May 23rd

Is it time to ditch the term ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’ (BAME)?

By Yasmin S

ORIGINA SOURCE: Lola Okolosie, Joseph Harker, Leah Green and Emma Dabiri @ The

Trevor Phillips says this is an outdated way to refer to Britain’s racial minorities, and that we should look for new terminology. Here’s our panel’s verdict 

peckham london


Do the terms BME and Bame mask the disadvantages suffered by specific ethnic and cultural groups? Photograph: Martin Godwin 

This week, former chairman of the commission for racial equality Trevor Phillips gave a speech in which he suggested that phrases such as black and minority ethnic (BME) and black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) have become outdated, existing purely “to tidy away the messy jumble of real human beings who share only one characteristic – that they don’t have white skin”. He said the acronyms could be divisive, and actually served to mask the disadvantages suffered by specific ethnic and cultural groups. Instead, Phillips suggested, we could potentially adopt terms commonly used in the US, such as “visible minorities” or “people of colour”. Here, four writers discuss the issue.

Lola Okolosie: ‘Focusing on labels is a distraction’

Lola Okolosie

Photograph: Fiona Shaw

Trevor Phillips has a point, albeit one he himself undermines through championing alternative north American terms like “visible minority” or “people of colour” (POC). Quite how POC transcends the generalisation pitfalls dogging language in current use isn’t altogether clear. In any case, white is a colour - facetious, I know, but no less true.

Can Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities be labelled people of colour? If not, does their experience of being an ethnic minority not count? With life expectancy 12 years lower than the general population and infant mortality three times higher, is their whiteness all that matters?

Though I may use BME/BAME, I don’t particularly like these terms. They are unwieldy and lack nuance. No one can deny that. My blackness is informed by whether or not I am Nigerian or Jamaican or half-white, poor or middle class. Blackness is no one thing, and it isn’t experienced as such.

That said, these labels are a necessity. They exist because society recognises that discrimination is a fact which the law must acknowledge and seek to redress. Without these labels, Bame people become separated from our racial/cultural difference and the material disadvantages it makes real are rendered invisible. This is dangerous. For example, it is through keeping a count based on such categories that we know that certain people are far more likely to be stopped and searched on our streets or in our airports.

But we are facing another five years of austerity. Rather than tussling over which words best describe minorities, I am more interested now in the racial implications of much of what the Tories have done and will continue to do. As people from ethnic minorities, we should be asking why unemployment for our young has risen by 50% since 2010. Why do two-fifths of us live in low-income households? Why do we have higher rates of in-work poverty? It is these questions that matter to the ordinary Bame person on the streets. Focusing on labels is just a distraction – a very perilous form of navel-gazing.

Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer

Joseph Harker: ‘Our race terminology is struggling to keep up’

Joseph Harker.

Photograph: Linda Nylind

Here are four words I haven’t used in a long time: Trevor Phillips is right. Because, more and more, the differences between our minority communities are growing – including how they are affected by racism – and so it’s becoming increasingly unrealistic to package us all together.

I remember when all minorities were called “black”. It was a hangover from the days of postwar migration, when the first people to arrive here en masse were Caribbeans of African origin. When, a decade or so later, Asians began arriving in numbers, it was natural for them to be tagged on to the black identity. And in those days, when most were migrants to Britain, facing the same sort of colour-based barriers, there was a natural strong solidarity between all of us. But over time the differences, such as religion and culture, became apparent and fed into the experiences these groups had in the UK. Black people integrated more into sport and entertainment, and faced regular harassment by the police; Asian people had stronger family units, set up more small businesses, but tended to settle in areas, including northern towns, where there was more racial separation. In the late 1980s Asians started calling for a distinct, non-black identity. And then east Asians, who’d set roots here well before the Windrush arrived, began raising their voices too.

So what was once a simple black/white thing became multicoloured. And our race terminology has been struggling to keep up ever since. And it’s about more than just labels: because the issues our ethnic-minority populations face are changing too.

It’s becoming clear, for example, that those of Indian or Chinese background are performing better in many areas than those originating from other parts of Asia; and that Africans are outperforming Caribbeans. Indeed west Africans have very different experiences to east Africans in Britain. And that’s before we even talk about those of dual or multiple racial backgrounds.

But if we’re all treated as BAME then an organisation might fix a problem of Caribbean inequality, say, by appointing Indians. Diversity box ticked. But the problem is far from solved. The issue of young black unemployment, which hovers around 50%, won’t be fixed by equality schemes taking on East Asians. Similarly, Islamophobia is an issue which disproportionately affects Asians so, for example, hate crime figures that include all ethnic minorities won’t tell the real story.

And this really matters. Because if discrimination against certain racial groups goes unnoticed, the social issues will grow and grow, and – as we saw following the killing of Mark Duggan, and at various other points over the past 30 years – will eventually explode.

So the black, Asian and minority ethnic classification does have some use in grouping those who are on the receiving end of racism in the UK. But when it comes to addressing the problem, those who are trying to combat discrimination should understand that the term has severe limitations.

Joseph Harker is the Guardian’s assistant comment editor

Leah Green: ‘I don’t feel multiple heritage – I feel mixed race’

Leah Green.

Photograph: Felix Clay

The phrase “visible minority” is, to my mind, no better or worse than black and minority ethnic. Sure, let’s change it. Or let’s not. I really couldn’t care less. You see, this latest so-called issue really isn’t problematic at all. Terms such as BME are acronyms that exist solely in the world of job applications, surveys, and quotas. No one actually uses “black and minority ethnic” to describe the colour of their own skin or their heritage – it is a way of talking about a group in the abstract. Yes, it is simply code for “not white”, but sometimes – to measure representation, progression, or bias – we absolutely must lump all non-white people together. Whatever made-up, meaningless terms you want to use for that are fine by me.

But BME and Bame are simply the latest politically correct terms to be cast aside as no longer good enough. In secondary school, I attended a half-day session for people with parents of different races. I learned two things: a) that someone like me (a mixed-race female being raised by a single mother) is in the group most likely to become a “dysfunctional adult”, and b) I am no longer to refer to myself as mixed race, because that has become racist. I am now Leah Green, multiple heritage.

The thing is, presenting people with a new term with which to refer to themselves, or other individuals, does not inject meaning into that term. Personally, I don’t feel multiple heritage, I don’t feel like a visible minority, or of dual parenthood – I feel mixed race. It’s very hard to replace something that feels like your real identity with something that doesn’t, and why should I have to?

Of course, language always changes and progresses as we become more politically aware, and that is a good thing. Terms like half-caste have always had racist connotations, so we are right to rid our language of them. But when we are worrying that a phrase which doesn’t really mean anything, that no one has ever used to talk about an actual human being, is racist, I think we need to chill out.

Leah Green works for the Guardian as a video producer

Emma Dabiri: ‘I do not identify with others on the basis that neither of us is white’

Emma Dabiri

I am in full agreement with Trevor Phillips: the acronyms BME and BAME are unsuitable. Phillips’s claim that they can “mask the real disadvantages suffered by some ethnic and cultural groups” would, alone, be significant enough to justify the abandonment of these terms. However, replacing these acronyms with “people of colour”, as he suggests, immediately sets alarm bells ringing. While this phrase is widely used in the US, and is gaining popularity on these shores, it is even more vague than BAME and I have many reservations about its usefulness.

I understand its origins in the US, where it was first used to extend discussions about rights beyond black American feminists, to include Latino and indigenous women.

However, it is applied to completely different populations here in the UK. Even more so than BME or BAME, it conflates the differences of radically diverse peoples, lumping them together by virtue of non-whiteness. I do not identify with others on the basis that neither of us is white. Identities should not be forged out of experiences of racism alone, but also through a sense of shared cultural references.

“People of colour” erases huge cultural differences, manufacturing an alleged sense of “solidarity”, which I see little evidence of when it comes to concrete and practical gains for people of African descent.

We need policies and strategies that directly address the needs of people of African descent. I understand the limitations of the word “black”, but when so many are being murdered in the streets by virtue of being black and black alone, it is not the time to be vague in our language. Furthermore, people of colour masks the virulent anti-blackness that exists in many so-called people of colour communities. It also obscures the racial hierarchy wherein whiteness is arguably placed at the top, while black remains firmly at the bottom.

For other minority groups, located somewhere between the two, there can be very real gains in promoting and sustaining anti-blackness, as it distinguishes them from the bottom of the pile. If the language that we use conceals the differences between black and non-black minority groups, it paves the way for a continued silencing and suppression of the voices of people of African descent.

Emma Dabiri is a writer and a teaching fellow in the Africa department at Soas

What do you think? Are the acronyms BME and Bame redundant? And if so, are “visible minorities” or “people of colour” a good replacement?


