Wherein we discuss race

In 2013 a black intellectual told me he wouldn't want my daughter to influence his daughter, or my husband to influence his son. I believe these were rhetorical flourishes as I don't think he even has a son. A Latino educator told me that white liberals such as myself can keep arguing with each other and "the colors and the classes" can actually do the work on behalf of Chicago's schools. Another told me I'm a white elitist, and I don't know about you but to me that's sort of code for racist, or anyway the line between them is pretty darn thin. White folks have called me a union sympathizer, which I always sort of mused was a veiled race reference. A black stranger on the sidewalk told me there is no justice in the world, and while the intent of that remark aimed at me was somewhat ambiguous, I thought it was just about the truest thing anyone said to me at all in 2013.

2013 was when this blog began, and it was when I felt and saw more clearly the deep and abiding nature of the race-based dividing lines in this city. Having been a Hyde Parker for my 28 years in Chicago I have always thought the city much more racially mixed up than its reputation suggests. But this perception was not true, is not true for the breadth and depth of Chicago, and it may not even be true of Hyde Park.

This past year I saw just how completely CPS and the mayor operate along racial fault lines, along neighborhood borders, both failing to understand the city's divided neighborhoods, and attempting to utilize them as tools against one another. From my neighborhood perspective, I saw how the mayor and CPS disinvest in south side schools and do not listen to south side voices. We all witnessed the largest mass school closing in the history of public education in the United States, and perhaps some of us winced when we saw the shocking disproportion of shuttered schools in black and brown neighborhoods. Maybe some of us noticed the disproportionate firings of black and brown teachers, and how that is in keeping with a years-long displacement of minority teachers and principals in CPS. Maybe a few of us saw the implications of the steep budget cuts administered this fall at the high school level, some schools losing millions in one blow, schools that didn't have too much to lose in the first place. And maybe we noticed when a few random schools seemed to win the lottery a few months later and received gobs of funding for new programs and expansion.

But I have to say, it's one thing to note brash racist policies coming from the top down. It's another altogether to hear brash racist pronouncements from the grassroots.

One of the recurring questions among education writers is: who gets to speak? Who is allowed to contribute? Jose Vilson, the education writer who takes on difficult subjects eloquently, thinks the relevant question for this year is: are non-educators allowed to be in this conversation? For me, the question is a little different. It has been: are you allowed in the conversation if you are white?

Several times this year I have been told no, no you are not allowed in this conversation. It's jarring. Particularly since I wasn't asking that question at the time. I have been told that white folks have no say in matters which concern non-white children. I've been told white people should step aside and let others talk, as if there is one microphone in the vast e-universe of commentary instead of an unimaginable infinity of microphones. Because of my race I've been lumped together with other white voices in education, even corporate reformers whom I am actively fighting; apparently we are actually comrades-in-arms because of our skin color.  Finally, I was told with a sigh that it gets very tiring explaining to white people why their voices aren't wanted.

If one answers no to this question--no, whites have no contribution--one has to presume things like: white people aren't affected by public education, or at least not very much, or anyway not for their whole life. Or more locally: they weren't born and raised in CPS. That they have no kids in public school. That they probably live in the suburbs anyway and what do they know? That their vision is so shrouded by white privilege that they cannot see clearly.

I sure know it must be exhausting to get the no-white-folks-allowed message through white people's heads, because for months now I haven't understood it. I live in the city, I've had kids in the system for 9 years, I pay taxes, I vote here,  I care about the schools and I can't seem to shut up about them. My failure to see why my voice isn't wanted has to be exhausting to folks trying to get me to get it.

To be caught between race-based pronouncements from the upper echelons of city government, and from the trenches of grassroots work, is to be caught in a strange vice grip. It's painful and confusing, provoking examinations and reexaminations of conscience. In the face of these pronouncements I was ready to throw in the towel completely, and I almost did, because secretly, I hate to be a bother to anyone. A white elitist bother.

But, fool that I am, I can't stay away. And last night I was grateful to be back in business. Last night I saw the real answer to my question of the year.

Last night was a forum at Shields Middle School on the southwest side, to educate the neighborhood about CPS's impending massive charter expansion. The entire event was in both Spanish and English. The packed auditorium, humming with chatter in several languages, had folks of every race in it. Half the panel of experts were Spanish speakers who led with their native tongue and then translated.

As I listened and watched and felt the tremendous energy in the room, impressed with the thoughtful patience of all the listeners, I remembered.

I remembered. We who are advocating for the strength of neighborhood public schools in Chicago are combining our differences, we are raising all our mixed voices in unison across neighborhood boundaries and race boundaries that our city would have us believe are insurmountable. We are using one another's strengths and shoring up one another's weaknesses. We will not be divided. We will speak as one on behalf of our children, all our children, in their differences and in the simplicity of their little-kid samenesses. We are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, teachers, advocates; our kids are exceptional and gifted and have special needs and are totally ordinary. And we are working together.

Reader, do you long for an equitable school system? Adequately funded schools? An accountable CPS administration? I'm claiming my voice in this conversation, and I want you to know, you're in the conversation too. You have a voice. Let's start talking.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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