Dear Elementary and High School Administrators:
As we approach graduation season, can we have a tough-but-honest conversation about something really important? OK, I am just going to say this so we can start strategizing: For many people of color, white-organized graduation ceremonies, like most white-organized social functions, are boring and stale.
Instead of focusing on celebrating, you are focused on making sure it starts and ends on time. And time, as an important value for a celebratory function, isn’t something that is important to most people of color (POC). So not only is it boring, but we people of color are powerless to control the program of the ceremony. So we suffer through the “official graduation tradition” of procession, flags and official seating of ranking administrators, etc.
White people and POC value time and define “appropriate” ways to celebrate graduation ceremonies differently. So the graduation becomes even more terrible. Not only are we rushed through this stale, boring, “traditional” ceremony, we also have to either try to hide our natural celebration responses (like clapping) or risk being punished for not doing things the “white/quiet way.”
I know, I told you this was going to be hard.
But it is the truth. Like church, BBQs, weddings, and funerals, POC have different — not better, not worse, but different — traditions. Usually we can do good with our separate-but-equal traditions, like black church and white church, black BBQs and white BBQs, but when we get to school stuff, it’s harder. Which is why I am suggesting “racially/culturally segregated graduations.”
I am not talking about Jim Crow segregation. This isn’t just different for black and white students, but rather for every minority community that wants a culturally specific graduation ceremony. The minority communities can plan and pay for it themselves, so there is no added expense to the schools.
These ceremonies would be open to all students, parents, and staff to attend, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school. Again, people of all races/cultures could choose which ceremony they wanted to attend, or attend both/all. Diplomas would be given at each ceremony. Students would wear graduation robes at all ceremonies
The idea is not unique:
Since 1978, the University of Illinois has held a black congratulatory ceremony for its graduates, one of the oldest ceremonies of this kind in the country.
Stanford holds another.
At Brown University, the Onyx Rite of Passage, or Blackalaurate, ceremony takes place the night before the main commencement ceremony.
A recent New York Times article highlighted alternative graduation ceremonies honoring first-generation college students and LGBTA students, as well as students of color.
We all want the same thing: to celebrate the wonderful achievements of students with their school and family community. I believe each culture should be able to create that celebration in a way that reflects who they are and how they celebrate. That might mean more than one “official” graduation ceremony. And, at the very least, please stop telling parents to hold their cheers for their children when their names are called. That is a direct assault on our cultural expression. We cheer. We cheer loudly and proudly. We cheer because we know where we have been as a people and how far we have come. The pride of that moment, getting a diploma, is worthy of multiple cultural expressions of celebrating.
ShaRhonda Dawson is a resident of Broadview and writes an education blog.