A high-school principal in Illinois found himself criticized recently after organizing a “Black Lives Matter” assembly that was open solely to black students. The event, a culmination of Black History Month events in late February that featured discussion on race relations, drew approximately 350 Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) students. But when some white students attempted to attend the assembly and were kept out, their parents were upset and complained to the school, according to the Chicago Tribune.
School principal and event organizer Nathaniel Rouse explained his thinking to the newspaper. “First and foremost, this is not meant to give a connotation that we were trying to be exclusive,” he said, adding that the decision to allow only black students was based on the philosophy known as “affinity grouping,” which allows people of one racial or other subgroup to be able to express themselves fully and safely. “I believe that the discussion will help us as a school begin talking about race in a deeper and more meaningful way than ever before — and most important, produce change,” Rouse said in a statement posted on the school’s website in response to the complaints.
As of last year, the high school’s student population was 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 6 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian, according to its website. At the “Black Lives Matter” assembly, according to the school’s statement, people spoke about their positive experiences coming to OPRF from schools that were less diverse, the disproportionately low numbers of black students in honors classes, and ways to address “disparities in the discipline system.” Superintendent Steven Isoye, who attended the event, noted in the statement, “This was a very positive conversation where our most disenfranchised students were able to give voice to their experiences and hopes for the future.”
None of the parents of white students upset by the event would speak about it on the record, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But Rouse told the paper that, as a black man, he knows firsthand how challenging it can be to speak in front of a mixed group. “I found it has been far easier for me to talk about my experiences with racism with individuals that look like me,” he said. “I still struggle myself with talking about my experiences with people who don’t look like me.” He also said he hopes to have similar groups in the near future for white, Latino, and Asian students, to be followed by a school-wide event that lets all students talk about race together.
This approach is “not a newfangled idea,” according to Imani Keith Henry, a New York City–based diversity trainer who heads the consulting practice OD for the People. “It’s done in unions, caucuses, and professional organizations and associations,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s not only about comfort, but creating leadership, and to just have a moment to strategize about ideas in a safe environment where you can talk in shorthand and not have to explain everything.”
Henry, who is of Jamaican descent, grew up in Boston, and still recalls the impact made upon him by a special gathering held just for Haitian students at his high school one afternoon to celebrate the news that longtime dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier had been forced out of Haiti. “I was not invited to the assembly, which I believe was announced only in Creole,” he recalls. “But to walk by the auditorium in this incredibly historic moment, and for the students to have had the space to do that, was very powerful for me. I’m 45 years old, and I will always remember the cheering I heard.”
What often happens today, he says, is that such sacred spaces are squashed when public funding is involved, as it often forces inclusivity. “I understand that, and it’s a dilemma,” he says. But as a result, the very organizations that were created to help empower the disempowered wind up having the opposite effect — something Henry says he’s often seen in student gay-straight alliances. “The gay students can’t find any solidarity,” he explains, “because the straight allies don’t understand their thoughts about oppression, and say, ‘But everything’s better now.’”
In the case of the OPRF assembly in Illinois, Henry notes, the offended white parents, rather than feeling “entitled” on behalf of their kids, might have been wise to see the event as a chance to offer solidarity. “What would have been helpful is maybe to have asked, after the black students met, ‘What do you need from us? What should we be doing?” he says. “What if the white parents had said, ‘We should stand with this principal’? How powerful that would have been for those students.”