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May 23rd

The Psychological Advantages of Strongly Identifying As Biracial

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Lisa Miller @ New York Magazine

Photo: Dana Hursey/Corbis

As I reported in the most recent issue of New York, a new program at an elite private school in New York aims to combat racism by dividing young children, some as young as 8 years old, into "affinity groups" according to their race. The program has been controversial among parents, many of whom believe it is their job, and not the school's, to impart racial identity to their kids. This feeling is particularly strong among parents who have multi-racial kids. Their identities, many of them say, don't fit into any established racial category but instead live on the frontier of race. 

These sorts of questions about racial identity are only going to become more prominent given ongoing demographic changes in the United States. Multi-racial births are soaring — to 7 percent of all births in the U.S., according to the last Census — a result of more inter-racial coupling and also a broader cultural acceptance of the tag “multi-racial.” (Only as recently as 2000 did the Census even offer a “multi-racial” category — for hundreds of years, stigma has compelled multi-racial people to choose one or the other of their parents’ racial identities, both on government forms and in society.)

But even as multi-racial people take prominent and visible places in all the nation’s hierarchies — golf, pop music, cinema, finance, and, of course, in the executive branch of the United States government — very little psychological research has been done on what it means to have a multi-racial identity, and how that identity is different from having a “mono-racial” one. Now a new literature review, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Sarah Gaither, a post-doc at the University of Chicago (who is herself biracial), assesses the psychological landscape of multi-racial identity and points to new directions for research. 

Here are some of the key findings:

More than “mono-racials,” multi-racial people have to answer the question, “Who are you?” This can lead to feelings of identity crisis and social isolation, especially if in answering the question people feel they have to choose between their parents. “By the age of four they understand skin color, and they tend to worry about rejecting one of their parents,” Gaither told me in a phone call.

But if they are raised to identify with both parents and to understand their complex racial heritage, multi-racial people can have higher self-esteem than mono-racial people. They are adaptable, able to function well in both majority and minority environments. “They are more likely to reject the conception that race biologically predicts one’s abilities,” which may, in turn, insulate them from the negative impact of racism or bias.

In studies, for example, “priming” a black person to remember he or she is black, or priming a girl to remember that she’s a girl, results in lower performance on tests, an internalization of negative stereotypes known as “stereotype threat.” But multi-racial people “may not believe believe the stereotypes applied to monoracials apply to them,” Gaither explained. The key point here is that multi-racial children should be raised with a full understanding of both their parents’ stories and be allowed, over time, to identify with both. “As long as the choice is left up to the individual, that’s where you see the more positive outcomes,” Gaither said.

Multi-racial people have flexible identities. As adults, they say they change their racial identity or affiliation more than they stay constant. As infants, they spend less time than mono-racial babies scanning familiar faces, a signal that they are confident as members of a number of different groups. Priming biracial children to affiliate with one of their racial identities makes them more responsive to teachers of that race, prompting questions — as yet unanswered — about whether multi-racial kids learn more easily from teachers and authority figures at different points along a racial spectrum.

Multi-racial people are proud to be multi-racial. This is especially true if they’re affluent. “Multi-racials who identify as multi-racial experience decreased self-esteem when asked to choose only one racial identity,” says the paper.

Multi-racial people tend to identify more with the minority part of their identity. “In general, the more minority you look, the more minority you self-identify,” Gaither told me.

As is clear from the review, researchers have begun to unpack the psychological complexities of having mixed racial heritage. But there are so many remaining questions. Most of the studies conducted so far have been done on mixed-race people of Asian and white or black and white descent — and the world of this research is exceedingly small. Gaither told me how happy parents of multi-racial children were to let her ask their kids questions, because there are so few resources out there for them, so little guidance for how to teach healthy identity. And almost no research has been done on people with two or more minority identities (black-Latino or Latino-Asian, say). How does a person navigate between two minority cultures?

There's also a dearth of research on how gender cuts across questions of racial identity. Is a black-white person more inclined to identify as black if he’s male? And is an Asian-white person more inclined to identify as Asian if she’s female? These are questions at the frontiers of racial-identity research, and as the population of mixed-race kids explodes they’ll demand answers. 


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May 22nd

This Mocha-Caramel-Honey Post-Racial Fantasy Is Making Me Sick

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Sharon H. Chang @

Illustration by Judith Kim for BuzzFeed

As a mixed-race woman, the defining question of my life has not been “Who am I?” but “What are you?” I get it everywhere, from all races. Recently it’s been mostly from Asian immigrants. You Chinese? Last month a black guy walked up to me while I was pumping gas. Man! How do you people do that international thing?

It’s an invasive line of questioning, under the guise of a friendly compliment. “You know how you could look more Asian?” my white boss once asked as I clocked out of work. “If you cut your bangs like this and did your makeup like this…” My acupuncturist, meanwhile, thinks I look more Asian in a ponytail.

Most women are accustomed to having their physical appearance treated like public property up for consumption. But when it comes to mixed-race women, our looks are quantified, measured and divvied up, all the way back to conception. How we were cooked up, what our ingredients are, and why we taste so good — people are entitled to know all of it.

“It’s a suitable time to think of all the sexy ladies who’ve come about thanks to people of different races procreating,” wrote Josh Robertson in his preamble to Complex’s “The 50 Hottest Biracial Women,” “And it’s not just blacks and whites. Hispanics with Asians! Asians with blacks! Whites with Hispanics! American Indians with other kind of Indians!” These pairings yielded a slideshow’s worth of unique female flavors. “So here, enjoy these mocha-colored, honey-tinted, caramel-complected babes.”

This is only the cheapest version of a palatably post-racial fantasy that is surprisingly popular. Slate featured Stunning Portraits of Mixed-Race Families, designed to facilitate comparing and contrasting family members’ traits. Last year, National Geographic published photos of mixed-race people to suggest what Americans will look like in 2050. The portraits (some of which were of models shot by a fashion photographer) went viral, sending some readers into paroxysms of horny idealism. “In a matter of years we’ll have Tindered, OkCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race,” Mic writer Zak Cheney-Rice wrote. “2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.”

If 2050 is the year that 400 years of racism ends in one fell, photogenic swoop, then sure, I can’t wait. But forgive me if our collective crushes on Rashida Jones, Lolo Jones, and Norah Jones don’t inspire hope. Beauty is a cultural value whose definition has changed dramatically over time. But science and society have a long history of justifying our shifting tastes when it comes to race. White supremacy has been bolstered through race-based compulsory sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws, and likening people of color to animals.

We know race is not biological and humans are 99.9% similar genetically. Nonetheless, U.K. psychologists recently claimed that mixed-race people are more attractive and successful than nonmixed people. Cross-breeding, the authors of the 2010 study hypothesized, produces people who are more “genetically fit” and beautiful — a matter of Darwinian survival. Guess who else used Darwin to argue their superior, stronger, “better evolved” race was advancing the human species? White people.

In the meantime, for every expression of nonwhite beauty we celebrate in a mixed-race model or actress, there’s still a corresponding set of structural disadvantages affecting the rest of us. Black and Asian? Over-imprisoned and suicidal. Native American and Hispanic? Less likely to finish high school and high rates of discrimination in the workplace. And it shouldn’t escape notice that the most popular presented mixed-race blend, so to speak, trends light or white-passing. If racism were over, nonmixed nonwhite people would also be considered beautiful too, which by and large they’re not.

This is the problem with racialized beauty compliments: Saying mixed-race people are “better” or the “best” because of the way they look hardly breaks from racism’s insidious tradition of “racing” the group at the top at the expense of all others’ humanity. Resistant, antiracist beauty movements do exist, like Black Is Beautiful. Born in the 1960s to counter mainstream beliefs that common African features were inherently undesirable, the movement liberated blacks by empowering collective self-love in the face of widespread discrimination.

By contrast, the future mixed-human look National Geographic anticipates has been leveraged by media and advertising companies to sell movie tickets and lingerie to the broadest demographic possible. Diversity is being compressed into something easier to swallow: pretty, part white, with distinctive features (an eye shape, hair type, or skin tone) that might inspire identification in the nonwhite consumer — and will signal a welcome, “comfortable” worldliness to the white one.

This is where the relentless comparison of mixed-race women to food starts to make a sick kind of sense to me. The more beauty is linked to ambiguous racial identity — to images of women in media we visually consume — the more admiring them feels like guilt-eating: bingeing on mocha-honey-caramel prettiness in order to postpone the hard reality of how much needs to change with regard to race. It’s not that I expect ad campaigns for Old Navy and Verizon to end racism. But it sure would be a nice start if we could stop congratulating ourselves for finding mixed-race women attractive. The progressive back-patting that follows every “You’re beautiful, what are you?” risks making us complacent to the effects of racism today. None of it will matter in 50 years, when we co-exist in sexy racial harmony. For the sake of our offspring — who, as any parent can tell you, are all beautiful — I’d rather not wait around to find out.


