We live in a world that is becoming increasingly more racially diverse. Whether you are a biracial child, a half-white, half-Asian kid, or a full-Asian child, you are aware of the growing divide between people of different skin colors. The other day I posted to my FB page about my decision to send my daughter to a private, all-black school. I was immediately attacked by both black and white people who claimed to love me, but hated what I had done. Some of the comments I got were ones I hadn’t heard before, that are too obscene to be shared here.
I have two daughters, 14 and 21 years old. My younger one has been at a predominately black high school for the last two years, while my older one has been at a predominately white private high school for four years. I have lost friends, faced criticism, and have even had to endure constant racial slurs every single day while at school.
Sending my white daughter to a largely Black school for kids with learning challenges had some great effects on her. Below are some of those I learned from her.
My book, “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s Schools,” was released earlier this month. It recounts the narrative of my personal growth in knowledge of the country’s public schools’ continuing segregation and racial inequality, as well as my choice to send my white daughter to our majority-Black, “failed,” Title I school. A large body of evidence shows that Black and Brown children who attend integrated schools do better academically and have better long-term earning and health outcomes, whereas white children perform well academically and have extra social emotional skills for a racially varied society. However, since living into the choice pushed me beyond the facts, the book is mostly about the beauty and complexities of closeness.
The book’s reception has been generally positive, sometimes painful, and always interesting.
I tried to explain whiteness—the pond in which so many of us swim—so that we might finally, purposefully decenter white people. It turns out that seeing oneself as the default in a community makes it difficult to resist dominating. Many of us still believe that only BIPOC people have a racial identity, and that being white—as long as you’re not “proud” of it—is a neutral state. However, whiteness, particularly the elite, progressive kind I’m attempting to make apparent in this book, is strikingly different (think cargo bikes, beer gardens, and a deep love for Stacy Abrams). To perceive it, you must first point out its absurd consistency and specificity. You may dispute its validity and universality after you’ve seen it.
The identifying of this culture, particularly when I’m involving myself in it rather than mocking it, seems to be humiliating to white, secular readers. “I can’t believe you wrote this,” so many friends and colleagues have privately told me. It made me cringe…” they say hastily, before adding, “in a nice way.”
“I’ve never read anything like this,” one multiracial father friend remarked. It, like, tightens up my sphincter.” Isn’t that a blurb for the book’s back cover?
The book was reviewed in the Washington Post by Connor P. Williams, a white father and education reporter who called it “a book about gaps.” Perhaps some of people’s apprehension stems from the book’s lack of closure (as one GoodReads reviewer put it: “I really prefer a novel that “wraps up,” but this one doesn’t have a neat bow at the finish”). “Martin doesn’t compel readers to choose one point of view,” Williams writes. This results in a tangled, complicated narrative, which represents the circumstances.”
Many affluent readers have also expressed their admiration for how “brave” I was in writing this book. “I still can’t believe you waded into this morass of racial equality in schools,” one Asian American reader says. I think we all “stepped into the bog” the moment we became parents in a nation where the caste system still exists; I simply did it on the page.
“I feel tremendous appreciation for your courage and honesty,” a white mother writes.
On some levels, calling it courageous is true, but it also provides a safe distance. It’s as if putting my white children to a school with a majority of Black students and authoring this book are great causes that only radical weirdos would contemplate. It also maintains the paradigm that views my decision, as well as our school, as a “sacrifice”—a place where my child would get a less great education since there aren’t enough white students. I think she has a limited variety of academic possibilities as a result of a PTA fundraising budget that is a fraction of that of neighboring whiter schools, but I also believe she has a wider range of personal prospects.
Of course, there are a distinct set of dynamics at work for BIPOC readers. Which brings up another of the book’s paradoxes: I created it with white and/or affluent parents in mind as the primary audience, but I also wanted educational professionals and parents of color to find it helpful and accurate. However, after you’ve written and published a book, you’re no longer in charge of the audiences it reaches (ask Ta-nehisi Coates or other darlings of the white progressive book-buying public about that mindfuck).
BIPOC readers and listeners have reacted in my situation. For others, my eavesdropping on white people’s deepest anxieties, rationalizations, and playground banter is a welcome relief. Friends have given me images of text messages between moms of color who are ecstatic to hear a white lady talk this way on the radio for the first time. Three of my tour companions—all Black women—reflected on their own families’ educational experiences, many of which were traumatic, adding a rich dimension to our discussions of the benefits and drawbacks of integration.
Dr. Noliwe Rooks, the chair of Brown University’s Africana Studies department and an authority on education and integration, said she had been “waiting for this book” for a long time. “White parents need this book to understand themselves more clearly,” she said when I asked why. Someone like you, I believe, is needed to assist other white parents understand themselves and their effect on others. It may not lead people to alternative options, though I hope it does, but I hope it will make avoiding themselves more difficult. I’m hoping it will call into question their claims of innocence.”
Seeing the “threads become braided” was repulsive to Danzy Senna, a multiracial writer who reviewed my book for The Atlantic. Leaving aside the review’s omissions, it’s obvious that she doesn’t want the sausage of white awakening to be produced. She’s naturally tired of white people’s incessant hand-wringing and befuddlement. You got the impression that reading the book was akin to stumbling into an organizing meeting full of white folks digesting their stuff and being unable to locate the exit.
This raises a broader issue about mobility that has arisen as a result of the book’s reception. Many BIPOC individuals have said openly that they desire white people to organize with other white people—to “get their cousins”—but when and how that happens is still a work in progress.
We avoid the frustration of seeing it if we do it behind closed doors (digital or physical), but we also risk getting it wrong since we aren’t verifying our views against those of our non-white friends and coworkers.
Religious readers of various racial origins, on the other hand, are much more inclined to dig into the moral complexities I was attempting to grapple with in the book, while secular readers (again, of all racial backgrounds) prefer to discuss strategy and identity. It’s almost as if people who lead holy lives are reading the book as comparative theology, while those who spend their days listening to political podcasts and scrolling through Twitter are reading it as a political playbook.
I have a philosophical side, but I’m a pragmatic at heart: does this reception imply that children of color, especially those from low-income families, have a greater chance of receiving the education they deserve?
It’ll be a lengthy game, but I’m optimistic. Early feedback from readers suggests that this book might inspire white and/or privileged parents to be more intellectually humble about the schools in their own cities that they’ve left off spreadsheets and disparaged at birthday parties, and perhaps even consider sending their own children to one of them (and then showing up with a commitment to listening). They may have a different perspective. They may communicate in a different way. They may even live in a different way.
“When we wake up to the fundamental injustices in our society, recognizing our participation in perpetuating them, we can either keep doing what we’ve always done or we can change course,” Asian-American mother Liuan Huska wrote in the Christian Century about the book. ‘Stop looking away,’ Martin says in the last paragraphs. Christians confront an even greater challenge: to follow a God who sent his son to the depths of human misery. There are no excuses for our inability to embrace this sort of love.”
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