So far, I have watched two episodes of Steve James’ America to Me series at the high school. One scene in particular, and the reaction to it, has stayed with me.
The first episode, among other storylines, followed members of the cheerleading squad, most of whom are African American. This is in contrast to the members of drill team, who are mostly white.
To explain the different makeups of the two, the drill team coach explained that drill requires a background in dance, and comparatively few African-American girls have that experience. In one scene, that same coach seemed unaware that, while the nearly all-white drill team performs at the center of the football stadium to a mostly white audience, the mostly black cheerleaders perform to mostly black students who tend to hang out at the west end of the stadium.
I read an online comment by a white woman who questioned how the coach could have been so unaware of the optics and not addressed who was dancing where.
Instead, I ask white viewers to approach these instances in the video by asking a different more humble question: Would I have done things differently?
It seems to me James is asking white viewers to ask ourselves, generally, what proximity do we well-intending white Oak Parkers have to African Americans at OPRF and also in our surrounding community?
Let me put this more bluntly: What if each white Oak Parker asked ourselves honestly about the last time we stopped anywhere in Austin, our neighbor to the east? I don’t mean driving through on the way to work downtown, either.
When was the last time we spoke with anyone from Austin?
When was the last time we attempted to connect with anyone from Austin?
The white tone-deafness we can easily identify in some of the well-meaning white staff at OPRF is my own tone-deafness. I would do a better job exercising my empathy if I increased my proximity to African-American students at OPRF, residents of Austin, or even immigrants and refugees detained at our borders.
The first two episodes leave me with a couple other takeaways: First, I am grateful to the school board, and especially board President Jackie Moore, for permitting the filming to go forward over the objections of the school administrators.
Second, one thing that jumps out from the visual images: The faculty at OPRF does not come close to approximating the racial makeup of the student body which is half white while the other half is African American, Hispanic, mixed-race or Asian. How many issues in the film would be addressed if the staff roughly approximated the student body?
Finally, my biggest takeaway so far is that OPRF does not need another report from experts on the reasons for the achievement gap. Instead, we need to listen to our students, students featured in the film and not, and ask them to lead us forward in a way the grownups can’t, or won’t.
Jack Crowe is an Oak Park resident and executive director of Year Up – Chicago.