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Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote about paying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it’s like being brown in a world of white beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.

May 21st

I'm Black. I'm White. I'm Both. I'm Neither.

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Celeste Headlee @

MESSAGE TO THE READER: This blog post contains strong language.

Celeste Headlee, age 7, with her grandfather, composer William Grant Still.

I'm black.
My grandfather is William Grant Still, the "Dean of African-American composers." His skin was the color of maple syrup. Mine is the color of café au lait. My grandfather suffered countless indignities and injustices because of his color. I remember them still, almost viscerally. They still feel personal to me.

When he was going to Oberlin College to accept an honorary degree, he drove from Los Angeles with his family. He couldn't stay at the white hotels because he was black; he couldn't say at the black hotels because his wife was white. So he drove 2,300 miles without stopping. In photos of the event, he's stooping; he looks exhausted. I've heard that story dozens of times, and yet, my cheeks feel hot thinking about it even now. It still makes me angry.

My grandparents had to get married in Tijuana because their marriage was illegal in the US. That's personal. He had to build a six-foot fence around his home to protect my mother and her brother from violence. It was the 1940s and people were dragging mixed-race families out of their beds, beating them, sometimes setting their homes on fire. I look at my mother sometimes and think about how lucky I am.

I have the same amount of black ancestry as Sally Hemings, slave to Thomas Jefferson and mother to six of his children. (Side note: three of those children lived their adult lives as white. They passed.)

I was the second-darkest kid in my school in Mission Viejo, California. Everyone expected me to be best friends with Shawna, the only African-American girl. Kids called me a "nigger" sometimes. I punched one of them in the eye and was sent to the principal's office. The principal told me that if someone called me that name, I should punch them again.

I'm white.
On one side, my family was born of the rape of young, female slaves by their owners. That means we're part Scotch-Irish. My grandfather married a Jewish woman, so my mother was fair-skinned while her brother was dark brown. My mother married a tall, white guy with Texas roots.

People don't always look at me and think I'm part black. The actress Mo'nique called me a "white lady." I was raised in an affluent town in California where I was surrounded by white people. Almost all of my childhood friends were white; there weren't any black kids to hang out with in my hometown.

I'm Latino.
A lot of people mistake me for a Latina. They often think I'm from the Dominican Republic. I grew up in Mission Viejo and Los Angeles. I lived on Preciados Street and our high school mascot was the Diablo. I speak Spanish and I love Mexican food.

That last one? That's a joke. Because this whole argument is a joke. I've had people scream in my face that I'm not black (for instance, when I tried to join the Black Student Union in college) and I've had people dismiss my opinion on some issues by saying, "Well, you're black, so it makes sense that you'd think that."

I am not black. I'm not white.
Let's forget the fact that race doesn't exist. Even if we're talking about the social construct that we call "race," I'm not any one thing. If you ask me "what I am", as I am so often asked, I'll say that I'm mixed-race or I'm part black.

Really, there's no good way for me to answer that question, that "what are you?" question. I could be very specific and say I'm part black, part white, part native American, Jewish by birth and a number of other things. But that's not really what people are looking for, since what they're trying to do is place me in a category. But they're not usually willing to let me pick the category for myself.

If I say I'm black, which is the culture with which I most identify, African-Americans often get offended that someone who looks like I do would appropriate their heritage. I've been told by a couple of co-workers, in no uncertain terms, that I should not be calling myself black and a few friends have said, "but you're not really black." If I claim to be white, that's fine, I guess, as long as I don't start talking about racism. And again, many black folks will raise an eyebrow. In elementary school, a well-meaning teacher told me that I shouldn't be ashamed of my heritage and try to pass.

So, I don't get a membership card to any of the races, and that leaves me and many other multiracial people shut out. There is an upside, though. My heritage and my non-race-specific features have allowed me to see the racial underpinnings of our society in a way that most don't. I hear things I'm not meant to hear, people say things they wouldn't if they knew my background, and I've seen prejudice in both blue eyes and dark brown.

Still, I generally say I'm part black. Why? Because that's how I feel. Yes, I'm the descendant of slave owners as well as slaves, but there was never any question about which side would take in my family when the Civil War ended. I'm 25% black, more than enough to banish me from the homes of my white forbearers.

My grandmother's Jewish family cut ties with her almost completely when she married a black man. It was the African-American side that never blinked or hesitated -- my great-great-grandmother's children were the product of rape while she was enslaved. I'm sure that was painful and difficult for her until the day she died. But their ethnicity was never a question or an obstacle.

If I was brown enough to be called "nigger" in elementary school, if I'm brown enough to feel anger and shame when I think about what my family has endured, then I'm brown enough.

So here's my answer to "what are you...", "no, i mean, what were your parents...", "I mean, where were they from?" That question. My answer is I'm light brown and we're all from California.


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May 20th

Can Racism Be Stopped in the Third Grade?

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Lisa Miller, Photo's by Bobby Doherty @ New York

*These 8-year-olds are models, not students at Fieldston.

An experiment at Fieldston, which starts when 8-year-olds are sorted by race, has some very liberal parents fuming. By Lisa Miller

The form arrived in an email attachment on the Friday after winter break.“What is your race?”it asked. And then, beneath that, a Census-style list: “African-American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o,” “Multi-racial,” “White,”   and “Not sure.”

The email, signed by the principal of Fieldston Lower School, urged parents to talk about these categories with their children at home because the next week, in school, the kids would have to check the box that fit them best. “I know there may be some nervous feelings about this program,” the email concluded, but “I am confident that once you hear more details about it … the value and importance of this work will become clear.” 

The parents at Lower, as it’s called, are a bighearted, high-maintenance, high-achieving group. They are also, by the standards of the New York City private-school universe, exceedingly liberal — educators and social workers, as well as hedge-fund tycoons. They love the school, and trust it, mostly. But this communication seized their attention. “I was like, Wait. What?” remembers one mother. Another quizzed her 11-year-old daughter as they were driving. “We have to go in our race groups” was how the girl explained it. The mother hoped her daughter had misunderstood.

In recent years, under the direction of its principal, George Burns, Lower has come to look a lot less like the white, mostly Jewish Riverdale neighborhood that encircles the school and more like the Bronx in general. Just fewer than half the kids at Lower are white. Twenty percent are black or Latino, and another 20 percent multi­racial. The remainder are Asian or won’t say, making Lower one of the most racially diverse private elementary schools in New York. This has been a big change (when Burns took the job 16 years ago, about 20 percent of the students were kids of color), but as this parent body sees it, it’s all to the good. Lower has always been a progressive place, and in 2015, many are happy to see it as a kind of racial utopia, too.

Now the school was promising to do even more in the name of racial equity, offering a pioneering new curriculum designed to give its youngest students the tools they’d need to navigate their own futures — and to bolster Fieldston’s sense of itself as a standard-bearer in progressive education. The program, which was also put in place this school year at Ethical Culture, Fieldston’s other elementary school, would boost self-esteem and a sense of belonging among minority kids while combating the racism, subtle or otherwise, that can permeate historically white environments. It would foster interracial empathy by encouraging children to recognize differences without disrespect while teaching kids strategies, and the language, for navigating racial conflict. Efforts like this had been popping up around the country over the past decade in progressive private schools and public schools wrestling in more direct ways with the tangle of race and achievement. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed an anti-bias curriculum that 16,000 teachers have downloaded since it became available in September. The Anti-Defamation League does training for kids and teachers in schools — 200 a year in Connecticut alone. And Welcoming Schools, connected with the Human Rights Campaign, helps train the staffs of elementary schools for this kind of learning, traveling last year to Boulder, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Arkansas. In Gallup, New Mexico, a fifth-grade class planned and staged a community arts crawl showcasing the theme “Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action.” In Greenville, Alabama, fourth-graders made picture books answering the question “How have people fought for what is right at different times in history?” and then read them aloud to the school’s second-graders.

But Fieldston’s program would be bolder, more radical: It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means. It would be a boundary-pushing experiment, in other words, in a place that seemed exceptionally hospitable to progressive experimentation — but also, undeniably, a privileged and racially anomalous bubble. Fieldston’s unusual identity gave it a better shot than most schools, perhaps, at making this work; and if it did work, its administrators thought, the impact might reach far beyond its cloister.  

To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal owner­ship in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.

Apprehension moved like the flu among certain factions of the parents. In heated conversations in parking lots and on playing fields over the next few months, they shared and amplified one another’s anxieties, invoking yellow stars, blacks-only water fountains, the Japanese internment — “Brought memories of the Soviet Union right away,” wrote one father on a parents’ email thread. The word segregation came up a lot. For many of the parents at Lower, this program violated the values they’d learned back in their own elementary schools a generation ago. You just don’t sort human beings by race.

But objections were personal, too, and revealing. In a community, and an era, that prizes global identity as a modern elite ideal, the categories seemed confining, artificial: Why was the school forcing these children to define themselves and their families so narrowly? Does racial identity actually assert itself that early? Weren’t these kids way too young to be compelled to think of themselves in racial terms? Besides, what if introducing the problem of race fatally undermined the culture Fieldston had so carefully cultivated — couldn’t it backfire, creating tension between kids where none had existed before? And below the surface, suspicion: Wasn’t the community, full of die-hard liberals, too forward-thinking to need help?

It was not lost on anyone that this program was being rolled out against a national backdrop of explosive racial drama — or that, both within Fieldston and without, the central racial story is still white and black. Mariama Richards, the director of progressive and multicultural education at all Fieldston schools and the lead architect of the program, is herself black — an “equity practitioner,” her Twitter bio says, in public and private schools. In 2013, she had been wooed away from Georgetown Day, where she had done similar work for nearly a decade. The following summer, she and colleagues had developed what has come to be known as the affinity-group program while the people of Ferguson, Missouri, were raging over the shooting, by a white police officer, of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. So when parents say the new race program has an activist agenda, they are entirely right. In January, after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, more than a hundred members of the Fieldston faculty signed a letter expressing solidarity with #blacklivesmatter: “This is an occasion when, as citizens and as educators, remaining silent is not a viable option.”

That December, the head of the school, Damian Fernandez, who in a meeting with me identified himself as a white Latino born in Cuba, raised in Puerto Rico, and educated at Princeton (and who happens, also, to be gay), had sent a letter to all the parents. “Schools,” he wrote, “have the ability to model the world we wish to be — a world where each of us recognizes and takes a stand for the humanity of others.” While talking with me in his office, he expanded the thought, “We don’t want to replicate what has happened traditionally. The education that many of us have received about race has not been adequate. Hence, where are we as a nation? We are trying to pioneer, to be at the vanguard of this opportunity, to see if we can get it right.”

White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice — the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes. The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race — that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration) that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close friends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.

On January 14, ten days before the new program was to launch, Burns, who is white, invited all the Lower parents to a meeting at Fieldston High School to meet Richards and air concerns. About 65 people showed up. After short introductory remarks by Burns, Richards began her presentation, clicking through PowerPoint slides.

The meeting quickly grew tense. Parents took sides, and though the opponents were not divided, exactly, by race (the parent body is far too mixed for that), alliances for or against began to emerge. Antagonists interrupted Richards, asking to see more hard research on the benefits of racial separation and calling into question the qualifications of the 20-odd teachers and staff Richards had tapped to mediate the groups. By some accounts, Richards was shouted down. Others say she grew defensive and dismissive of parents’ concerns. “It was like, ‘Oh, you silly parents, you just don’t understand,’ ” said one mother who was there.

A Jewish parent raised his hand, according to another parent who was there. He grew up in the South, he said, where Jews were seen not as “white” but as something categorically different. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue. To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history, he said.

“When you walk in the room, I see you as white,” one person there remembers an African-American parent interjecting. “Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembers it this way: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”

Ben Hort lives in a big, Tudor-style house in Westchester with his wife, Evelyn, and their three children, all of whom are students at Lower. Hort, 46, is the most vocal critic of the affinity-group program and a Fieldston alumnus. His father is an alum, too. When Ben was a kid, his mother served on the PTA and later spent four years on the board.

The Fieldston of Hort’s childhood was a famously open-minded place, a haven especially for Jewish kids who might once have been unwelcome at the city’s best private schools. Stephen Sondheim went to Fieldston. So did Sean Lennon, Diane Arbus, and Barbara Walters. And today, with about 40 students in a grade, Lower parents can rest assured that their children will inevitably have close friends who come from families far different from their own. Any Saturday-night sleepover will expose a child to food, language, chores, customs, hair and bathroom products entirely unlike those found at home, many parents told me. “My daughter has no close white friends,” said one Lower mother, who is white and Jewish.

This vision of the school enacting its own racially integrated future is precisely what has Hort so incensed. Having striven to build a diverse paradise, the administrators at Fieldston are now forcing those children to consider themselves in terms of the color of their skin. Hort was one of a number of parents who in February posted a petition online protesting the program and citing possible “irreparable harm” to the kids; putatively a defense of the school’s traditional values, it also expressed a fear I frequently heard from this group, that the program would introduce a victim mentality to some children who might not otherwise have dreamed of it — and, by extension, a sense of guilt to others. On March 11, Hort sent a scathing letter to the parents with kids in grades two, three, four, and five at Lower. “The discussion of race should certainly be a part of our children’s education, but segregation of any kind is regressive, and separate is not equal as defined by the Supreme Court in 1954.”

Ben Hort is blue-eyed and devilish, like the fifth Baldwin brother if the Baldwin family business were a printing concern. He is half-Irish and half-Jewish. Evelyn Hort grew up in Pelham, and she is of Colombian descent. She has dark-brown skin and black hair. She speaks Spanish to her parents and makes arroz con pollo for her kids. Two of their children look white, or whitish, and one is browner, with his mother’s black hair and almond eyes. To them, making racial identity a multiple-choice proposition diminishes who they really are. “My wife does not particularly think of herself as Latina, and I don’t think my children do either,” Hort told me. “We’re a mix. We’re a lot of different things. The kids are Colombian, they’re Jewish, they’re Irish. They’re from New York; they’re American. We are mixed. At Fieldston, I find we fit in.”

When he first saw the form, the Horts’ oldest child, Billy, who is 11, considered joining the “Multi-racial” group. But “the more I thought about it, the more I thought it didn’t really fit me,” he told me as we sat at the family dining table earlier this spring. “My mom is Spanish, but, like, we’re not — I kind of consider myself more white than Spanish.” After talking it over with his parents, Billy chose the “not sure” group — not because he was unsure of his racial identity but because it was the only way to evade the labels the family could find. (The school says that opting out of joining a specific racial group was always possible through the “not sure” option; this category has since been renamed “the ‘General Discussion’ Group.” 

His brother Jacob, who is 9, chose “not sure” too. “I didn’t really feel comfortable going in any of the other groups,” he told me. In one of the first affinity-group sessions, he was asked to write on a Post-it the things he believes makes him unique. “I said, ‘American. Dog lover. Me,’ ” he told me. “I act in my own ways.”

This discomfort with categories, and preference for a more fluid sense of identity, is partially a matter of upbringing — Billy and Jacob were raised in an ethnically complicated household by parents who embraced the values embodied by Fieldston a generation before. It is also a reflection of social status and affluence, since it is much easier to be flexible about these things when you have resources and social capital to call upon (though it is still hard to imagine a wealthy black family insisting, as the Horts do, that race is not an important feature of their identity).

But it also reflects a genuine generational transformation in the way the broader culture approaches identity, which, especially as it relates to gender but increasingly also mixed ethnicities, is now seen as far more elective and performative, a matter of choice in how we present the pixels of our deconstructed selves. This inclination to parse and take apart identity flourishes especially at places like Fieldston. A senior there is very likely to have friends who prefer to “live outside the binary of gender” and to eventually attend a college with trans bathrooms and gender-neutral dorms. On college campuses these days, there’s a movement among multiracial kids, tired of having to explain their parentage in the language of Census forms and geography to any stranger who asks. What they prefer to be called, they say, is “humans.”

At no developmental age are children less racist than in elementary school. But that’s not innocence, exactly, since preschoolers are obsessed with race. At ages 3 and 4, children are mapping their world, putting things and people into categories: size, shape, color. Up, down; day, night; in, out; over, under. They see race as a useful sorting measure and ask their parents to give them words for the differences they see, generally rejecting the adult terms “black” and “white,” and preferring finer (and more accurate) distinctions: “tan,” “brown,” “chocolate,” “pinkish.” They make no independent value judgments about racial difference, obviously, but by 4 they are already absorbing the lessons of a racist culture. All of them know reflexively which race it is preferable to be. Even today, almost three-quarters of a century since the Doll Test, made famous in Brown v. Board of Education, experiments by CNN and Margaret Beale Spencer have found that black and white children still show a bias toward people with lighter skin.

