This is my 11th year of writing these monthly “Headmaster’s Thoughts,” and I still am not very good at explaining why I do this. It started when one of my students (I teach 12th grade Ethics to all seniors.) commented that although I regularly graded their essays, they were not similarly able to grade one of mine. I countered by saying that I would happily write an essay which they could grade. That was over 130 essays ago.
These essays are, very often, just plain silly. They are usually on topics that have nothing to do with education and too often become the rants of a curmudgeonly old man (me)! Sometimes, they are out of date by a month. In this case, Donald Trump’s intemperate outbursts occurred last week (and are likely still occurring), and yet I continue to be fascinated by the circumstances surrounding Rachel Dolezal that happened over a month ago.
If you cannot remember, Rachel Dolezal was the young lady who presented herself as an African American when she was in fact (according to her parents and birth certificate) Caucasian. A big deal was made of this, and she eventually resigned from her position as president of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
Obviously you cannot choose your parents and, by extension, your race. European Jews who died in the Holocaust discovered that truth in a brutal way; however, I have great difficulty with the whole concept of simple racial categorization, and a certain sympathy for Ms. Dolezal. She psychologically identified with black Americans and, at a time when Caitlin Jenner is no longer Bruce, she no doubt felt that she could change her ethnicity. The issue, for me, is why should anyone have to label themselves at all, particularly when we know that most people are multi-racial? We know from a recent study which I believe to be true, that the average American Black is actually a quarter or more white. We know that blue-eyed Jews almost certainly had some non-Jewish ancestry. We know that early European settlers (yes, Mayflower descendants, I am talking about you.) had intimate relations with Native Americans. And, without being offensive, can one really know that one’s father’s father was in fact your father’s father? Life is not as neat as it appears. It has been speculated that Hitler’s grandfather on his father’s side was Jewish. Tragically that made absolutely no difference to those who perished in the Holocaust, just as it made no difference to the suffering of slaves if their owners were part black. Why is it that I remember, in this context, that Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemmings, his mixed race-slave?
I understand that the sad history of slavery in the United States explains the distorted lens through which some may look at one another. That there is a history of racism is unquestionable, but I wonder how much identifying citizens by ethnicity really helps the cause of a “perfect union.” Surely our goal is to advance to the point where what race or sex you are is irrelevant to the way you are viewed in our society.
Here at York, I am asked every year by the State Education Department to complete a Basic Education Data System (BEDS) report that requires a breakdown of the student population into racial categories. And every year I define the entire student body as “multicultural” and refuse to label any one of them. When I first did this, many years ago, I was called by a lady from the State Education Department. Her job was to keep statistics of students by race. I refused. She then asked, “Do you want me to lose my job?” I am proud of my answer: “Nothing, would give me greater pleasure!”
This is certainly not a uniquely American issue. I grew up in England in the 1950’s, and I remember my father looking disgustedly at a headline in a London newspaper that read “Jewish Black Marketer Arrested.” My father’s disgust was at the irrelevancy of the religion of the person who bought or sold black market goods. Why was it even mentioned? Similarly, I would ask why we are given the racial statistics of prison populations or delinquent fathers? The inevitable outcome is either prejudice or defensiveness, exactly the emotions we should be trying to discourage.
I understand pride in one’s ancestors. I understand identifying with the sad history of one’s forefathers. One should not forget the Armenian massacre or the arrogance of colonial Britain or slavery or the Holocaust. But let us also remember that the founding documents of the United States state that the “blessings of liberty” are to be enjoyed by “our posterity.” We are all that “posterity!” Period! So, at this time of the beginning of a new school year, when so many students with unique and wonderful backgrounds come together, it seems important to celebrate those things that unite us all in this one community.
Anyway, this is what occasionally happens when you write these essays every month. You begin to sound as though you are a preacher. I will try and control myself in the next few “thoughts” and revert back to my inane style of the past. Who knows, one day, one of my students might actually read what I have written.
Ronald P. Stewart