[Archives] Faculty Confronts Race Problem
By Caroline Casey
by The Milton Measure on Friday, May 4th, 2012
The conference in its conception was to be a meeting where faculty members from all three schools could discuss the problems of black students at Milton; and if possible, to come to some conclusions on how the problems could be solved or ameliorated.
The conference was extremely well organized by Miss Jane Martin, Mr. John Zilliax, and others, but I do not know what the achievement of the conference was, or even if it lived up to the standards hoped for by the planners, because I was only there for one afternoon. The conference continued for two days.
The plan for the part of the meeting which I attended was that the faculty should be divided into small discussion groups, go to their assigned rooms, discuss cases, then return to the Thatcher Room for a short summary period. The summary period consisted of a spokesman for each group giving a brief (one minute) resume of the ideas expressed in his group.
The conference was opened with an introduction by Mr. Wicks in which he stated a maxim, “How do you know what you think until you know what you say?” He stated that there would be no one in charge other than for purposes of adhering to the schedule. Everyone was totally free to say anything. Mr. Zilliax followed with an introduction of guests who were there, including: Mr. James Cooper, of the ABC program; Mr. Howard Neman, executive vice-president of a corporation in Roxbury; three black Milton graduates—Mr. Lawrence Rawles; Mr. Larry Bagley; Mr. John Sussewell. Mr. Zilliax also added a maxim that you “don’t hear someone talk to you, until you have talked yourself.” He stressed the importance of timing: the groups should return promptly to the summary room when scheduled to do so. They should keep their resumes down to one minute (laughter followed these instructions which put teachers in the positions of their students). Timing was the strongest and the weakest feature of the conference. It kept the structure from crumbling, yet it seemed to break the flow of continuity. Groups who were often in mid-discussion were obliged to stop and return to summary periods. One often felt that not all sides were being heard.
With only a minute to telescope a discussion many sides were left out. The spokesman decided what was least important and reported accordingly. The audience therefore must deal with the bias of the reporters in each summary. Close timing might also have inhibited participants’ reactions because of the feeling, “we’re behind schedule, maybe this comment isn’t that important.” There was a continued urgency to keep “on schedule.” The alternative to this pressure would have been to dispense with all but the loosest of scheduling. The faults with this are self-evident and many of the best features of this conference would have been lost (i.e., the rapid covering of many cases, the partial elimination of repetition).
The cases presented were all real cases from Milton. The first case was summarized in this way: “A teacher in the sixth grade discovers, moments before class that a book she is planning to read during the period contains the word ‘nigger.’ She is worried about how the one black child in the class will react. What would you do?” The spokesman from the Lane room group stated the reactions in section. The first reaction was that it was fantastically poor planning on the part of the teacher to discover the “problem” only “moments before class.” Many felt strongly that the word should definitely not be censored. The responses as to how to handle the situation differed greatly. One extreme was that the word should be ignored unless brought up by a class member. The opposite extreme was to discuss the word “nigger” thoroughly, emphasizing: historical importance, social lessons, and social progress in the realm of brotherhood.
Groups from rooms 9, 10 and 11 also had the same case. Many points were identical with the above. There was one new idea which I found intriguing if slightly repugnant. It was that the teacher should open class discussion on the subject of derogatory names for all racial and ethnic groups (“spic” for Spaniard, “kike” for Jew, “wop” for Italian, etc.). Someone then said that he thought class discussion would be easier with boys, since his group had agreed that “girls were more insidious than boys.” This brought a loud burst of applause from the boys’ school faculty. It was strange to see this outbreak of loyalty and “school spirit” on the part of the teachers for their school. Discussion was opened. Many of the same ideas were repeated but one black member said that something similar to this case had happened to her as a child. She would have preferred to have had the word “nigger” censored, as it was damaging to a young child and had been “a harmful experience” for her.
The second case presented was one where a second grade black student had objected to the reading of Snow White as a racist book. The major reaction to this was interesting in that instead of dealing with the problem, many questioned its validity. They questioned that the child knew what the word “racist” meant and thereby avoided the issue. It was reported by Mr. Cooper (of ABC) that many of his particular group became “defensive” and “began to justify Snow White.” They were “mad at the child.” This was followed by an exchange between Mr. Cooper and a teacher who said that she would be “amazed” at a child in the second grade “having those feelings and the use of those words to express them.” This last statement was leapt upon by several people who felt that a black child in the second grade would certainly have experienced racism even though he might not yet have a word for it. Finally Miss Martin said that “you should confront the issue, don’t question whether it happened. It did.” Some people began to think about the issue of whether Snow White was racist. The subject was treated frivolously by some in off-hand remarks. Many never recovered from the hilarity of the situation. “Now I’ve heard everything, next they’ll be condemning Cinderella,” said one teacher nearby.
Again there was a wide difference of opinion. Larry Bagley summarized one viewpoint by saying that there is “more pro-white in the story than what’s in the title. The book equates white with beauty and is therefore racist.” The values presented were “distorted and therefore harmful.” The opposing article was slightly reminiscent of the early 60’s civil rights “craze.” That was when the “no-difference” phraseology was popular. John Sussewell stated the argument, “Don’t cloud the issues with color. If someone asks me am I proud to be black, I wouldn’t know what to say. I am proud to be a man.” If this philosophy is nine years out of date it was evidently enjoying a renaissance on the afternoon of the eighteenth. Sussewell’s philosophy was received with enthusiastic applause. Larry Rawles answered, “You must realize that you are a black man. People look at you that way.” This did not meet with such a lavish response.
One of the last cases I heard was one where a black student, later asked to leave Milton, did not seem to “fit in.” The questions were asked “What does Milton offer the black student?”, “”How does Milton suppress him?” It was stressed that blacks should be encouraged to be black and not pushed into a mold. Mrs. Zilliax gave perhaps the most articulate response summarizing the way many people feel. She said that today “must be a learning process. A time will come when conditions here are bettered. We must remain responsive and open the needs of black students. This institution is ill-equipped to deal with many problems, blackness is only one.”
At the end of the conference, one teacher recommended: 1) that black day-students be admitted immediately from the Roxbury area; 2) that more black be admitted on scholarship, to the boarding departments; 3) that black teachers be hired. It remains to be seen if the administration acts upon recommendations that came out of the conference for expanding Milton’s commitment to blacks. Many teachers and students are hopeful. However, we should keep in mind that, “the art of holding on to power is the American system’s special grace. The trick is to make reform seem so tantalizingly close as to dull the edge of militancy.” (The New York Times). I do not imply that delay on the part of the administration would be in any part intentional. They want reform as much as anybody. But we do live in “the American system.”
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