During the recent Yale College Council election, the question of institutional racism on campus sparked significant debate. As necessary as these conversations are, we should not forget how deeply racism operates in dictating our educational backgrounds prior to Yale. I know it certainly did for me, and I write this article as a white person not to detract from the voices of people of color, but rather to encourage my fellow white students to join me in thinking through our personal privileges and responsibilities.
While I have pondered this topic for the past several years, my most recent thoughts stem from The New York Times education journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recent speech at Yale. The bulk of her talk focused on contemporary school segregation and the personal responsibilities of middle-class white parents. In essence, she urged these parents to enroll their children in low-income, predominantly minority schools, benefitting students of color by bringing privilege, resources and social capital into these environments. These dividends grow over time as white children develop interracial friendships and view people of color as authority figures, leading them to adopt a lifelong commitment to racial equity.
For me, this message resonated deeply. In societal discourse surrounding privilege and race, we often alternate between casting race in either a personal light or a systemic one. Yet, prior to Hannah-Jones’s talk, I had not adequately reflected on the link between these two levels. As white people, we should do more than pay attention to daily decisions to call out racism or listen to people of color. Rather, we have a social obligation to consider questions of race in larger life decisions such as where to live, work or send our children to school. Alone we may not be able to solve institutional racism and segregation, but each of us can slightly reduce it.
Thinking backwards, two specific contexts from my life illustrate the dire consequences remaining racially oblivious. First, during a high school summer, I served as a counselor at a camp program for children from low-income backgrounds who also happened to all be people of color. One student attended school with my younger sister, and we were discussing the prospect of her visiting them at the center one day. A boy who was around nine years old vehemently rejected the idea by proclaiming, “But she’s a white girl.” These five words broke my heart as it signifies that by age nine, these children had already noticed and started to internalize the realities of racism and segregation. In that moment, I understood it would only be a matter of a few short years before they would fully recognize the extent of societal prejudice. After Hannah-Jones’ talk, this memory also took on a new light as I realized that these students are the ones from her speech — the ones that many white parents desperately strive to avoid. This explicit or implicit racial or class prejudice then gets passed on down to their children, creating a detrimental cycle that continues to perpetuate massive inequities.
The other context for these issues is at Yale. Around 36.5 percent of the class of 2021 attended a private school, yet that is only true for nine percent of all U.S. students. While these Yale admissions statistics don’t break down school enrollment type by race, I strongly suspect that private school enrollment would be even higher for white students. And of course that doesn’t even take into account all of the white students here who attended highly segregated suburban public schools.
None of this is intended to make white students who attended these kinds of schools feel guilty or insinuate that you are immoral if you are white and enroll your future child in a private or suburban school. Rather, I merely wish to highlight that middle-class white individuals have the power to make large choices as well as small ones. We can reconsider our framework — perhaps high test scores and specialized academic programs aren’t the most essential components of an education.
Perhaps if the goal of education is truly to prepare children for American citizenry, it would be better if they learned anti-racism through being exposed to a diverse subset of students, faculty and administrators. Perhaps it is time to yield a little of our own personal privilege to stand in solidarity with people of color, to say that enough is enough and to prioritize the collective education system over our own children getting ahead. For I guarantee if your future children see you placing racial and class inclusivity over self-centered gains, they will become better people for it, and that means more than any set of test scores, any high income job, any quantitative metric of life outcomes. So, my fellow white students, I leave you with a question — when you reach critical life decisions, will you personally replace words with action and take steps towards a more racially equitable future?
Jack Lattimore is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .