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Class Notes: Diversity and Equity in Schools

By Mary Beth Zeman

On a recent morning, the students in Professor Maria Kromidas’s anthropology class are gathered at the front of their classroom. There are 20 faces projected on the screen, and as a group, they are trying to sort them—based simply on appearance—into the current U.S. racial categories of American Indian, Asian, black, Hispanic/Latino, and white.

The students make their decisions quickly, debating some images, much more definitive about others. The result? As a group, they have correctly matched only four of the pictures to the self-identification of those individuals. And the students are clearly chagrined—and surprised—at their inability to categorize the people in the photos.

“It’s crazy how we were so quick to judge people based on how they look,” says one student.

The reality, says Kromidas, is that race is a social construct, not a biological fact, noting that scientists have found greater genetic variation between individuals within a so-called racial group than between different racial groups. Traits used to characterize race, such as hair texture, skin color, eye color, or bone structure, she adds, vary continuously. “Where we draw the line is arbitrary,” she explains. “How do we decide someone is light enough to be white, or dark enough to be black?”

“It’s not enough for me to just tell you why this isn’t true,” she says. “If all the experts tell us it’s not true, how did we come to think it? Why does it matter?”

For Kromidas, an associate professor of anthropology, it matters a great deal. “So much of our daily life is structured around race,” she says. “We all have a frame of reference from our own experiences. And it affects our understanding of ourselves and of others. We need to examine how our racial worldviews are formed and develop reflective practice.”

Her course, Diversity and Equity in Schools, offers students just such an opportunity. An elective in the anthropology major and currently a requirement for matriculation in any undergraduate major in the College of Education, the course focuses on the role that schools play in the cultural production of the educated person, and challenges future teachers to think about schools as sites of intense cultural politics. “There is cutting-edge social science that our students need to know if they are going to be teachers,” Kromidas says. The course also fulfills the three-credit diversity and justice requirement for all undergraduates as part of the University Core Curriculum, William Paterson’s general education program.

The primary goal of the course is to apply an anthropological approach to helping students better understand the school system in the United States. Kromidas begins the course by asking her students to fill out an education survey on the first day of class (and again at the end of the semester) that asks how strongly they agree or disagree with a number of statements that the course explores, such as “If you work hard, you will succeed in America,” “All schools in America are more or less equal,” and “Middle class students are advantaged in school by their parents’ class.”

The students then get into groups and share their answers. “In that five-minute conversation, they learn something right away by talking to someone with a different background or experience,” Kromidas says.

Kromidas says our environments—including schools—play a critical role as sites for racial learning. “The spaces around us, such as the places we grow up, are imbued with meaning. It’s dynamic, changing through time. And it is never race neutral,” she says.
That discussion is particularly pertinent to New Jersey, with its geographic mix of rural, suburban, and urban spaces. On another class day, the discussion focuses on perceptions of urban districts.

One student from a rural district reveals that “growing up in a rural area, my mom would lock the car doors in any town with a sidewalk,” while another student from Newark says that if she mentions her hometown, “it’s a stigma.”

As part of the course, the class visits a public school in Paterson. Their visit forms the basis for their ethnographic research project—using observational data, notetaking, and analysis to write a report focusing on some aspect of the school, a typical method that cultural anthropologists use to study a setting or group.

Much of the course content is grounded in the professor’s own experiences, which include three years as a teacher in a New York City public school and, most recently, as a researcher who spent more than a year observing and interviewing fifth graders both inside and outside the classroom in one of New York’s most diverse public schools to explore how they developed an understanding of race. Her findings are detailed in her new book, City Kids: Transforming Racial Baggage (Rutgers University Press, 2016).

Kromidas sought to explore the variable meanings and felt experiences of race from the children’s perspectives, noting that other research indicates that by age nine or ten, racial beliefs harden. She immersed herself in the school, an unusual practice among researchers who study race. “Most of the work that informs our common understandings of kids’ racial knowledge is done through surveys or experiments,” she says.“I wanted to explore the actual moments when they learn about race in their everyday lives.”

What did she find? “These kids demonstrated how race is decidedly NOT easy to learn,” she says. “What was most interesting was that they had an open, savvy, and sophisticated orientation to race. These kids were fierce critics of our racial baggage, and I would argue that they have much to teach us.”
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n essence, the children she studied in this very diverse environment exhibited cosmopolitanism—the genuine appreciation of cultural and racial diversity, a trait often associated with adult worldliness and sophistication.

Notably, Kromidas says her book reflects the conversations she has with her students—and was implicitly written to them. “My students’ questions, their curiosities, and their sincere desires for social justice and anti-racist stances have helped me to see the urgency of this project,” she says. “Their understandings and misunderstandings about race, how it is lived, learned, and formed, all inform the text.” In one section, where she discusses a dispute between the children about whether a teacher was racist or fair, she also includes how her William Paterson University students interpreted the incident, a demonstration of their influence on both her teaching and her research.

Ultimately, Kromidas says, her goal is help others see the humanizing potential of diversity and to learn how to develop anti-racist stances in our everyday lives. “Race is a social fact that affects the quality of our lives from birth to death,” she says. “We need to understand how that works. And those understandings are best built through dialogue with diverse others, a valuable opportunity we find here at William Paterson University.”

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