A little more than a week after school ended in June, I ran into a friend who wanted urgently to know whether my children were okay. Her concern was not whether my middle-school son and daughter had caught the virus (she knew they hadn’t), or whether they had suffered from the isolation of a months-long lockdown, or even whether they had managed the stresses of online learning. No, she had just read on a local news website that my children’s school, Rye Country Day, was a hotbed of racial animus, and she was worried that my children, whose father is black, had suffered as a result. I laughed politely and assured her that they were fine. But the more I have thought about their experience over the past year at this elite prep school in Westchester, the more I wonder whether the racialized madness that has overtaken our country will leave any of us “fine”—and the more I have come to believe that these schools are, in fact, beset by racism. It’s just not the kind of racism they think.
I am not naive. When we decided to leave the world of our Jewish day school, I knew things would be different. I knew that at least some of the time spent on Judaic studies would be filled up with social-justice pursuits. I knew that our children would go from being seen as Jews who looked a little different from other Jews (and may have appeared in school brochures more frequently than other children) to children whose racial identity mattered considerably and whose religious identity was a secondary, if not a trivial, concern. But we had also been told that, of the public and private schools in our area, RCDS was among the most academically rigorous. Students not only got into top colleges, which was true at many other Westchester schools, but they took a lot of AP classes, had the option of studying classics, and were assigned a significant amount of homework.
Within the first week of school, though, it became clear that the school had other priorities—namely, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The kids were immediately offered the chance to join a variety of clubs, including a diversity club, a students-of-color club, and a girls-of-color club in which older girls of color mentored younger ones. Parents received numerous emails about these clubs, and our kids were invited on a number of occasions to join, including by their teachers. They did not.
At least the clubs were not mandatory. A few years ago, the Fieldston School in Riverdale announced that, once a week, third-graders would be separated by race. When the racial “affinity groups” met, they were asked questions such as: “How do you see other people? How do other people see you? What assumptions do you make based on appearances?” They were told to stare at groups of kids of other races and then share the things they wonder aloud. Said one boy, “We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist.”
My own son was initially interested in the question of who counted as a “student of color.” Did it include his newfound Asian friends? And if so, he asked me, half-jokingly, “what color are they?”
Rye Country Day counts 35 percent of its attendees as “students of color,” but it has recently decided to start breaking down those numbers more narrowly. And it turns out that despite years of recruitment efforts, only 5.6 percent of the students are actually black, with another 12.5 percent identifying as “multiracial,” though that could mean Asian and white, too.
There are two kinds of minority students that schools like Rye Country Day are interested in attracting. The first are the paying customers. In the suburbs of New York City, it is not hard to find members of a black upper-middle class. But like other professionals, these parents are just as inclined to send their kids to the good local public schools for which they pay absurdly high property taxes. The second group are the minority students who live in New York City or in towns like Mount Vernon without good public schools and who can’t afford private school. The most motivated enroll in programs like Prep for Prep that offer test preparation and summer-school classes to smart underprivileged kids and then help them apply to private schools such as RCDS. On the school’s webpage devoted to “diversity and inclusion,” the administration advertises that it has a “$5.9 million annual financial-aid budget.” The school pours a lot of resources into ensuring some kind of racial rainbow in their brochures.
But the result is often that wealthy white and Asian kids come to believe that black children are likely to be poor children, that black children are likely to come from bad neighborhoods, and that black children are likely to be less academically prepared. Schools might try to teach these kids not to make assumptions about their peers, but if you’re going to import kids of other races from other places and brag about the financial aid you’re giving them, the other students could be forgiven for some wrongheaded expectations.
Forgiveness, though, is not really in the air these days. In recent months, the black students and alumni of these schools have erupted in anger over the way they have been treated. As the Wall Street Journal reported in June: “Black graduates of some of the city’s most selective institutions—such as the Brearley School, the Chapin School, and the Spence School—have launched Instagram accounts to highlight their experiences and demand more concrete antiracist actions. Students and graduates elsewhere followed suit: [A few days later] more than 50 similar Instagram accounts had sprung up describing private schools and colleges in the Northeast and beyond, including Georgia and Florida. The Instagram accounts display anonymous testimonies of anguish, disparate discipline, and racist remarks.”
So what counts as racism at Rye Country Day? The Instagram posts to the [email protected] page range from trivial to inane to preposterous. One student lamented that a white friend had observed, “The [students-of-color] end of year party… was discriminatory because it ‘left out white people.’” As if this were the most absurd observation you could make. Another student, who was Colombian, felt “trapped” when a peer described himself as “richer than a Colombian drug lord.” One girl was upset because her peers, upon learning she was Jamaican, told her about vacationing in Jamaica and getting their hair braided there. She wasn’t from that part of Jamaica.
Some of the complaints are hilariously vague: After 14 years at the school, one young woman was “so sad to leave,” but since then she has realized “how toxic life was as a BLACK FEMALE at RCDS.” She notes, “I had a majority white friends all my time at RCDS and hardly had a problem with any of them. However maybe it was me just trying to fit in with my white peers by keeping my head down.” Maybe, or maybe the 14 years were perfectly fine, and only now that everyone is crying racism did she feel the need to complain.