But by the time they have entered elementary school, they are in a golden age. At 7 or 8, children become very concerned with fairness and responsive to lessons about prejudice. This is why the third, fourth, and fifth grades are good moments to teach about slavery and the Civil War, suffrage and the civil-rights movement. Kids at that age tend to be eager to wrestle with questions of inequality, and while they are just beginning to form a sense of racial identity (this happens around 7 for most children, though for some white kids it takes until middle school), it hasn’t yet acquired much tribal force. It’s the closest humans come to a racially uncomplicated self. The psychologist Stephen Quintana studies Mexican-American kids. At 6 to 9 years old, they describe their own racial realities in literal terms and without value judgments. When he asks what makes them Mexican-American, they talk about grandparents, language, food, skin color. When he asks them why they imagine a person might dislike Mexican-Americans, they are baffled. Some can’t think of a single answer. This is one reason cross-racial friendships can flourish in elementary school — childhood friendships that researchers cite as the single best defense against racist attitudes in adulthood. The paradise is short-lived, though. Early in elementary school, kids prefer to connect in twos and threes over shared interests — music, sports, Minecraft. Beginning in middle school, they define themselves through membership in groups, or cliques, learning and performing the fraught social codes that govern adult interactions around race. As early as 10, psychologists at Tufts have shown, white children are so uncomfortable discussing race that, when playing a game to identify people depicted in photos, they preferred to undermine their own performance by staying silent rather than speak racial terms aloud.

“Multicultural education” is contained in a phrase in Mariama Richards’s job title. It is the name given to the project, exploding over the past decade or so, to intervene in schools so that the benefits of that cross-racial exchange continue through middle school and beyond, and to design curricula around these developmental inflection points to arrest bias while children are still young. Some schools — the Cambridge Friends School, the Blake School in Minneapolis, the Gordon School outside of Providence — have started voluntary support groups for elementary-school-age kids of color. Many others use social-studies courses to introduce to young kids the notion that “white” is a race as much as “black.” It’s an educational frontier, and an infinitely complex problem, and programs and practitioners vary widely; results, of course, are nearly impossible to measure.

The fourth affinity-group session met on April 15, a cool morning that held the wet beginnings of spring. The topic that day was racial perception and stereotypes: How do you see other people? How do other people see you? What assumptions do you make based on appearances? Behind closed doors, in classrooms along a long corridor, the children gathered in racial groups and mediators flashed a slide on a screen. “I see, I think, I wonder,” it said. Then children were shown a photograph of nine kids — racially diverse and, in some cases, racially ambiguous. Within each group, the kids were asked to describe what they saw in literal terms: skin color, hair color, and so on. They were prompted to consider the children in the picture beyond their initial impressions: to wonder freely. In the black group, the children wondered if they’d feel different if all the kids in the picture were black. In one of the white groups, the children were asked to go around in a circle and say what they wondered out loud. 

“I said, ‘I wonder if they’re adopted?,’ because I had to say something,” one fifth-grader (whose parents oppose the program) in a white group told me.

“I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it,” says one third-grader, in the black group, who tells me the only other times he’s surrounded exclusively by black people are when he’s at home or with his basketball team. “We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are — I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.”

“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”

The ambitions of the Fieldston program are large, and some aspects are better articulated by the school than others, but at base the school hopes to initiate what it calls “authentic” conversations about race, which researchers suggest may actually have been inhibited by liberal values for decades. Under the spell of color-blindness, previous generations have tended to avoid race as a subject, hushing their children when they refer to playground playmates as “brown,” believing that by not acknowledging race in public they were enacting a desire for equality for all. In fact, in the academic literature, “color-blindness” now refers to the reluctance to address race, not the ideal of casual intermingling.

For advocates of a new approach, that reluctance can be devastating — a refusal to acknowledge the full humanity of others. Racial minorities have developed their own invisible boundaries, too, passed down through generations, around what one says about race, to whom, and where. As they grow up, individual members of racial minorities learn to “code switch” — to toggle between what is expected of them in their home environments and at school and work, an adaptation to living in a largely white culture. And the cumulative result of all these unspoken constraints is a nation of fellow citizens who are foreigners to each other, mute xenophobes whose hearts rush to their throats when a racially charged comment or conflict, or even curiosity, arises. 

In schools, minority children tend to experience this mistrust most directly through what’s called “stereotype threat” — the fact that all people, but especially racial minorities, have to confront unspoken assumptions made about them by the broader culture. A whole body of research by social psychologist Claude Steele and others shows how black kids on white college campuses fail to achieve their potential because they internalize stereotypes and, feeling impotent and isolated, cannot break out of the boxes to which society has them consigned. These issues are surely more pronounced in less enviable environments, but on progressive campuses like Fieldston, this issue doesn’t disappear. On the contrary: All the enthusiastic conceptual agreement about equality and justice may serve to exacerbate the problem by papering it over. The same school that is seen by white parents as a happy racial utopia is often perceived by minority parents as failing their children. Even at Lower, where half the kids come from minority backgrounds, a subtle “us and them” flavor persists, a sense that “they” are welcome at “our” school. (One Fieldston parent even put it this way: “You are accommodating them by having them there and giving them a good education and letting them mix together.”)

The affinity-group program at Fieldston is a way of forcing the issue. It requires children, at a tender age, to break ranks with the unexamined silences of their parents and to speak, as the school says, “with their voices” — about the fact that they have a race, that they think and talk about race in a particular way, that they have questions that merit answers. The first step is a kind of enlightened segregation — separating the children to create safe spaces in which, at 8, 9, and 10, motivated by their natural curiosity yet unfettered by the social sorting that goes on in middle school, they are able to engage with these issues. These conversations are very different from learning about race in, say, a social-studies class. Even when studying civil rights, “it was never how you feel about race,” says an 11-year-old girl in one of the white groups at Ethical. In academic classes, “it’s easy to separate what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad. But in real life there isn’t that definition. In real life, there’s a lot of gray area … I’ve always felt really conscious about what to say about race. It’s often a subject that’s sort of controversial — touchy isn’t the right word. And people can take offense even when it’s not meant that way.” In the white group, she says, she can talk about the assumptions she sometimes makes about other people without worrying she’s hurting anyone’s feelings. “The truth isn’t always this wonderful thing. Sometimes it’s hard to realize, and hard to understand. It’s nice to have a group of people who can comprehend what I’m saying.” George Burns likes to compare the program to sex education. If you teach children the clinical terms early and divide them into same-gender groups to enable frank talk, then by the time they’re ready to explore sex for real, they’ll have words for what they do and don’t want to do, causing minimal damage to their self-esteem. 

I was not permitted to see the race-groups themselves — the school cited the privacy of the kids — but I watched as about 40 fifth-graders, full-blown tweens, participated in the mixed-group debriefing. A classroom teacher, Hazel Hunt, stood before them and encouraged members of the individual race groups to “share out” with their peers. The Asian group wanted to say that if you are Asian, you get lots of questions about your religion, and they wanted to mention that Asians come from all religious backgrounds: Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim. The black group wanted to say that people assume that if you’re black, you must live in a bad neighborhood; also that people are sometimes surprised that they go to Fieldston. The multiracial kids shared that what people thought about them depended on where they were — on the Lower campus or off it — and what they were wearing.

Hunt wanted to know if anyone had been mistakenly identified as something they are not, and one kid mentioned that people thought he was older than his age because he was tall. Lots of kids laughed and agreed. Every kid in the room conceded that he or she sometimes made assumptions about other people based on stereotypes — Hunt called this “an ouch moment.” She asked all the kids in the class to be still, to close their eyes and try to reconstruct the feelings they had when these ouch moments occurred. “Where do you feel it,” she asked, “in your body?”

Tanekia Thomas is thrilled about the affinity-group program at Lower. Her daughter isn’t in it yet — she’s only in the second grade — but from Thomas’s point of view, the program can’t start soon enough. She chose Fieldston for her daughter because the diversity there felt real, and, unlike at the other private schools she visited, not just a show to attract more families like hers. Like every parent, she wants to spare her child the traumas she suffered; this program is one step, she believes, to helping a generation of kids see that racial difference is a fact of life — but doesn’t have to determine a child’s fate.

When she was 14 years old, in 1998, Thomas arrived on the campus of Exeter from the Bronx. She had never seen so many white people. “I walked into this world, and I called my mother, and I said, ‘Mommy, I was just joking. Can I come home?’ ” It was hard, Thomas remembers. “I struggled.”

What Thomas had never experienced before was the expectation that she should constantly explain herself — to be the classroom spokesperson for all blacks everywhere about every subject marginally related to blacks. And her personal life was just as exhausting. With her white friends, there was a gulf. “They don’t get it. So I’ve got to stop, and I’ve got to explain my perspective. I’ve got to ask them to see it as if they were a minority. It affected my friendships. Because I can’t just come to you and say, ‘Look, this is what happened to me,’ and have your understanding. Because you literally just don’t understand.”

In her senior year, Thomas took a course called Black Experience in White America, and she explained and explained until she explained herself sick. “Midway through the semester, I said to my teacher, ‘I will not say another word in this class.’ And it broke me. That was a moment where I lost. I lost because I lost my voice, because I was tired of having to explain my position.” Thomas, who eventually made her way to Penn, believes an affinity group will ease that alienation for her daughter. “We need to get to a place where race means nothing,” she said. Unlike Ben Hort, Thomas believes we’re not there yet, far from it, even at Fieldston.

