Ask Code Switch: School Daze For better or worse, classrooms have always been a site where our country's racial issues get worked out — whether its integration, busing, learning about this country's sordid racial history. On today's Ask Code Switch, we're talking about fitting in, standing out, and standing up for what you believe in.
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Ask Code Switch: School Daze

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Ask Code Switch: School Daze

Ask Code Switch: School Daze

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  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Gene Demby?

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Present - I'm looking at the attendance sheet here. Shailene (ph) Marisol Meraji?

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: That's what I said.

MERAJI: Here and ready for CODE SWITCH to go back to school.

DEMBY: Is it really that time of the year already? It's already - summer's already over.

MERAJI: It is, Gene. It's post-Labor Day at least because it's blazing hot still in Los Angeles, but pumpkin spice lattes are on the menu again. And all around the country, school is back in session.

DEMBY: I haven't been to school since 2000 - you know what? It doesn't matter how long it's been since I've been to school. But I still get back-to-school anxiety dreams all the time.

MERAJI: Oh, me, too. And I usually take my summer vacation at the very end of summer to coincide with my birthday...

DEMBY: Happy birthday.

MERAJI: ...So when I'm coming back to work - thank you - it feels very much like I'm going back to school. It's, like, the first week of September. I'm super nervous. I'm like, what am I going to wear?

DEMBY: Shereen, as horrifying as your anxiety - your school-related anxiety sounds, at least we're in good company. We've got letters from students and teachers from all over the country. Today, we're going to help ease some of their back-to-school jitters by answering their questions about race in the classroom.

MERAJI: And as we know, classrooms have always been places where racial issues go to get worked out.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: We leave it to students to deal with integration, busing, learning about this country's sordid racial history. We leave it to teachers to help educate each new generation to be more racially literate than the last. At least, we hope that's what they're doing.

DEMBY: Hopefully - so teachers, students, parents, everyone else, listen up. On today's edition of Ask CODE SWITCH, we're talking about fitting in, standing out and standing up for what you believe in.

MERAJI: Which is the perfect segue to our first question.

DEMBY: Goody.

JULIA FARRELL: Hi. I'm Julia Farrell (ph). I teach dance in a diverse middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y. I had an eighth-grade black boy express his discomfort in learning a dance from South Africa called the gumboot dance from a white teacher.

DEMBY: The gumboot dance from South Africa. Gumboot, like, gum - like the galoshes - like the...

MERAJI: Yes, like that. And I'm going to talk more about that.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: We're going to learn the origins of the gumboot dance. And we're also going to answer Julia's question.

DEMBY: I'm with it.

MERAJI: So Julia says she studied ballet, modern jazz and tap. And she's totally committed to teaching a variety of dances from cultures all over the world to her kids. And she wants her dance curriculum to really reflect the diversity of the student body at this public middle school in Brooklyn.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: And she did something special for what she calls her mini-unit on the gumboot dance. She paired up with a social studies teacher at her school. He's also white. And they went in-depth on the dance's origins. Julia said they talked about apartheid in South Africa. And they made comparisons to segregation in the U.S. Now, the eighth-graders who take Julia's class were also tasked with teaching eighth-graders the gumboot dance who were not in her class. She says the eighth-grade boy who felt weird about learning it from a white teacher also felt super uncomfortable teaching it to the white students who he thought probably wouldn't get it.

FARRELL: And will never understand the experience of being part of an oppressed community. I told him I'd love to talk further. And I'm open to learning and growing as an educator and that I appreciate and value him and his experience and that I'm so grateful that he shared this with me. My question is, what do you think?

MERAJI: What do you think, Gene?

DEMBY: What do you think? I mean, there's a lot happening in that question...

MERAJI: Very much.

DEMBY: Well, I mean, I don't even know what the dance we're talking about is.

MERAJI: I didn't either, right? So I - honestly, when I read her question, I didn't know what to think.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: So I checked in with someone who knows that dance really well.

TUMELO MICHAEL MOLOI: My name is Tumelo Michael Moloi.

MERAJI: Tumelo Michael Moloi goes by Michael. He's a professional dancer who grew up at the end of apartheid in South Africa in a township on the east side of Johannesburg called Katlehong.

MOLOI: It was roughest town in the east side of Johannesburg. And I grew up under my grandmother's house where she raised all nine of her kids and also raised all 22 of her grandkids.

MERAJI: Michael told me he spent a lot of time on the streets of Katlehong because it was crowded at his grandma's house.

DEMBY: Right - 22 - wow.

MERAJI: Twenty-two grandkids - and that's really where he learned how to dance. He told me he was really good at imitating the young men he'd see from around the way. And one of the dances he picked up was the gumboot dance. Michael got so good he'd entertain guests whenever his grandmother threw a party.

