Charlotte Blake Alston and colleague, Steve Tunick, chaperone 12 African and Jewish American teenagers who seek common ground through a cultural immersion abroad in Senegal in Africa. An unanticipated diversion led the group to an encampment of recently expelled or escaped indigenous Mauritanians. Were Charlotte and Steve making a big mistake allowing the students to witness and be among poor, desperate people at such a low and vulnerable moment of their lives? Would the presence of Americans in the refugee camp contribute to increasing tensions between Senegal and its slave-holding northern neighbor, Mauritania? Adults and students alike receive a profound lesson about our common humanity from a group of children whom they had perceived to be the least likely to offer insight. (more…)
When Charlotte Blake Alston accepts a teaching position at a private Quaker school, she expects she’ll finally become part of an educational institution committed to respect and equality for all members of the school community. But true equity comes with awareness, sensitivity and diligence. The School of Invisibility illustrates how cultural conditioning can creep into even the most “inclusive” school environment.
What do Quakers believe and what is their history in the United States?
We can have good intentions yet have a very different impact on others. When have you unconsciously discriminated against others? When have you felt left out or treated as if you weren’t as good as someone else?
How do you show respect and create a sense of equality with others?
Hi, I’m Charlotte Blake Alston. I’m wondering if you might be one of the many people who often have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to gender or ethnic experiences in America. And you get to that place where, mmm, you’re going to have to make a decision, finally, to take a stand and make a challenge. This is one such experience.
It was the spring of 1980 when I first walked through the doors of the prestigious K-12 Philadelphia Friends School where I would spend the final years of my teaching career. The Religious Society of Friends, a community, an organization, as I had learned it, with a commitment to human equity. One that had acknowledged and fought for the humanity of my American ancestors.
This could be a place, I thought, where I might be seen as I saw myself: a person… a teacher… not a black teacher. As I entered the school and walked into the foyer, I was met by the receptionist, a light-complexioned African-American woman. I sighed! Relief! As I walked down the long corridor towards the lower school, I looked about, as we often do, to see if there was anyone else in the building who looked like me. There was. She had on a blue uniform; she was pushing a cleaning cart. “Good morning!” I said.
“Oh, good morning!” Her entire face lit up into a smile.
Over the two days of interviews, going from department to department, I considered, not only my own comfort level in this environment, but that of my son, who, if I accepted the position, would enter second grade. The last day, I headed towards the door and then stopped, turned around and decided I would go back and see if I could find the cleaning woman I had spoken to the day before. I decided that I would base my decision on what she had to say about working in that environment.
“Oh, I just love it!” she said. “The people here are just so nice.”
So, when the formal offer came, I accepted. I settled really easily into the rhythm of school life, uh, attending my first meeting for worship with five to 10-year-olds, uh, being addressed as teacher and my first name, bus duty, lunch duty, parent conferences and then came the faculty trustees’ dinner, a formal annual event to which every faculty member was required to attend.
This was a formal sit-down dinner in the school cafeteria and members of the faculty and members of the board of trustees were assigned tables together, where we would share a meal and awkward conversation. Well, I scanned the room and it hit me. All of the people sitting down, being served, except three, were white. All of the people doing the serving, except for two work study students, were members of the maintenance and the cafeteria staff, all of whom were black. There was something wrong with this picture.
Here I was, at a Quaker school, a community under the auspices of the Religious Society of Friends, an organization committed to human equity, an organization that prided itself on creating what they considered to be a microcosm of the ideal society. So, here in this microcosm of the ideal society, my place in it was articulated with crystal clarity. Nearly all of the people of color in this environment, at this event, were here to serve. I could not, would not participate in making that statement. The following morning. I went to the headmaster and expressed my concerns. “Does it have to be a formal sit-down dinner?” I asked.
His response was that removing that would take the job away from the two work study students and I would have to come up with a replacement job for the work study students.
“Well,” I said. “Couldn’t it be buffet where people might, oh, I don’t know, serve themselves? Uh, you would still need someone to prepare the food, place it in the trays, keep it hot, replenish it if it was empty and clean up afterwards.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” he said.
“Okay,” I thought. “I stated it as clearly as I think I can. And we have a year for you to make some decision about a different option.” I did let him know that I did understand that this was mandatory for faculty and I would not buck that rule. But if the following year, the format had not changed, I would attend but I would take my place as I saw it dictated in that circumstance. I would put on an apron and I would serve.
