When the principal of OPRF High School held an assembly, titled “Black Lives Matter,” for black students only, my first thought was, “How courageous.” My second was, “It’s about time.”
When I read the reaction of the parents whose children were excluded, I was not at all surprised by their outrage. Why wouldn’t they be upset? Being excluded is a painful experience, and one which they are not accustomed to, but one which black people have endured over the past several centuries and continue to encounter.
Let’s start with the village of Oak Park, one of the first Chicago-area suburbs to encourage integration when a few wise leaders were forward-thinking enough to realize it was the right path forward. The “moves in” were carefully planned to prevent the kind of “welcoming” that the black family who attempted to move into Cicero in 1958 was subjected to (Their piano was thrown out the window, and their apartment set on fire, all under the watchful eye of the local police).
So Oak Park became integrated but not without a struggle. That struggle continues as a recent survey revealed that there are still landlords who discriminate against prospective black renters. And if you doubt that total exclusion still exists, take a short ride west to the town of Elmhurst where you will be hard pressed to see a single black face.
Principal Rouse chose to give the black students of his school the opportunity to discuss the horrible continuation of the murders of young African American men (and women) since the end of Reconstruction. Perhaps he wanted to create an environment where they would feel safe enough to be truthful about racism as they experience it without the fear of negative repercussions.
Given that Caucasians are in the majority and in many respects do not live the experiences of kids of color, it may well be the case that some kids of color could be inhibited from expressing their feelings and experiences in an open way with people who do not share them and who may, because of their own different life experiences, be inclined to minimize or not validate them.
Racism is endemic in our society and difficult to eradicate without working very diligently to root it out. The privilege of being Caucasian reinforces the resistance to self-examination and denial of one’s own biases. I have no doubt that there are white families who have raised their children to be “color-blind” and who have friends of other races. But there are other families in Oak Park, like a former acquaintance mine, who said that she told her children to not “look left or right, but just go straight to your honors classes.”
The upset parents whose children were not allowed to attend the assembly might do well to explain to them that they should look upon this as a learning experience and try to be supportive of the students in the assembly rather than being indignant about it happening.
Beverly Graham has been a resident of Oak Park for 20 years.