A couple of weeks ago, the administration at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the wake of meetings with student activists late in the last school year held a leadership workshop. The initial concerns centered on the non-renewal of a popular teacher, who apparently made officials uncomfortable because she openly offered opinions on politics, social justice and other topics that made officials uneasy.
The workshop included team-building exercises and discussions about subjects tied to anti-bullying efforts and making the school a more inclusive place. It was a good initial step. But it won’t be enough.
A few miles northeast in Oak Park, the high school district is in an uproar in the wake of a picture of a white student in blackface, suggesting he run for office in a student-run black leadership group. The student shared the photo, which he said was a joke, to personal contacts on Snapchat. It didn’t stay personal.
The photo eventually made its way around Facebook. A teacher at that school, in an effort to draw attention to incidents of ongoing, casual racism at the school, shared the photo on Facebook. The teacher is a man who has been cultivating a larger public presence in the past year, speaking out on social justice issues, particularly pertaining to race. He’s presently passing petitions to run for the U.S. Congress.
So his social media reach was far greater than your average teacher, and the fallout from the blackface photo threw the school community into turmoil. The school suspended both the student, for posting the photo in the first place, and the teacher, for violating the district’s social media policy.
Oak Park is a community that prides itself on recognizing diversity and its reputation as a progressive community when it comes to integration. But racism is deep seated, and black high school students at OPRF have complained for years that racist incidents keep occurring.
This latest incident is a deep wound and will take some serious triage to heal.
Riverside-Brookfield High School’s student body is as diverse as it has ever been. The number of Latino students continues to grow, and the district’s black population is not insignificant.
The school district in recent years has established such programs as “character counts” and late last year held a “Positivity Day” event in the wake of racist graffiti being found in a girls’ bathroom at the school.
The early October leadership/anti-bullying workshop was another look at the issues that face RBHS, and students who attended – 275 in all — seemed to benefit from it.
But, as one student leader stated afterward, it’s not enough. The issue of race in this country and the casual racism baked into American society is not going to go away, no matter how many Positivity Days and anti-bullying workshops you hold.
Addressing the issue of race head-on is something institutions seem to want to avoid, even when the issue keeps bubbling to the surface as a problem. Oak Park, again, is considered ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with race. And yet, Oak Park’s high school administrators are now trying to work through the significant harm an instance of casual racism has caused.
Avoiding the subject of race won’t make issues related to it go away.