Thomas and I are sitting at a conference table in the bowels of the Ethical Culture School with five other women who passionately support the new program. Half of them are white. And half are black. All of them adamantly refute the notion that racial identity is a self-built thing. The categories matter, they explain, because when you’re black and you walk down the street, everybody — cops, store clerks, prospective employers, total strangers — sees you as black. There is nothing negotiable about that. Black children know irrefutably that they’re black by the time they’re about 6 years old and probably earlier. Black parents almost universally say they talk to their kids about discrimination, and black boys are given “the talk” by the time they’re in middle school: Keep your hands out of your pockets, don’t wear a hooded sweatshirt, your curfew is 9, I don’t care what time your friends have to be home. Unless people are forced to deal, explicitly and directly, with the reality of the existence of racial boxes, then stereotyping, animosity, and all the other racial baggage that comes along with the boxes will persist.

Cristina Melendez, who is sitting at the conference table, also has a second-grader at Lower. She identifies as “ethnically Dominican and racially black.” She believes that the thing to do with boxes and categories is not to pretend that they’re not there or to imagine that they’re somehow porous, but to claim them, to own them, before someone else does. Stereotypes can’t thrive if a real-live human is occupying the box, she says. Like Thomas, Melendez went to an Ivy League college, and like Thomas, she was shocked by her inaugural experience in the white world. The idea that, at 8, children are too young to have these conversations both enrages and amuses her. “I refuse for my daughter to walk into Cornell and realize then that she’s black. I saw many of my people, people of color, drop out because they would internalize their shortcomings as, ‘You don’t belong here.’ If I wait to talk with her about her race because I want to shelter her, then she internalizes it when other people point it out to her: Your hair is ugly. Your hair is curly. You have a different body shape. You have an accent.’ ” Melendez trails off and then resumes. 

“I understand that parents say, ‘I don’t want my kid to pick a box.’ But the boxes are already being picked for her left and right. Sometimes people think I’m black, and then I open my mouth” — Melendez has an accent — “and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not really black, are you?’ I want to tell you that I’m black. I’m a Latina black woman. I am going to pick, and this empowers my kid to pick. And she’s going to be perceived from that moment on, hopefully, as the person she wants to be. That’s not limiting. That’s not putting my kid in a box. That’s empowering.” As Melendez says all this, her whole upper body is draped on the table, her head propped in her hand. “My kid knows yesterday that she is black.”

The first time I meet Mariama Richards, she is smiling. Sitting in a small office at the Ethical Culture School, she appears confident and impassioned; if she feels any stress at her role at the center of a private-school tempest, it does not show. She sees it this way: At Fieldston, kids get very good at talking about justice. But unless the school gives them real tools to feel comfortable having difficult conversations about race, those innocent elementary-school friendships that the parents so cherish will inevitably dissolve. Those best friends in elementary school will by middle school cease to be friends, and no one will quite understand why. “They’ll end the friendship rather than wade in and have a dialogue,” Richards says. “It’s hurtful to a lot of the white students. It’s hurtful to the students of color. I like to talk about it as a loss. But we don’t understand where that loss comes from. We just know that we used to have this friend one time, and she was so cool, she was the world. And then something happened.” What happened, Richards says, was race.

Both Burns and Fernandez acknowledge that the program might have been rolled out better and more done in advance to get resistant parents onboard. And some scholars and educators, while commending the attempt, express concerns about the program in its details. But over the course of the spring, the program took place as planned, with the full support of the administration and board. This work, of helping minority kids achieve real parity in school and beyond, is too important to defer, they say — and worth a certain number of disgruntled parents.

And a bigger movement does seem to be building. I had coffee in Manhattan recently with Glenn Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group in San Francisco. He consults with Dalton and Spence in New York, as well as with more than 500 public-school districts (including Austin, Berkeley, and Eden Prairie, Minnesota). In a three-stage protocol, Singleton, who is black, urges people to get excruciatingly personal about race, to recall their earliest memories of the moment when race became part of their story and their most recent encounter with race, and to expose to themselves about whatever biases or fears arise with those memories. This is what he calls “the gift of humanity.” Only then, he says, can people start the long, slow process, what he calls the transformation, of beginning to empathize with other people.

For white people, Singleton’s method means eventually coming to the understanding that they’re white — and, more particularly, to understand, on a gut level, what white privilege actually means to them. White people are raised to believe they have no race, that they are “normal.” Their whiteness becomes like water, or air — so pervasive as to be invisible. But a historically white school, which has long catered to white families, can’t say it wants diversity without dealing with the fact that its culture is white, educators like Singleton say. And this is something that makes white families uneasy, because to concede that you have the power is, in some way, to give it up. “There is a whole lot of pushback; white families are not sure they want these environments to be equitable. They don’t feel expert in chaperoning their kids through change because they’re living in a monoracial environment. They say they’re the ones who want to talk about race — well, good luck with that! You don’t even engage with race.”

With her affinity-group program, Richards hopes to accomplish two things. First, she wants to support the kids of color, because they and their parents have told her they need the help. There are still too many incidents of “microaggressions” at her school: A girl puts her hands in another girl’s hair; a boy asks his Asian friend where he’s really from. A number of years ago, a white student in a fourth-grade biography unit delivered a presentation on Jackie Robinson while in blackface; more recently, a child who called Robinson his hero wanted to use blackface to dress up as him for Halloween only to be told no by his parents. Then again, an open dialogue is sure to produce some moments like that, especially at first; messing up, say the administrators at Fieldston, is part of the process. “You can’t just put kids in a room and think that the best of intentions are going to play out,” Richards says. “Best of intentions only get us a certain piece of the way.” But she asks opponents to consider this: If a portion of families say they want something from their school, wouldn’t it be good to give it to them instead of arguing that it’s not needed?

Richards agrees with her opponents on one point. What sets her program apart from similar interventions at other schools is that it’s mandatory — as integral to the school day as gym. Everyone has to participate, even the white kids. When other schools have affinity groups, “they send the white kids to recess.” At this point, Richards laughs. True integration — the thing she calls “equity,” which she distinguishes from “equality” — doesn’t happen if only half the people are talking about it. “What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I’m suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation.” And if the parents will give her a chance, she says, they’ll see that she’s trying to improve the experience of school for everyone. “This is about academic excellence for me. It is not just about making people feel good about themselves.”

It is absolutely not her intention, she says, to lay on 8-year-olds a burden about white privilege or white guilt. “They have done nothing — nothing,” she emphasizes. All she hopes to do is to get a bunch of white kids in a room to recognize that they’re white. And perhaps to ask themselves, if they’re ready for it, “Hey, what does that mean?”


*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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May 17th

Why integrating America’s neighborhoods and cities is harder than we think.

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Jamelle Bouie @

There’s no question that white Americans prefer white neighborhoods. As I noted in a Wednesday column, “20 percent of whites said their ideal neighborhood was all white … [a]nd only 25 percent of white respondents said they would live in a neighborhood where one-half of their neighbors were black.”

At the same time, this polling doesn’t tell us why. I implied prejudice, but there are other options. It could be ethnocentrism—positive feelings about your racial compatriots. Or it could be a class difference, where whites avoid black neighbors—and black neighborhoods—out of real or perceived differences in the quality of homes, schools, services, and amenities. And if so, there’s a related question: Do blacks act similarly, avoiding black or significantly black neighborhoods for the same reason?

Because of our egalitarian norms and the real wealth and income differences between blacks and whites, it’s easy to conclude that white preference for white neighborhoods is a kind of class discrimination, which we can fix through active, interventionist policy. But in this situation, the answer we might want isn’t the one that’s true. For white homebuyers, race matters, and not just as a proxy for class.


The main vehicles for this finding are a series of experiments from Maria Krysan, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In more than a decade’s worth of studies, Krysan and her collaborators have looked at the relationships among neighborhood desirability, class, and race, drawing from surveys and interviews with whites, blacks, and other groups.

In this situation, the answer we might want isn’t the one that’s true. 

In one experiment Krysan and her researchers developed 13 videos showing five neighborhoods of different social class levels: lower working class, upper working class, blemished middle class, unblemished middle class, and upper middle class. Participants would infer the wealth and income of neighborhoods in the short videos by aesthetic qualities: the size of the lots, the conditions of the homes, and so on. A blemished middle-class neighborhood would have homes with overgrown yards and boarded-up garages, while an unblemished one would have neither.

In addition to class characteristics, Krysan also added people. For four of the five neighborhoods—the fifth was empty, as a control—researchers made three variations. Each one had a different racial composition. In one version of the upper-middle-class video, the residents were white. In another they were black. And in another there was a mix. They would wear the same kinds of clothes and do the same kinds of activities. In private, participants would watch the videos—with random assignments for the racial composition—and then rate them in terms of home costs, property upkeep, safety, future property values, and school quality.

