Why Racism Destroys Us All: Lessons from the Documentary “American Promise”

How racism destroys us all
1. Egypt

The filmmakers of American Promise, a documentary made by two African American parents about the experience of their son, Idris, and another African American boy, Seun, at the Dalton School in New York City over the course of 13 years, are being criticized for their decision to document their child so closely, as well as for their parenting decisions. While it is true, as a reviewer for the New York Times writes, that the pressure Idris’s parents put on him to succeed is at times very difficult, by putting the onus entirely on his parents, the New York Times review fails to mention significant factors about the school experience that contribute to his developing insecurities and self doubts.

There is a moment late in the film when Idris is involved in a high school class discussion about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and it is apparent that something significant has changed in his experience at school. There is increased diversity—his teacher is African American, there are more African American students in the class, and the topic of race, as a social construct and a piece of identity, is being introduced and given to the students to discuss—for the first time (that we have seen). These conversations were missing from his experience in lower grades, when he was surrounded by less diversity and taught by white teachers. It is as if he experienced being an “invisible” student as a young child at Dalton—when it came to his racial identity. How much did this contribute to his struggles at school and how could his white teachers have begun these discussions about race in a way that would have supported Idris’s identity development and contributed to his ability to succeed?

The first images of Idris’s kindergarten class show a group of children excitedly playing with fluffy yellow chicks on a carpet. We notice that Idris and Seun seem to be the only black boys in the class.  But one could assume that this difference is not very significant. After all, all of the children are equally excited about the chicks and, in this context of eager young children in a vibrant, engaged classroom – what does it really matter that there are some differences?  After all, they are all sharing a similar experience, and have all been given access to this elite, exclusive school—one of the most well-known and respected private schools in the country. Isn’t that enough?

Over the course of the film we learn that, in terms of Idris’s health and well being, simply gaining access to the institution, and, even, the teachers and administrators’ intentions to instill a sense of confidence in all of their students—is not enough. There is a powerful disconnect between the intention of the school—to, as one administrator puts it, “puff up” the children with a sense of self esteem— and the actual experience for Idris of being at school. He starts out a happy, enthusiastic kindergartener. But by middle school Idris has some disturbing questions about the value of his racial identity.

He asks his parents if it wouldn’t be easier for him if were white. Wouldn’t the girls like him then? Wouldn’t he have an easier time at Dalton? At this age, Idris is absolutely aware that his racial identity is paramount to his experience at Dalton. He is aware that other people see him differently, and, disturbingly, he sees this aspect of his identity as a deficit rather than a positive, empowering attribute. And no official from the school, including teachers and administrators, as far as we know, have brought these issues up in the classroom, on the playground, or in parent/teacher conferences.

Is there something about the school environment, from the photos and posters on the wall, to the books in the classroom library, to the lesson plans and projects that could be contributing, however “innocently”, couched in the best intentions, to Idris’s feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt?

Claude Steele, author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time), writes about the power of stereotype threat (the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group) in terms of hindering a student’s ability to perform up to his/her potential. Sometimes stereotype threat is present by default, because of the lack of images and models that reflect a child’s racial, ethnic, or cultural identity. It is possible that Idris felt a stereotype threat in his kindergarten classroom simply because his racial identity was not reflected in the physical environment or curriculum. This is intensified by the fact that there is no one of his race on the teaching staff or administration. So, while playing with live chicks on the rug and learning about the life cycle of the chicken from egg to full grown hen may be a wonderful lesson—it may also be true that something else is being thwarted in terms of Idris’s identity development. And that this contributes to a stereotype threat that has a direct affect on his ability to perform up to his potential. And this may have a large part to do with why his parents sit in their car a few years later, reviewing their son’s report card with disbelief and remarking that the comments about Idris’s inability to focus and his behavior problems do not match their experience of their son at home.

If we accept that there is something essential missing from Idris’s first days of school on, and this absence has a direct and devastating effect on his ability to succeed at school, the next question must be: what needs to change?

As a white kindergarten teacher at an Independent school in Northern California that also has a small African American population of students and faculty, I have spent the past several years thinking deeply about these issues and working alongside a team of kindergarten teachers to design curriculum that includes and celebrates the identity of all of our students, gives a greater understanding and appreciation of their similarities and differences and communicates across these differences with empathy and respect. Young children notice difference all the time. Indeed, an essential aspect of human development is the process of sorting and categorizing, putting “like” with “like”, figuring out “same” and “different.” In fact, teachers ask young children to engage in this process every day in math, reading and writing. It is a natural process for young children to sort and categorize one another, and to be full of curiosity and questions about the differences around them. It is our job to give our young students a basic understanding about these differences, including explicit teaching about skin color that provides a foundational understanding of where skin color comes from, why we are different from one another as well as activities that celebrate the diversity around us.

For example, after realizing that most children’s poems and songs about colors do not include the color brown as a color to celebrate, and, at the same time, hearing disparaging remarks about the color brown from young children over the years, students labeling other students’ skin as “dirty” or “burnt”, we decided to create a unit around the color brown that involves reading poems from the book Tan to Tamarind: Poems About the Color Brown by Malathi Michelle Iyengar, writing poetry about brown after spending time smelling and touching spices and foods that are brown (coffee grounds, cinnamon, cloves, etc.), and creating artwork around the color brown. Our intent is to create many positive associations with brown that will then lead to a greater appreciation of diversity. At the same time, we also teach explicit lessons about the dangers of excluding based on skin color and the importance of joining together to solve problems through our study of changemakers of different races and ethnicities, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Wangari Maathai who both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

Importantly, this instruction is always guided by questions about how to instill a sense of empathy in our students and create opportunities for all voices to be included in the conversation. Too often, and especially in classrooms where students of color are in the minority, African American students are singled out and talked about in the context of the Civil Rights Movement or other lessons about racism. We must teach about these topics with the idea that racism is devastating for all of us, that our history and present realities around racism affect all of us, and that instruction around these topics is vital to all of our students’ success. American Promise is a stark reminder of the necessity of engaging with all of our young children on issues of race, skin color, racism, and empathy and that these discussions and lessons can be powerful determinants in how well our students succeed both in and outside of the classroom.