Checking the black box


Sometimes I joke that, until my oldest child was 16, starting the college application process, she didn’t really know she was black.

Sure, our biracial family valued my husband’s family culture, I sought out African-American dolls and picture books — and part of why we homeschooled was a desire to teach our children about their racial and cultural heritages. Even so, perhaps because we’d been isolated from the culture-at-large, we entered the college-entry game without a clear sense of what we had to lose by continuing to act color-blind. At that time, I had this unconscious notion that it was noble to set aside conversation about race.

The Quest Bridge application changed that. I was amazed to realize how good it felt to engage in conversation that acknowledged situations I’d had to navigate ever since I married my husband. In turn, I came to realize that people who spoke of being “color blind” only talked that way because they’d been able to get through life without thinking about it.

It may be frustrating to try to find a way to explain the tricky aspects of color in America to friends who are color blind and honestly believe they’re behaving with integrity by ignoring how race and ethnicity affect how life a person’s life unfolds. But it can be excruciating, even impossible, to navigate college in a place that has put that approach into policy form. Here’s one example:

Believing that every person is created in the image of God and that Christ seeks reconciliation, the college is committed to ethnic inclusion, racial reconciliation, and the biblical view of men and women. In this faith context, Patrick Henry College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age or disability in its admissions policy, financial aid programs or employment practices.

That sounds so nice and balanced, at least to conservative Christian ears. But what it meant was, “we welcome you if you come with cash, because we’re not going to offer money earmarked for any particular people groups,” and “we welcome you as long as your blackness doesn’t manifest in ways we don’t understand, which we may well choose to interpret as sinful and thus subject to discipline.” This color-blind approach also effectively shuts down real discussions of race and the discomfort that comes with acknowledging it. If you’re the person who complains about a race-related problem, you are more likely to be admonished that you’ve bought into a “liberal, politically-correct victim mentality” that isn’t necessary on the color-blind campus, than you are to be taken seriously.

As I compared college catalogs and policy statements, I began to realize that it was time to start paying attention to what race and color would mean. How we navigated the issue would make a tremendous difference in how my daughter adjusted to the next level of school.

Ultimately, this led to us asking The Question when we visited her dream campus. You guessed it. It was Patrick Henry College.

American Promise

American Promise trailer  I loved this documentary. The families it depicted have such different life experiences than ours; even so, their stories resonated with me. I found it remarkable that the boys whose educational lives we witness over a 13-year span could have so much in common with my son, who’s growing up in a rural Kansas community.

Here’s a description from the American Promise website:

American Promise spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African-American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn their cameras on their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, who make their way through one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, this provocative, intimate documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class and opportunity.

PBS streamed this film online in February 2014, and it’s currently available in bits and pieces on the Web. I’ve included a link to the trailer to give you a taste. If you have the opportunity to see this remarkable film, make the time. But bring some tissues: If your family faces any of these issues, the film may bring you tears.

Emotion aside, what I loved about “American Promise” was the way it conveyed experiences that transcend class and geography. The fact is, black students in America, boys especially, have much to overcome. Money doesn’t necessarily change that, nor does opportunity. Hearing these wealthy, highly-educated parents worry about the exact things that trouble me was somehow comforting.