Opinion: When white people see no problem, that’s a problem

Critics of diversity reject idea that kids need teachers, authors who look like them

Listening to people at local school board meetings attack diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as a clandestine conduit to critical race theory, it’s clear they lack a full grasp of critical race theory.

But hearing them contend it’s not necessary for students of color to have teachers or counselors who look like them and that it’s not necessary for them to read books by Black or brown authors, you have to wonder if they comprehend irony.

Because most of the people making these assertions are white, and they and their offspring see themselves represented everywhere they look, from the school board that leads their district to the teachers who lead their classrooms.

In fact, a dozen white speakers at the Forsyth school board meeting Tuesday assured the board there was no need to fret about diversity, equity or inclusion. Forsyth offered plenty of diversity, and everybody was equal and included. They saw no evidence of racism or exclusion, despite testimony only moments earlier by Forsyth students about being told to go back to their own country or being mocked for their accents or the ethnic foods they brought for lunch. (One of their contentions was the views of these students reflected “indoctrination.”)

A 2021 graduate of Forsyth’s Denmark High School, Suba Senthil said she found it “a little hard to be different” as a young child in the district. She recalled refusing homemade lunches after classmates called her food “weird” and telling her parents she preferred “Lunchables to their gross ethnic food.” She remembered being embarrassed by her parents’ accents.

“This diversity, equity and inclusion plan wants to teach students and staff to be more culturally aware,” said Senthil. “And, maybe, it will help kids, especially young ones, not be so quick to judge others because they are a little different.”

The adult speakers, several of whom no longer had children in the system, didn’t understand why students felt a loss from never having a teacher or counselor in Forsyth County schools who looked like them.

“I was actually stunned as a lifelong educator who has worked with children preschool through college to hear that students think they have to have a teacher or a counselor that looks like they do,” said Forsyth resident Sharon Briggs. “This goes against everything I ever studied in the classroom or in my training or in my work.”

Briggs needs to refresh her research. Multiple studies in the past decade have shown students of color do markedly better when they have teachers who look like them. A study published by the Institute of Labor Economics using North Carolina and Tennessee student data showed having one Black teacher in elementary school not only makes children more likely to graduate from high school, but it also makes them significantly more likely to enroll in college. Black students who had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college and those who’d had two were 32% more likely.

The influence of having a Black teacher doesn’t just improve retention, discipline and test scores of Black students. “It improves the ultimate thing you really care about, educational attainment and long-run success,” said American University professor Seth Gershenson, one of the researchers and co-author of the new book “Teacher Diversity and Student Success: Why Racial Representation Matters in the Classroom.”

“White teachers and white students also would benefit tremendously from having more Black teachers in their school,” said Gershenson in a recent webinar on the importance of a diverse teaching force to student outcomes. “There are teacher peer effects. A more diverse teaching force is going to help white teachers do better with their increasingly diverse classrooms. White students also stand to benefit from seeing a more diverse array of people in positions of authority in terms of changing their social and racial attitudes.”

A former Forsyth high school teacher, Heidi Elseroad complained to the school board about a reading program flyer emailed to her son’s fourth grade class. She said the flyer advised students “to just select an author based on what they look like and don’t consider anything else. It’s disgusting. Asking a student to read a book simply because the author is Black, Asian or Latino is not only insulting to the author, but also encourages students to see an individual as nothing more than the color of their skin,” said Elseroad.

I asked Forsyth Schools for the flyer, which was about an optional county reading program. A district spokeswoman said the goal was to provide new reading opportunities for students who may not ordinarily select something outside of their routine reading interests. Here is the flyer.

Elseroad. said her son asked, “Why does it matter what color the writer is?”

Because otherwise Black and brown students of color would still be reading books primarily by white men about white men and wondering why their lives, experiences and identities didn’t matter.

An avid mystery reader as an adolescent, I got tired of books in which women had one of two roles, either the victim of the crime or the detective’s love interest. It was only when I began to search out female authors that I found books where women were more than comely corpses or sassy sidekicks. They were the heroes, they were at the center of the action, not the fringes. They were solving the mysteries, uncovering the truth.

Writing about his own frustration and despair over never seeing himself or the Black experience in America represented in books, acclaimed young adult author Walter Dean Myers said his life changed when he read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

Myers wrote of that moment in a 2014 essay published four months before he died:

By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin's story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn't know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in “Sonny's Blues."

They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.