For all participants, white and black, class mattered. The wealthier the neighborhood—as inferred by characteristics—the higher the rank. But for whites race was a major influence. “Whites who saw an all-White neighborhood ranked the neighborhood significantly more positively than Whites who saw the identical neighborhood with all Black residents,” writes Krysan. And in turn mixed neighborhoods had higher ratings than black ones but lower ratings than the all-white alternatives. This was true in every neighborhood across every dimension other than property upkeep. If whites saw blacks in the unblemished middle-class neighborhood, for example, they assumed more crime and worse schools than if it were all-white. (Indeed, a 2001 study from sociologists Lincoln Quillian and Devah Pager found that reports of crime and disorder increase with the proportion of black residents in a neighborhood even after you control for the actual levels of crime and disorder.)

An earlier experiment using real-life cities had similar results. Researchers asked respondents in four metropolitan areas—Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles—to rate 23 communities of different incomes, social characteristics, and racial compositions. Again, class matters, but so does race. With more blacks came a lower rating, even when the neighborhood was prosperous.

As for ethnocentrism? In a study of whites who flee, Krysan found that negative stereotypes—and not pro-white feelings—were the “strongest predictor of white-flight attitudes.” The more people believe that blacks will bring crime and poverty, the more likely they are to leave when black families arrive.

Race matters for blacks too, just in different ways. Blacks aren’t averse to black neighbors. In another similar video experiment, blacks gave their highest ratings to mixed-race neighborhoods, followed by black neighborhoods, and ending with white ones. Fear shaped these feelings. For all-black neighborhoods it was fear of official neglect from authorities and elected officials. For all-white ones it was fear of discrimination and unfair treatment from neighbors and others. And while Latinos aren’t the focus in this work, other research finds that “whites prefer living with Latinos over African Americans … [and] Latinos prefer neighborhoods with both a significant proportion of Latinos and whites,” although they prefer integration into all-white areas to integration with black Americans.

What does this all mean? As it stands, segregation is still the rule. And whites in particular live in mostly white neighborhoods, with little if any movement into significantly or even predominantly black areas. If this preference is a proxy for class—if whites don’t oppose black neighbors, just the conditions of black neighborhoods—then integration becomes an easier task: Improve mixed-race and predominantly black neighborhoods—enhancing schools and services—and you attract white buyers, increasing diversity and breaking down our walls of separation.

But to a good degree, this preference is prejudice—a function of anti-black stigma. In which case greater integration—and greater racial equality—is even further away than it looks.

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May 17th

Mothers raising mixed-race kids

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Eunice Barbara C. Novio @ Phillipine Daily Inquirer

SEEING THE WORLD IN A WIDER PERSPECTIVE Josa Klapp and daughter Ruhi delight in a jeepney ride in the Philippines.

SEEING THE WORLD IN A WIDER PERSPECTIVE Josa Klapp and daughter Ruhi delight in a jeepney ride in the Philippines

When Ruhi, 15, and Neysan, 12—both of French-German-Filipino parentage—visited the Philippines, they were surprised to hear their cousins calling their parents, mommy and daddy. The Klapp siblings call their parents, Josa Pastor-Klapp, a teacher, nanay, and Karsten, tatay. The Klapps live in Germany.

Although they have yet to visit the Philippines, Sophia Marie, 6, and Miguel Lorenzo, 9, know their mixed parentage and both are proud to be called olhos puxadinhos, a Brazilian term of endearment for chinky-eyed.

“I explained to him that Filipinos are different this way. He (Miguel) was his teacher’s pet that year and everyone knew,” says Jennifer Aquino, an entrepreneur, who is married to Tiago Besouchet Pinheiro, a Brazilian lawyer.

Both married for 17 years, Jennifer and Josa had adjusted well to their husbands’ home countries. But raising their children in their fathers’ countries and introducing their Filipino heritage could be a challenge for the mothers.

“As expected, my husband and I see things a bit differently when it comes to some aspects of our cultures. I am traditional and conservative. Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro, is very liberated,” says Jennifer.

She says she is the disciplinarian while Tiago is more lenient.

“I grew up in a reward-and-punishment household so I tend to do the same. I am a very strict mother and my husband is the cool dad. I impose curfews and all that but my husband and I talk to our children a lot and find ways to explain things,” says Jennifer.

For Josa, having the same faith as her husband, helps a lot in agreement including the disciplining of their kids as well as in raising them. “We do consult each other a lot of times regarding disciplinary matters, then we decide together.”

Josa’s children are aware that they have mixed parentage. In school, if someone asks them “what are they,” they proudly enumerate their mixed heritage: Filipino, French, Chinese, Spanish and German.

BEAUTY IN DIVERSITY (Clockwise) Tiago, Jennifer, Sophia and Miguel Lorenzo Besouchet Pinheiro enjoy living in diversity.

BEAUTY IN DIVERSITY (Clockwise) Tiago, Jennifer, Sophia and Miguel Lorenzo Besouchet Pinheiro enjoy living in diversity.

Different is beautiful

Jennifer recounts that Miguel was bullied because he was “different” when he was in Grade 3. Asked why he was different, Tiago explained to Miguel that being different is beautiful and that is the reason why he loves his mother.

Her daughter does not encounter such problem because she looks more gringa having inherited most of her father’s looks and the grandparents’ Swiss ancestry.

For Josa, it is important to include speaking to the kids in Tagalog because it is the most important part of their having Filipino blood.

“Since they were young, I kept talking to them in Tagalog. Of course, they speak German and English, too. But it is important that they can communicate to our family in the Philippines,” she says.

Jennifer says that having mixed-race children is not a challenge, rather an opportunity for the children to see the world in a wider perspective.

“My children are Brazilians. There is no more multicultural setting than Brazil and half the people of Rio de Janeiro are foreigners,” she says.

Back to Filipino roots

Since they were small, the Klapps regularly visit San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, Josa’s hometown. Although, Josa thinks that Ruhi and Neysan are not fully aware of their Filipino culture, they know and understand Tagalog words to get by.

The Klapp kids experienced taking a bath in the rain, island-hopping, riding the carabao, eating at rolling stores, the habit of having merienda and appreciating the simple life in the province.

Respectful words

“Po and opo, tito and tita, ate and kuya are words that they first learned to respect their elders. But most of all, the Filipino close family ties is the most important part of their being a Filipino that they must never forget,” says Josa.

The Besouchet Pinheiros have never been to the Philippines because Jennifer thinks they are not yet ready for long flights, aside from being sickly.

But this does not deter her from introducing Filipino culture. Jennifer is starting to teach her kids Tagalog words. But the most Filipino traits they got from her is respect and love for parents and the elders.

Taking things lightly, relaxing in nature, humor and simple satisfactions, are the Filipino traits acquired by the Klapps from Josa.

“I guess they would be able to live in the Philippines without a problem,” she says.

Only one race

Jennifer advices parents raising mixed-race children to embrace diversity and let the children explore, and enjoy the margins and boundaries of both cultures.

“Teach the language; teach the beauty in diversity. There’s only one race—the human race,” ends Josa.

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May 17th

Just Say It's Not OK to Sexualize, Marginalize, Dehumanzie

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Gina Sixkiller @ Indian Country Today Media Network.

I am a woman of mixed races. I grew up being called a squaw, half-breed, white, redskin and other names—none meant in a good way. I grew up wondering exactly where I fit in. Then I went to an all-Indian technical school. There I was defined by the kind of person I was, not by what race I was.

I now am a mother first and foremost. A mother wading through a myriad of stereotypical imagery and racism while trying to teach my son to grow up to be a good person. I take my son to pow wows, family gatherings and traditional ceremonies so he can learn where he comes from and where he can go in the future. I have relatives that are full blood as much as I have relatives that are white and relatives that are mixed race like me.

When confronted with mascots like the Washington Redskins or films that depict Native Americans in an inaccurate, stereotypical way I have to question how this will affect my child. I want him to be proud of all of who he is. I want him to respect himself, others and to respect women.

When I see the "redskins" mascot I am offended because I know that in the future when someone finds out my son is Native American he will then be greeted with the "woowoowoo war whoop" that I was. He will be asked if he's a "dot-Indian" or a "feather-Indian". He will be told "I thought you guys were extinct" and asked if he lives in a teepee. Being light skinned like me he will hear the racial slurs against indigenous people because the ones speaking won't think he is being insulted.

When I see movies depicting indigenous people as they were in the "wild west" or as a cartoon character mascot as if they aren't a real existing nation of people, I find my job as a mother even harder.

The "Washington Redskins" is viewed as a dinosaur, imagery of something extinct and a term that comes across as meaning "dead Indian". Movies are made sexualizing indigenous women and portraying Native Americans as drunks or as the stereotypical extinct "wild Indian".