Well, a year went by and the day of the faculty trustee dinner, I popped into the headmaster’s office and said, “Hey, just checking to see about the dinner tonight. Just to see if the format has changed.”
“No, it hasn’t.” he said. But he added, “You can choose whether to come or not.”
Well, for the remainder of the day I would pass faculty members in the hall, or people would pop into my classroom and say, “See ya tonight.”
I’d say, “No, you won’t! I’m not going to be coming.”
“What! How did you get out of this?” people wanted to know. And when I told them, “I never thought of that. I never noticed it.” was the most oft-repeated reply.
Well, the buzz from the faculty continued into the next day. And at the end of the day, two lower school faculty members came to me and said, “We’re very upset. We’re upset that a member of our community is upset and is offended and we want to do something about it.”
An ad hoc committee was formed by my lower school colleagues and they wanted to look at our community like, “What else are we missing?” They wanted to know, “What else are we not seeing?”
Oh, one thing stuck out to me in my mind, immediately, and that was the way that African-American adults in the community were addressed by children. White children in the school were addressing them as kindergarten or fourth grade peers. All faculty members had a title of respect. Teacher and your first name. But the people who were in uniform, who drove the buses, who served lunch in the cafeteria, who ensure that every nook and cranny of the school’s exterior and interior was spotless, sanitary and presentable were addressed by children as Larry or Loretta. From the time we have set foot on the soil in our country, referring to African-American adults as children has been the ultimate expression of disrespect. It’s demeaning. It’s dehumanizing. It’s dismissive. In our community, you do not address an adult by their first name unless they have given you permission to do so. And even then, it’s preceded by a title. It’s Miss Susan or it’s Mr. Jeff.
Well, this committee decided that they would go to the board of trustees and talk about some of these issues. And see if they might get the board to understand the potential negative impact that this had, not only on the adults in the community, but also on the children, as well. And to see if they might be willing to at least talk about this and begin to address some of our concerns.
Well, one trustee asked me what my credentials were. He wanted to know, “How long have you been teaching. Uh, uh, you know, what is your experience in these sorts of issues? Uh, what qualifications do… you know… I bring to discussions of racial equity and parity and respect?”
Well, I recounted for him my pre-Friends school teaching experience and then pointed out, because, clearly, he hadn’t noticed, that I was, indeed, black.
“Well,” he said. “This is like one of those things that you don’t think about ‘til somebody brings it up and you really don’t think about it ‘til somebody brings it up again.”
“Well, that’s interesting.” I thought, “Well, my contract was just renewed. So, I’ll be here again to bring it up.”
Well, it’s one of those, you know, if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist kind of sensibilities. It’s like we are not credible enough witnesses for our own experience. Well, evidence of the absolute destructive impact of that sensibility was brought home to me when my second-grade son happened to come into my classroom and he asked me a question about the older white adult, my assistant, who was in my classroom. “The teacher, as he put it.”
And I said, “Oh, no! I’m the teacher in the classroom. She’s my assistant.”
Uh, uh! And then out of his little second grader mouth came the words, “You couldn’t be!”
Both of us had come to this school from the multi-ethnic Children’s Center at the University of Pennsylvania where I was Educational Director, had an office with a name plate on my door.
But somehow, in this environment, the message to him was loud and clear. Here a black person could not be in a position of authority. I needed no other supporting evidence to make my case. What a painful, wrenching contrast!
“Well, nobody really thinks about it.”
“You couldn’t be!”
Well, I continued to be the one to bring it up. But the wonderful colleagues who are members of this ad hoc committee were really persistent in what they were doing and decided they wanted to take a complete look at the kind of community that we were. They wanted to make sure that they raised the difficult questions. That we had the awkward conversation that we’re really beginning to see and remove the cloak of invisibility. And begin to acknowledge what was actually going on in our environment.
This particular school eventually began to host an annual job fair for people of color, created a multicultural committee that took a look at every aspect of our school community, created racial awareness seminars. And, really, began to focus on the importance of every person in that community being acknowledged, recognized, heard, and respected. That effort, I hope, continues.
The nine years that I spent in that environment were some of the most growth full, memorable experiences of my life: teaching, coaching, working with incredibly creative colleagues, working on getting the school to be the kind of community it really wanted to be.
And a year after I left, I went back to go to a girls’ basketball game and as I entered the school, I saw the head of maintenance. And I went to, uh, address him; I went to wave and call his name when I saw a little kid running towards him. And as that child opened her mouth to greet him, I could feel my teeth clench. And then I heard her say, “Hi, Mr. Maurice!” Huuuh!