circles help students talk constructively about race
first time I really noticed I was black," says Denisha, "was in
the second grade, when I transferred into a school where I was no longer
in the majority. People were nice to me, but I knew I was different from
was in the fifth grade, browsing in a store," recalls Michelle,
"when I noticed that a couple of people were following me -- and me
alone -- through the store, making sure I wouldn't take anything."
never recognized race as an issue or even thought about it until sometime
around junior high," says Colleen, who is white. "Then I noticed
that there was a lot of 'cliquiness' -- you just didn't do stuff with
people outside of your race. There wasn't anything intentionally
discriminatory about it -- that's just the way it was."
Michelle and Colleen, along with 15 other
each of the black students is able to pinpoint an age and often a
precipitating event, their white peers describe a belated and somewhat
vague dawning of racial awareness. Nick Heimlich, one of five
was only when I got into study circles and really listened to others
talk," he explains, "that I realized there were lots of issues
that needed to be addressed. As a white person, you're often oblivious to
racial problems, even when they're right in front of your eyes."
Young, a black facilitator, echoes Heimlich. "In one study circle,
this white guy kept saying over and over that race was only a problem
because people keep bringing it up. He simply refused to acknowledge that
serious racial problems can exist."
Martha McCoy of the
year, some white students at South construed the "X" caps and
T-shirts worn by black classmates as an example of black racism.
Subsequently, a few whites began wearing T-shirts sporting the Confederate
"X," as if to say "You have your 'X' and we have
ours." A potential confrontation was avoided when the whites, at the
urging of white and black classmates, voluntarily stopped wearing the
T-shirts. The controversy, however, suggests how close to the surface
racial tensions often lie.
years ago, a group of community leaders, organized by Selena Singletary of
the Springfield Human Relations Department, brought the Study Circles
program to the attention of various religious organizations, community
groups and city employees, some of whom underwent the requisite training.
The idea was, as one facilitator puts it, "to be proactive as opposed
to reactive, so that if one day a crisis does occur, we won't be dealing
adult study circles on race relations have been organized in more than a
dozen cities nationwide,
described these initial sessions as constructive but felt they needed more
training in the nuances of running a focused discussion. The sponsors
recognized also that including juniors and sophomores in the program would
provide more continuity from year to year.
this year's 18 moderators-in-training complete their preparation, they
will become study circle leaders themselves, conducting cross-racial
dialogues back in their own schools -- during study hall or club periods
-- approximately once a month over the course of the school year. Eight
teachers have also taken the training and are advising the students.
circle participants from both races and both high schools agree that the
issue of race has too long been "swept under the rug" by
students understandably fearful of confrontation. Further, they point out,
relations between the races are often defined by mutual suspicion: Whites
allege that blacks keep to themselves and mistrust all white people;
blacks, on the other hand, complain that too many whites see them only in
terms of racial stereotypes.
me suggest," Skipper Young tells the students, "that there are
ways to break out of the terrible circle of racism. You've got to suspend
judgment, listen to others, examine your own assumptions, and then reflect
upon the legitimacy of your views."
foster this deliberative process, Young has the students brainstorm a set
of ground rules, which she scrawls on an easel pad. The list includes:
"confidentiality, no put-downs, respect, listening to others, one
person speaks at a time, the right not to speak, I-statements only."
The latter means that each person speaks only for himself, and that
listeners should not construe anyone's remarks to represent all members of
one will listen to anyone else," one student says. "No one's
going to change," says another.
day moves along, the skepticism subsides. In one exchange, a couple of
white participants assert that affirmative action is unfair and should be
dismantled; one boy fears that he won't be able to gain admission to the
college of his choice "because they all want to get more
student responds with an eloquent story of how his mother, who is now a
successful teacher, would have never made it to the first rung of the
ladder had it not been for affirmative action. While this story may not
change the white students' minds about the policy, they are listening,
taking in with unblinking eyes everything their fellow student says.
in the day, a black North High junior named Curtis reads from a prompt
card: "Only white people can be racists." He glances up at his
fellow students and shrugs nervously.
not," says Martin, another black junior from North. "Anyone can
be a racist."
bugs me," says Carrie, a white junior from South, "that this
black teacher at our school -- I won't mention his name -- is always
talking about white racism but never black. It's like it's perfectly fine
for the black kids to praise Farrakhan and wear Malcolm X T-shirts. But
can you imagine how they'd react if I wore a KKK T-shirt?"
'X' is not at all like the KKK," Martin insists. "'X' is more
like the NAACP. Would you be offended if I wore an NAACP T-shirt?"