I find none of this okay. I don't want my son growing up thinking it's okay just because "it's always been this way" or because "no one objected before". It's not okay to sexualize, dehumanize or degrade any human and say it's a joke. It is not okay! It's not okay to portray anyone in a stereotypical manner and it's not okay because your "Indian/part-Indian" friend says so. Just so you know, I'm part white and I say IT IS NOT OKAY!

It's not okay to say "I'm honoring you" just so you can sleep at night. IT'S NOT OKAY!

And for those you in the film industry feigning ignorance, I want you to know that doesn't work anymore. There have been more than enough Native voices speaking up to tell you. I'm sure your mother even taught you....IT'S NOT OKAY! You have Google AND cultural advisors at your disposal. I promise you that doing a little research and taking the time to listen really works.

It IS OKAY to admit that society has taught us wrong for way too long and IT IS okay to question things.

I blame the history books first for not saying Christopher Columbus just got lost and not correctly portraying the genocide of millions of Native Americans. Until there is an accurate historical representation of Native America in our school systems we will always be viewed as mascots or extinct.

Until we can have such things as accuracy in our history classes and non-stereotypical imagery that won't hurt my child...I will speak up and object. I am a mixed race woman, a full-blood mother and a human being and I will always object to stereotypical and racist imagery. IT IS NOT OKAY!

May 17th

Chuck Chiang: Mixed-race celebrities are shaking up the status quo in Japan and Korea - Social change: Conservative Japan and

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Chuck Chiang @ Vancouver

Miss Japan Ariana Miyamoto, is the first mixed-race winner of the contest. She’s one of several high-profile people in Japan and South Korea who are raising awareness of ethnic diversity.

In the age of globalization, it is not uncommon for some homogeneous societies to begin experiencing significant visible social, cultural and demographic changes. These changes sometimes clash with entrenched traditions.

East Asia has seen its share of such frictions. Japan and South Korea remain two of the most homogeneous societies in the world. Roughly 98 per cent of Japan’s citizens are ethnically Japanese; similarly, ethnic Koreans make up 96 per cent of South Korea’s population. (Not surprisingly, these are also two of the most socially conservative countries in the world, where changes tend to happen in slow, evolutionary steps rather than dramatic, revolutionary leaps.)

But as contact with other countries has moved beyond simple economic exchanges and into interpersonal interactions during the past six decades, even the most homogeneous societies cannot avoid visible social changes.

The latest example of this trend was stark indeed.

The victory in March of Ariana Miyamoto, 21, in Japan’s Miss Universe beauty contest was more than the usual, run-of-the-mill news item easily dismissed as another publicity stunt. Miyamoto, born in Nagasaki to an African-American father and a Japanese mother, became the country’s first mixed-race Miss Japan. Her victory proved to be a significant catalyst for change in a society that has long guarded its status-quo closely.

Miyamoto, who told AFP she entered the beauty contest after another mixed-raced friend committed suicide, faced criticism on social media from conservative voices within Japan after her victory. AFP reported that her critics called for the title to be given to someone who is 100-per-cent Japanese instead of a “hafu” (a colloquial Japanese term for someone who is biracial). In response, Miyamoto said she is taking the outcry as motivation, vowing to raise awareness of ethnic diversity in Japan.

“When I was small, I stood out and always felt I had to fit in with everyone. But now I say what I feel,” Miyamoto told London’s Daily Mail. “I can’t change things overnight, but in 100-200 years there will be very few pure Japanese left, so we have to start changing the way we think.”

Her comments have created a stir. Japan’s social conservatism is well-known — Tokyo has struggled to loosen immigration policies despite a growing need for labour in the face of an aging population. Immigrants currently make up about two per cent of the population (in comparison, about 21 per cent of Canadians are immigrants, while the numbers hover between 11 and 13 per cent for European countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom).

Japan isn’t alone in this regard. Immigrants in South Korea make up only three per cent of its population. The country also has a similar low birthrate, growing labour shortages, and immigration policy struggles. And with a significant American military presence, Korea sees a higher number of mixed-race children resulting from more frequent personal interactions.

(There are several famous examples: Former Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver Hines Ward was born in Seoul in 1976 to a Korean mother and an American father. South Korea’s reigning R&B diva, Insooni (real name Kim In-Soon) is also of mixed-race background.)

Many of these mixed-race citizens report facing bullying growing up. Mixed-race Korean pop singer Michelle Lee, a contestant on the popular American Idol-style reality show “K-pop Star” four years ago, mentioned in several interviews of her experiences being bullied because of her ethnicity. Lee told the Korean Herald in a report last March that her pursuit of music was reflective of the abuse she suffered and how she wanted to respond.

“Although through my story I could have just focused on all of the hurt and all of the struggles that I had endured growing up … the message that I wanted to emphasize with my song is breaking down those barriers and overcoming all of my pain,” Lee said. Insooni and Miyamoto reported similar struggles while growing up.

But the victory of Miyamoto, as well as the accomplishments of a new generation of mixed-race Japanese and Koreans, may be itself a sign that things are changing — that public acceptance has progressed. These higher-profile individuals and their success will serve as visual reminders of a changing society, and it will undoubtedly drive changes in perceptions, opinions and tolerance.

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May 15th

A Look At People's 'Race Experience' In NC

By Yasmin S

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Charlie Shelton @

A collaged picture of a diverse women's face

Credit Addicting Info

We recently released a survey asking people about their experience with race in North Carolina. The responses ranged from personal stories on race's influence in daily interactions to how race is affecting public opinion. From the state's rural communities to its larger cities, people recognized that race relations are changing, but we still have a ways to go.

Here are some of the responses:

Michi Vojta, 44 years old, Raleigh

"As a mixed race person (mother from Japan), I can generally "pass", as it was called -- people don't often notice, or care, about my non-white heritage.

Years ago I visited a friend living in Columbia, NC. As a teacher she went to work and I hung out killing time and went for a jog. I thought it was odd how there were two gas stations from the same exact company on the same road within spitting distance. I was telling her where I jogged, and she asked what I thought were odd questions: 'Did the folks seem surprised to see you?' I thought, 'Gosh, it can't be that small a town, right?'

Finally she pointed out that I jogged on both the 'white' and the 'black' sides of the town, and she was curious if folks acted strangely to me when I was on 'the other side.' I'm sure my mouth hit the ground. As someone who grew up in Memphis, TN and the suburbs of Chicago, IL, it had never crossed my mind that towns were still so clearly divided."

Stefany Ramos, 31, Durham

'When I watch the news, it is hard not to feel that things have been sliding backwards. It is hard not to feel terrified that one day that might be my son on the screen.'

"I am a white Hispanic female but my 'hispanic-ness' is much less physically obvious than many of my fellow Latinos. When people look at me they see an ethnically ambiguous white woman. In my life I rarely experience the type of racial discrimination felt by so many others. My husband is black and his experience directly contrasts my own. I have been with him while countless police cars follow his car for no apparent reason, especially in Chapel Hill.

I was with him when we were pulled over by a police officer, and subsequently sat very still as two more police cars and police dogs arrived. His record showed a lapse in insurance caused by confusion when he switched insurance companies. Is it routine for sniffing dogs to circle your car for insurance issues? And why did they run his plates to begin with? We violated no traffic laws.

I have been with him when people ask for his help in stores where he does not work.  People in the Triangle are always shocked when they hear his stories where the general sense is that we are an open, more educated, and more liberal community. Sure, it's hard to find a confederate flag hanging outside a house around here, but that says very little about our true collective racial beliefs.

It does no good to hide behind our universities and "diverse" numbers on paper, and to pretend that the racial disparities that plague the rest of the state and country do not apply to us. We must be honest with each other, but most of all with ourselves. As my husband and I prepare for our first child, a boy, we hope that his world will be a little more just than the one we grew up in. Our world was a little more just than our parents'. But when I watch the news, it is hard not to feel that things have been sliding backwards. It is hard not to feel terrified that one day that might be my son on the screen."

Elizabeth Vanek, 23, Raleigh

"In 2004, I moved to Charlotte from Nashville, TN. On my first day of seventh grade I realized I was the only white person in my class. In Nashville I had people of color in my classes but white students were the majority. I had to adapt quickly to this new environment. For the first couple of weeks I was scared but I soon adjusted.

For the rest of my time in the public school in NC I was often not in the racial majority in the class room. These experiences of race in the public school showed the good, the bad and the ugly about race relations in NC. As a privileged white girl I had not understood the complicated world outside of my sheltered life at first. The diversity in the public school made me understand and wrestle with my privilege and the inequality of the races.

I am saddened when I hear about public schools becoming more racially divided with things like the 'white flight' to charter schools. While not an elegant way to learn about race, the public schools in NC taught me more than the math, reading and writing. They taught me about privilege, inequality and cultural differences. The public school system built a strong foundation for accepting others cultural and racial differences that stays with me to this day."


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