WAUWATOSA — A 2020 graduate of Wauwatosa East is sharing research with the school board about race education within the district.
"It is something we should be acknowledging in our schools," Antonia Arney said. "It's definitely this taboo subject we don't want to talk about at school because 'that doesn't really affect us at school. We're not going to talk about it.' But race is something that affects us. It affects us every single day. It affects how you operate in the world."
Arney took a research class her senior year at East. She interviewed 7 students in 5th grade and 2 teachers. She also had surveys filled out by 110 students and 68 adults.
"The data I found pointed strongly to the race education in Wauwatosa not being sufficient race education," Arney said. "It does not support students' racial identities going forward."
She says 82.4 percent of students expressed discomfort when discussing race at school and 38 percent of students say they have no memory of race education in elementary school.
She reports 10.9 percent of students reported actually participating in racial discussions in elementary school.
She says these results point to a problem students of color face in the education system.
"It can take a toll on you," Arney said. "You feel invisible in all areas of life and at school. We see a much higher rate of mental illness in multi-racial people and people of color."
During interviews, 5th grade students told Arney the following in regards to race.
"When I had to go in a group with somebody and I didn't know them, they were African American, I got scared because they were all African American."
"I think We've been taught from a young age to feel discomfort when confronted with this topic. So I definitely felt uncomfortable and also frustrated about some things people said."
"I saw a lot of discomfort in elementary school students when talking about race," Arney said. "I saw discomfort in teachers when talking about race. I saw signs of white fragility, discomfort and identity insecurity within almost every single survey response."
As a bi-racial student, Arney echoes the results.
"From a research lens, it was surprising," Arney said. "But from my own life, it wasn't. I completely agree with that. What this says to me is, this 10-year-old is not comfortable talking about race. She's not comfortable sharing her true feelings when she's in a group of people who don't look like her. I think hat's a real problem. When people don't feel comfortable sharing those uncomfortable moments, those are going to fester and she's going to hold onto that for the rest of her life. Our school system needs to do a better job of having kids say things that they're not necessarily supposed to say so we can dismantle them. We can say, 'Ok, why are you uncomfortable? Let's talk about it. Let's foster an environment where you don't feel uncomfortable."
"We have to empower the next generation to be better than we are," Josh Jackson said. "I'm inspired by it. That is where the change has to come from. No one is better to bring that reckoning than the students who are just recently out of our public school systems.
Jackson is a 4th grade teacher in Milwaukee and a member of the Black Educators Caucus. He has taught several grades, down to kindergarten, and never shies away from having conversations about race.
"Kids see the difference right away," Jackson said. "We talk about colorblindness and it's just not a thing. Our kids are so much smarter than we sometimes give them credit for."
Jackson says, in his curriculum, it's not like race has its own section of the day where they discuss the systemic issues facing people of color. However, when it comes up, they address it; whether it's in math class, science class, social studies or anything else.
"It's in everything," Jackson said. "Some days it doesn't come up but some days, it is everything. If we're reading a story about Mark Twain or whoever, we're going to analyze it from all perspectives. It's not just, here goes Mr. Jackson again, talking about black people or brown people. It's, oh. This is the reality of what we do every day. We all have our biases and have to analyze them. Our students are capable of seeing those biases and helping us analyze our own and theirs."
Jackson says, teaching in the city, a majority of his students are people of color. He says, in his seven years teaching, he's only had two students whose biological parents were both white.
But those students helped spur some of the most memorable conversations he's had with his kids.
"There's that stark difference that's visibly present," Jackson said. "We can talk to our white students about being respectful of representing Black culture instead of appropriating Black culture. Our white students can be in the Black history programs. One of my white students read a Langston Hughes poem on the stage. He dressed up like Langston Hughes and read his poem. But we talked about, why is that ok but not face makeup? It leads to conversations that, without a white student in the classroom, would have been less easy to have that conversation naturally. It's to the benefit of all of my students."
As a bi-racial man, he does say it can be easier for him to discuss this with his students since he can draw on his own experiences. However, he says white teachers and predominantly white school districts need to address race in order to make any change.
"I think there is a social reckoning within the teaching core which is predominantly white," Jackson said. "We're starting to see teachers being open to analyzing some of their own internal biases that we have towards the students we teach."
When these teachers can address race in a classroom full of white students, it helps bring visibility to those who otherwise feel invisible, like Arney said of her study.
"I do think, when students don't feel welcomed or not seen at school, they're not going to want to participate," Arney said. "They're not going to want to do an AP class. They're not going to want to go to a club because they feel their school doesn't understand them or their experience."
"When in isolation, we have to force new learning," Jackson said. "When you're in isolation with white students, you have to force learning about other races and ethnicities because they're not going to see that in their space. It's important for our white students to realize, the skin color they have is not indicative of anything beyond the genetic makeup of their parents and their grandparents and so on."
Arney's senior year is like nothing anyone has ever seen; her last day physically at school was in late March. She acknowledges, getting this data was a lot more difficult than she predicted it would be because of COVID-19. However, she hopes the school board takes this information into consideration and does a professional study about the perception of race in the district.
"The district should put effort into doing a greater study on the extreme discomfort I observed, the current curriculum and effects," Arney said. "If a study they do supports that conclusion, the district should make efforts to improve their race education curriculum with the help of a race education expert."
Arney will be attending Washington University in the fall to study Psychology and Sociology. She understands, doing these studies requires her to check her emotions on the subject beforehand.
After the study was finished, it was impossible for her to hold back how she felt about what it had shown her.
"It does make me sad to see the things I found," Arney said. "I wish we were doing better. I wish the school was doing better. I wish I didn't have to be here. I wish I didn't have to present it but this is the world we live in. This is the data I found. At the end of the day, I'm happy they're giving me a chance to show this to them."
Arney is presenting the data virtually during Monday's Wauwatosa School Board Meeting.