It is a
lack of information, he suggests, that causes some people to read the
"X" the wrong way. "Whites get offended because they think
of Malcolm X as talking about the 'white devil.' But X changed after he
world in which everyone -- from yammering talk show hosts to aggrieved
columnists -- is offering cocksure pronouncements on social problems,
study circles stand out as a refreshing alternative. Of course, replacing
confrontation with conversation does not mean that study circle
participants will arrive at a consensus. No group of individuals, for
instance, is likely to agree completely on the government's role in
fighting racism, or even on whether the government should be involved at
all. But perhaps they will develop for one another a degree of empathy
from which constructive relationships can be forged.
of such conversations are likely to say that talking and listening are
well and good but not nearly enough. What is the value of discussion,
however honest and civil, if it doesn't lead to concrete action?
action is not an explicit goal, in various cities study circle discussions
have resulted in everything from neighborhood watch groups to school
improvement plans. Members of one
to suggest that such outgrowths are the real test of the program is to
miss the point, study circle leaders say. For change, even more than
action, is the ultimate purpose of a study circle, and the most
fundamental change of all is a change in consciousness.
long day draws to a close, Winkie Mitchell, one of the facilitators,
remarks on a discussion in which students talked about what they would
think if they saw a group of black males walking down the street toward
them. One of the black students said, "I'd be scared -- it would be
one against many. They'd probably be hitting you for drugs or
student was black," Mitchell says, "and yet he was naming
stereotypes of what he thought would happen. The black kids will beat you
up, see you as a gang member -- he named all the problems associated with
black males. Now some of what he said might come from experience, but a
lot of it comes from hearing negative things about us as blacks and then
starting to believe that's who we are. It leaks into our consciousness.
all I see are blacks as waiters, dishwashers, drug dealers and so on, then
I'm going to develop a very limited idea of who I am and who I can be. So
what we're really doing with these study circles is getting together to
break down these barriers, to rework the internal process that happens
when we form stereotypes."
asks the students if it's possible to grow up without subscribing to
racial stereotypes. Martin, the student who earlier addressed the T-shirt
issue, says that it is virtually impossible because so much of the news
about blacks is negative.
white girl says, "You can see that at South High, which gets a lot of
negative coverage. Something with a gang member happens, and it's all over
the news. But if it's something good, no one pays attention."
Martin reconsiders: "I think it's possible if you have no contact
with television, radio or newspapers."
laughs, but his words, facetious as they sound, contain a powerful
message. For the study circle requires, as does democracy itself, that we
listen less to distant "experts" and more to one another.
Ruenzel is a senior staff writer with Teacher
Magazine and an occasional freelancer.
the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Study Circles Resource Center produced a
study guide entitled "Can't We All Just Get Along?" to help
communities find ways to address their deepest divisions. The guide
includes a manual of short readings, questions and prompts, as well as
suggestions for study circle leaders and participants on how to conduct a
the face of sensitive topics like race that are bound to spark
disagreement, the study circle format is designed to promote civility.
Because personal opinions are sometimes irrational, accusatory and
difficult to discuss, the guided conversation begins around personal
experience, only later moving into broader issues open to debate.
members get to know one another -- and invest themselves in the group --
by sharing things that have actually happened to them in the context of
the subject under discussion. A circle on community violence, for example,
may open with a firsthand story about a gang shooting up the street; a
discussion about racial prejudice may start with a participant's memory of
being forced as a youngster to use "blacks only" restrooms.
discussions are too remote for most people," says Martha McCoy,
director of the
considers the circles a democratic tool reminiscent of the old town hall
meeting, with a couple of critical differences. "The town hall may
have been democratic," she says, "but it was democratic only for
those included in the process -- mostly white male property owners. But
study circles strive to be inclusive -- inviting into the discussion as
equals those who have too often been on the outside."
Hagaman, assistant to the mayor of Lima, Ohio, helped organize study
circles in that city shortly after the Rodney King verdict, when there
was, as he puts it, "violence in the air." Hagaman, who has
participated in a number of the circles himself, observes, "Even
though the ensuing discussions were often emotional and sometimes tense,
the participants always treated one another with respect."
Consequently, Hagaman says, "there's a completely different sense in
the community regarding race. People are more aware, more sensitive. And
best of all, the circles are still going on."
a safe environment of mutual respect in which people can speak their minds
without fear of reprisal is largely the responsibility of the study circle
leader. While the leader, as Nick Heimlich tells participants, must not be
"a study circle cop," it is her job, nevertheless, to make sure
that no one monopolizes the conversation or bullies those with a different
must also, Heimlich says, "withdraw from being the focal point as
fast as possible. The leader's role is to pose questions and encourage
everyone to participate, not to dampen the discussion by turning it into a
forum for her own views."
study circle leader, with the input of everyone in the group, develops a
list of ground rules for discussion, which she has primary responsibility
for enforcing (see main story). There is nothing complicated about these
rules, yet they are essential to a study circle's success. A willingness
to observe them not only fosters civility but creates a reflective
atmosphere in which people can examine their own long-held assumptions.
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