is not your place. To say this assembly was segregating my high school is just not true. Our high school is already segregated in too many ways—just take a look at our lunch tables, our extracurriculars, or who ends up in top honors classes. Nor was this assembly a place where black students were planning to take revenge on white students—as some absurd conspiracy theories have suggested. This was a time for students who are always in the minority to finally be in the majority and share stories. One of my teachers mentioned that if we had an assembly for women victims of abuse, no one would even think to demand access for all men. Is it because men never get abused? No. It’s because it’s hard to openly share your painful experiences when you are surrounded by the group most likely to cause you harm or judge you. I urge students, before they judge and hate on the assembly, to try to find out what actually happened and have people explain why the assembly was important. While many aspects of the assembly could have been better planned and organized, the passion was there. Nothing is going to be perfect on the first try, let’s all just try to remember that. And for those who counter by saying we should have an all-white assembly? Honestly. Think about that for a minute. What would you talk about? Do you have stories of oppression due to the color of your skin? Do you feel like you are constantly in the minority in your classes? Do you feel like you are unfairly judged by teachers, students, police, sales clerks, strangers on the street—on a daily basis—because of your race? When the majority of white people can answer yes to all those questions, then go ahead and hold that whites-only assembly to talk about white oppression. But until then, please try to check your privilege.
Anjanique Barber
Anjanique Barber is a sophomore at Amherst College, where she is studying pre-law and French, rows for the women's crew team and works as a student tour guide. She is a graduate of Oak Park River Forest High School.

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