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Race, Community, Silence
A report on "whiteness" at the Brearley School
Reports about the excesses of “anti-racism” initiatives around the country continue to pour into my inbox. (Here’s how you can get in touch.) I was sent the essay below by Melissa Knox, a Brearley School alum who attended a recent Zoom workshop hosted by the school entitled “Black Students at Historically White Schools.”
As regular readers may know, Brearley—an elite all-girls private school in Manhattan—made the news recently. A student’s father, incensed by the school’s adoption of critical race theory-inspired policies and curricula, withdrew his daughter from enrollment and sent a strongly worded letter explaining his decision to other parents at Brearley, which you can read here.
Many of the issues in that letter also crop up in Melissa’s fine essay. I invite you to read and comment below.
Race, Community, Silence: An Evening at an Historically White Girl’s School
by Melissa Knox
In the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, during a dinner table scene, the prim WASP mother commits a classic gaffe. Never having socialized outside her own ethnic group and confronting her son’s girlfriend’s boisterous Greek family, she asks the young woman how they do things “in your country.” The girlfriend’s country is, of course, the U.S. It’s her heritage that’s Greek.
Giggling at the comic discomfort in this scene is now probably frowned upon. Laughter is nowhere to be found in critical race theory. If white audiences do “the work” that so many racial justice activists demand—don the sackcloth and ashes, confronting their unconscious racism and classism—they won’t find this gaffe amusing. When they don’t, no tensions—ethnic or other—will be released. Laughter means acceptance, and if there’s a single lesson for white people from critical race theory, it’s not to accept yourself.
That message came across during a Zoom session titled “Black Students at Historically White Schools” at my alma mater, the Brearley School, on May 12, 2021. In full swing when I arrived, the meeting seemed dedicated to depicting white people—98% of attendees—as trapped in unconscious racism. We were urged to see all problems of black students through "our whiteness" and seek a study partner to investigate ways in which this whiteness impeded our relationships with black classmates; we were not to ask black classmates to tell their stories but to consider ourselves lucky if they shared. When a young black former student announced that the school was “toxic” and she wouldn’t deal with it anymore, we were exhorted not to ask why, because the burden of explanation shouldn't be on the black student.
The woman designating the school “toxic” seemed enraged, apparently at white students collectively. Those of us who happen to be white should search our souls for the ways in which we created the conditions that angered the former student. Nobody had any idea what these conditions might be, and everyone was afraid to ask. The sad, sympathetic faces of the socially conscious white women present reinforced my impression: anti-racism programs preach to the choir.
I thought of one of Geraldo Rivera’s least successful episodes back in 1988. When racist guests confronted the audience, chairs got thrown, and Rivera sustained a broken nose. The same year, Oprah’s skinhead guests stalked offstage. Anti-racist indoctrination could only bring out the worst in these folks. Law might keep them in check, but only persuasion offers any hope of change.
The psychologist leading the antiracism discussion at Brearley was that enormous paradox: the black Mormon. I could not but recall Jimmy Kimmel’s observation that black Mormons are as rare as unicorns, since Joseph Smith and Brigham Young deemed black skin the mark of Cain or the curse of Ham. A graduate of Brigham Young University, this psychologist runs pricey seminars in the ever-growing field of “Racial Equity and Social Impact,” with sections on “features of whiteness”—as if you could collapse all white people into a single identity. Imagine a topic called “features of blackness”! We’d rightly find that racist. Hectoring the white graduates that “the only way” to solve the problem of racism in the U.S was for all of us to confront our whiteness, the psychologist drove several participants to tears. This bullying was lauded as a breakthrough.
I wanted to ask the psychologist what the Mormon church, which excluded black people from its priesthood until 1978, had contributed to her ideas about whiteness. But silence seemed the order of the day. We were not to discuss what the unhappy students found “toxic” about Brearley. “Whiteness” as a pejorative remained the single focus and could not be questioned.
In the past, I had discussed race and inequality freely with former classmates. We were all deeply affected by the lynching of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality. We met on Zoom and talked about pushing the school to admit more middle-and-lower income African Americans. When we asked Brearley for demographic information about their student body—including data on race and income—we were met with resistance. Unable to affect change in the school, we made a class donation to the Equal Justice Initiative. If the school wouldn’t talk to us about these matters, we could at least talk to each other.
But when I began sending classmates concerned emails inquiring whether Brearley was forbidding certain words and books deemed “racially insensitive,” I was met with a different response. Rather than being concerned, as I was, that censoriousness would only make the problem worse, a classmate wondered why I was being “provocative.” I wrote to my classmates again to discuss what happened in the “Black Students at Historically White Schools” Zoom session. Most of my emails went unanswered. One who did respond regretted that she was unwilling to take the “deep dive” into the subject that I wanted.
Brearley’s attempts to impose self-censorship and groupthink are proving all too effective. What was said at the meeting I attended was worrisome. But the jargon and slogans would have little purchase without their deadly adjuncts: polite demurral, passive acceptance, and enforced silence.