The fact that these Instagram pages are anonymous no doubt encourages some people to make up stories that fit the narrative of RCDS as a haven for racism. One poster claims that a good friend got into “neo-Nazi culture” and then called this person the N-word in front of his mother, who only lightly chastised him. Another post claims a history teacher “told me life on a plantation wasn’t that bad.” These are the kinds of claims that cannot be fact-checked, but they strain the imagination. Such statements and the views they represent would have been appalling 25 years ago when I graduated from a Northeastern prep school. It is hard to imagine that they would pass muster today. With regard to the latter statement, one might conjecture that some teacher probably suggested that plantations in some places were worse than others, but children often hear what they want to hear.
And they also like to get a rise out of adults. A parent at another local prep school told me her daughter had to attend an all-grade meeting because one student uttered the N-word to another student while singing a rap song. If you are a teenager looking for the wrong kind of attention, there is literally no more effective way to get it than to whisper a racial slur.
In the weeks since these complaints at prep schools first occurred, RCDS has promised to commit itself to more diversity and inclusion. In addition to pledging to recruit a more diverse student body, teaching staff, and board of trustees, and a larger number of administrators devoted to promoting diversity and procuring a bigger budget, the school has also committed to offering more “anti-racism” in the curriculum. Oh, and they’ve changed the name of the school’s leader from “headmaster” to “head of school,” because, you know, slavery.
It is not as if Rye Country Day got woke only in the wake of these most recent protests. Both the curricular and extracurricular activities of the school seemed centered on “anti-racism” from the beginning. By the end of his first month there, my sixth-grade son found himself subject to a lecture on the dangers of “microaggressions.” He learned it was offensive to assume that just because someone was wearing a dress, he/she was a female. He learned it was offensive to say one group of kids achieved a solution to a math problem faster because they “had an Asian kid” working with them. Over the course of the year, there were no fewer than half a dozen similar talks.
After the first, I told him he could feel free to ignore these sessions. Politely. It is impossible to predict what will offend someone, I explained, so we should do our best to be kind. And if we inadvertently insult someone, we should apologize. But these basic lessons about how to treat others seemed to be missing. A few months into the year, the boys in his grade were made to sit out of multiple gym classes because of “bullying” in the locker room. These incidents did not seem to have anything to do with race, but just involved repeated verbal and sometimes physical confrontations. It was the kind of stuff that the adults at the school I attended would have placed under the umbrella of “boys will be boys.” But it is also the kind of behavior that would have been met with clear punishment. Students were supposed to “achieve the honorable” at the prep school I attended. And those who behaved less than honorably would be assigned tasks such as cleaning up the campus on a Saturday morning.
I did start to wonder whether, in their relentless focus on racism (or sexism or homophobia), elite schools have lost sight of their job of simply teaching kids how to behave like adults. Recently, the KIPP academy network of charter schools announced that it is “retiring ‘Work hard. Be nice’ as KIPP’s national slogan.” Why? Because it “diminishes the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”
Working hard and being nice may not be the only things schools should require of students, but they do seem like the bare minimum. Asking 11-year-olds to focus instead on combating systemic racism and creating the future they want seems both unrealistic and unhelpful when teaching them to navigate individual relationships with their peers.
But Rye Country Day and schools like it want to give students a political agenda, not a character education. Buried in one of the endless emails sent to parents about school activities this past year was a notice about how the school would be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day:
On Friday, January 17, Middle and Upper School students will hear from Khalil A. Cumberbatch, a nationally-recognized formerly incarcerated advocate for criminal justice and immigration policy change. Khalil currently serves as Chief Strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice. He has worked within the reentry community in NYC since 2010 when he was released after serving almost seven years in the NYS prison system.
Though the details are hard to find online—court records use his middle name—the specifics of Cumberbatch’s crime are worth knowing. Twenty years old at the time, he and two friends robbed two women at gunpoint on the Upper East Side. Found guilty of first-degree robbery, assault, and weapons possession, he was released on bail before his sentencing hearing and then fled the state. He was picked up by law enforcement in Virginia with stolen goods and a stolen license plate. When he was stopped, he gave police a false name. Upon returning to New York, he claimed he had been accompanying a friend for medical treatment, but the note from the doctor to this effect turned out to be a forgery.
A few years after being released, Cumberbatch, who was an illegal immigrant, was going to be deported. Governor Andrew Cuomo, impressed with his college degree and community service, pardoned him and cleared the way for him to stay. Everyone loves a good story about redemption, but was bringing in a convicted felon to talk about bail reform the best way to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King?
My husband and I spoke to the school’s headmaster—now its head of school—and the principal of the middle school. They seemed surprised that we would have any objection. First, they told us that Cumberbatch would be speaking only about Martin Luther King, not about bail reform. When we expressed skepticism, they acknowledged that perhaps his talk would range more widely. They noted that the students at RCDS are very good at challenging the views of speakers. When we said we thought leaving it to middle-schoolers to argue publicly with honored adult visitors seemed like a recipe for a lopsided debate, they assured us it would be fine and that they brought in adults with a wide variety of viewpoints. Perhaps we hadn’t been at the school long enough to test this theory, but I would bet a year’s worth of tuition that there will be no speaker invited to argue against bail reform.
On the day of the assembly, my children reported that they were the only ones who did not attend. Their classmates reported that Cumberbatch was barred from giving any information about his actual crime to the middle-schoolers (though he could reveal it to the upper school). Needless to say, that issue became the focus of the middle-schoolers’ attention, and once word traveled from the upper school, it was all anyone could talk about. So what began as an assembly to honor the legacy of America’s most storied civil-rights leader turned into an occasion for a group of mostly white students to talk about a black man’s violent criminal record.
By this point in the 2019–20 school year, the students had already absorbed plenty of lessons about race during their classes. The only books my son read in English class were about civil rights or, in one case, the plight of Mexican immigrants. My daughter’s history teacher used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to supplement his regular history textbook to study more about the evils of colonialism.
Aside from the politics, we found ourselves underwhelmed by the academic rigor of the school. The students read few books, writing assignments were rare, and my daughter spent some portion of math class each week on meditation exercises. When we asked (at my daughter’s request) whether she couldn’t be challenged more in English class or receive the kind of extra work in math that would allow her to move into a higher group the following year, we were met with blank stares. Teachers and administrators expressed concern that such assignments might cause too much “stress,” “damage her self-esteem,” or upset her “life balance.” Our meeting with the math teacher ended with her encouraging our daughter to attend her regular gatherings for girls of color.
For all the talk of the need to empower girls (and boys) of color, the idea that a request for more academic rigor (in a STEM field no less) would be met with inaction and more invitations to join diversity clubs does make one wonder. Whether this is simply the soft bigotry of low expectations or just the school’s new focus on “wellness”—they recently hired an administrator in charge of that field and forced the sixth grade to listen to a lecture on the “benefits of essential oils”—I cannot say. What does seem true is that the teachers and administrators—like their colleagues at other prep schools and colleges all over the country—seem to bring every conversation back to race.
All of the racialization only continued. During the final weeks of school—which by that point was being conducted online—we received multiple missives from the administration expressing contrition for the school’s environment. “Today, I write to say: I am deeply sorry,” the headmaster emailed. “The RCDS educational experience can and should be more actively anti-racist, more inclusive, and more culturally responsive, and while efforts have been made, results have been insufficient.”
Students were encouraged to share their pain with counselors and diversity administrators. And for the final days of school, they were told they could change their screen background (used for their classes over Zoom) into a Black Lives Matter fist. Previously, they had been allowed to use either an RCDS logo or no background at all because it could be distracting. But distractions from academics are of little importance when social justice is at stake.
When I asked my children whether they experienced racism at RCDS, they laugh. Their classmates were never anything less than kind to them. Maybe any aggressions were too “micro” to be noticed. But the parents, too, seemed considerate and warm. And this, perhaps, is what worries me most. In the 13 years since I gave birth to my first child, I have sighed occasionally at the silly things people say to me—“What a nice tan your children have,” “What does their father look like?”—but the experience of being the mother of mixed-race kids has only confirmed to me that we are fortunate to live in the most tolerant, open-minded country in the world. There are parents at our synagogue, our schools, and in our neighborhood who have welcomed my children into their homes, who have fed them and cared for them, and who have treated them like family.
I fear that the message currently emanating from teachers and administrators and politicians and pundits will harm those relationships. The new anti-racism, with its endless cycles of victimization and demands for reparations—as opposed to the model of teaching people to aspire to colorblindness and providing everyone with equal opportunity—requires all of us (and children in particular) to see race all the time. This new model will turn what would otherwise be ordinary, healthy relationships—friendships, even—into dramas with racially defined roles for all the characters.
The good people of my community and others around the country are told that no matter how welcoming they are, how well they treat others, there is nothing they can do to make up for systemic racism. Will they begin to fret over every interaction, fearing that they could say or do the wrong thing? When the parents I know see a New York City education-council member screaming at a white man because he is bouncing the black child of a friend on his lap—as one activist, Rachel Broshi, did in a video of an online meeting that went viral—what will they think?
I worry that the message is already trickling down. Advice columns in recent years have featured parents asking whether it’s okay for them to adopt children of another race, or whether people can ever truly understand someone of another race enough to marry that person, or whether it wouldn’t be easier for same-sex couples to use the white partner’s egg so as not to have the insurmountable task of handling a black child. Could white supremacists of 50 years ago have dared to dream of such attitudes among people who call themselves liberals?
The modern agenda of “anti-racism” may mean that otherwise caring adults will treat my children differently, or just keep their distance entirely. So, yes, my children are okay. But I don’t know for how long.
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