DEMBY: But OK. What is the gumboot dance? You've been talking about the gumboot dance all this time.

MERAJI: Fine - all right - all right.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: It's a rhythmic dance. It's got lots of stomping and clapping and slapping of the black, rubber boots, the galoshes, that the dancers wear. It looks a lot like stepping. Everybody look it up on YouTube - gumboot dance. You'll find tons of videos.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: The dancers usually perform in work overalls and wear rain boots or galoshes aka gumboots.

DEMBY: Gumboots.

MERAJI: And sometimes they also wear hard hats. And they drum rhythms on their hard hats.

DEMBY: All right. So they're wearing rubber boots. They got on overalls and hard hats. They look like construction workers, basically, right?

MERAJI: They're dressed like miners, actually.

DEMBY: Oh, OK.

MERAJI: There's a lot of diamond and gold mines in South Africa. I know you know this.

DEMBY: Right, right.

MERAJI: White settlers started mining there in the late 1800s. And they employed - and I'm using air quotes right now around the word employed...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Southern Africans who lived in rural villages to work in the mines in places like Johannesburg. These men were basically told, hey, if you come to Johannesburg and work in these mines, you'll make money, and you can make a better life for your families back home in your villages.

MOLOI: When they left the rural places, all that was promised was not there. But then they were so hooked into the little that they got and stayed longer while their kids were suffering and while their moms were suffering, while their wives were suffering.

MERAJI: Michael ended up touring all around South Africa with a dance group from his township. And he said that's how he really pieced together the origins of the gumboot dance. He said he learned more and more from the other gumboot dancers that he performed with. And they would sit together after their performances and tell stories. And he told me, like, it's just a very sad story, the origins of this dance.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: The conditions in those mines were horrible. Men did their work hunched over all day because the spaces were rarely big enough to stand up in. They were miles and miles underground working in dark, damp, cramped spaces. And they couldn't even talk to each other.

MOLOI: First, they cannot even speak to each other because of the diverse language that they had, but their bosses emphasizes the fact that they shouldn't speak to each other at all. So they started creating hits and steps to speak as - you know, when the foreman comes, they would make a certain sound. When the bosses come, they would make a certain sound. And those sounds developed into a rhythmic dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHMIC STOMPING)

DEMBY: That is an amazing story. And that's a beautiful story - I mean, like, that they created this out of these horrible conditions, you know?

MERAJI: Yes, a language that went on to become a dance. And then it's incorporated with song now. It's incredible. And what Michael told me is that gumboot dancing is all about feeling, how those miners felt. And when he teaches, he tries to put his dancers in the miners' gumboots. He has them try and imagine what it must have been like to be ripped from your life in your village, brought to this strange city, working long days in dangerous conditions, never knowing if you'll return home.

MOLOI: Every time I teach, I'm not just up teaching up steps, but I'm teaching feeling. I'm teaching history.

MERAJI: And he says it's not just history. Miners in South Africa are still working under horrendous conditions right now.

DEMBY: OK, so going back to Julia, our teacher in Brooklyn - it sounds like teaming up with the social studies teacher, she was trying to teach that history and trying to teach that context. But this boy in the eighth grade was still really uncomfortable with white teachers doing this.

MERAJI: Right. And for more information on that, I reached out to...

TAMICA WASHINGTON-MILLER: Tamica Washington-Miller.

MERAJI: Tamica's the associate director of a world-renowned African-American arts nonprofit called Lula Washington Dance Theater. It's located here in South Los Angeles. Her parents founded the center 38 years ago.

WASHINGTON-MILLER: So I like to look at the organization as my sibling, my younger sibling. And I had a wonderful professional career as a dancer.

MERAJI: And along with helping run an arts nonprofit she's also a choreographer and a dance teacher.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: I read her Julia's question. And first she had a message for the boy who spoke up.

WASHINGTON-MILLER: Oh. First, just kudos because it takes a lot of courage to step up to someone in leadership, an adult, and let them know that you're uncomfortable with them. Thank you, young man. Thank you to your family for giving you the courage and building you up to be able to do that.

MERAJI: That's difficult.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

MERAJI: Especially in the eighth grade.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

MERAJI: So props to him. Tamica says she also loves that Julia thought ahead and teamed up with a social studies teacher to really put the gumboot dance in context for the eighth graders.

WASHINGTON-MILLER: That's on time. That's awesome. I would though - if I were white, I might want to step back and look at how that comes across maybe.

MERAJI: And Tamica says she does this kind of thing all the time as an African-American woman teaching African dances.

WASHINGTON-MILLER: I go out of my way to say I'm not from the continent. I have not been to the continent yet. I have been blessed with amazing teachers from the continent. This is what I know.

MERAJI: So she says, approach the kids with humility, be upfront about what you know and about what you don't know and how you learned about the gumboot dance.

WASHINGTON-MILLER: Of course I'm assuming they did good research and they know what they're talking about because they did research it. But the students need to see a person that comes from the place where this form originated. If our white teachers are doing this more and more, it would just help they continue to go out of their way to reach out and find somebody who really does this for real, who really has the history for real. And they've got so much to do. I know it's not easy. I know it's not easy. I know they haven't had no money. But I think going this route is the best route.

MERAJI: And Tamica adds that Julia's students should definitely not be teaching the dance to kids who haven't thoroughly been taught its history. And if the student in question still feels uncomfortable teaching it to his white peers, he shouldn't have to.

DEMBY: They're in Brooklyn. They're Brooklyn, N.Y.

MERAJI: That's right.

DEMBY: I bet if I tweeted out right now that I was looking for a black South African gumboot dancer in or near New York City, I bet you, like, a hundred people would reply. I bet you could find one really easily.

MERAJI: Should we do this experiment?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I think we should test that out just to see if that's true.

DEMBY: We should.

MERAJI: When I was trying to find the right people to talk to for this story, I emailed dance professors here in Los Angeles at UCLA and USC. And one put me in touch with Michael Moloi right away. He's the dancer we met earlier. And he lives in Eugene, Ore.

DEMBY: Of all places.

MERAJI: If this teacher called you, let's say for the sake of argument, like I called you today...

MOLOI: Yes.

MERAJI: Would you have been willing to Skype into her class and talk to them?

MOLOI: Oh, yes, yes, Any time of the day. You see, like, I don't know you. And you said something about gumboot. I was already hooked. This is my life. I mean, I know a lot of things, but this is the only thing I know and that I could talk to you for days.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Yes. Come through, Michael.

MERAJI: Yeah. And I'm emailing Michael's contact information to Julia. So, Julia, you better call him up. And one last thing, GD, that I wanted to share.

DEMBY: OK, do it. Let's do it.

MERAJI: So I called up professor Anthea Kraut. She teaches in the dance department at UC Riverside. And she wrote the book "Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender And Property Rights In American Dance" (ph).

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: And she had some advice for Julia and other dance teachers that I loved. She said, we can't forget that jazz, tap, modern and hip-hop also have African diasporic roots and need to be understood in relation to the black struggle for equality in the U.S. Those American dance forms should be treated with the same kind of care that we're talking about right here with the gumboot dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Shereen, remember way back in the day when we went to Bluefield State College?

MERAJI: Yes, that was only five years ago.

DEMBY: Oh, my God. That's still a long time ago.

MERAJI: We did a radio story. We did this really great, long piece on the CODE SWITCH blog. Everybody should check it out. It's still one of my favorite stories. And actually, speaking of mining, Bluefield State was first known as the Bluefield Colored Institute and was created to educate the children of black coal miners in segregated West Virginia.

DEMBY: Right. Right. So Bluefield State was eventually designated a historically black college university. But when we went there for homecoming, it was something like 90 percent white at the time.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: It was the whitest historically black college or university in the whole country. There were all these demographic shifts in West Virginia that changed Bluefield State's complexion - literally. When we were there, you had all these kids at Bluefield who were mostly poor from these small, rural towns that were nearby. And a lot of them didn't even know that Bluefield State was an HBCU. They were just there because it was inexpensive and it was close to home.

MERAJI: Yeah. That was crazy. We even asked people, and they were like, yeah, I kind of know that. But who cares?

DEMBY: Who cares? So Bluefield State is a really specific case. And there are all these other HBCUs like Spelman or Morehouse that are not about to become, you know, schools full of white people.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: But that said, there are way more white people who are considering going to HBCUs than were before, like our friend Gerald (ph) here.

GERALD: Hi. This is Gerald calling from Los Angeles, Calif. Should white students apply to HBCUs for medical school? I'm applying to Howard and Morehouse because I think they're excellent schools. However, I'm concerned that if I don't apply, I'm failing to integrate, and if I do apply, I may be invading a safe space.

MERAJI: Aha. This reminds me - I'm showing my age here. But this does remind me of Marisa Tomei in the first season of "A Different World."

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: Anybody with me?

DEMBY: She was...

MERAJI: I wanted to be her so bad. (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Denise and Jaleesa's roommate. And she just disappeared. Nobody was - she just disappeared.

MERAJI: I know. What happened to her?

DEMBY: They just pretended like she never existed. Anyway, to answer Gerald's question, I actually called up Marybeth Gasman. She studies HBCUs at the University of Pennsylvania. As it happens, she wrote a book specifically about Morehouse School of Medicine where Gerald was thinking of applying. And she says first of all, HBCUs were never exclusively black spaces.

MERAJI: What?

MARYBETH GASMAN: In fact, in some black colleges the first students were white students because they were the students of, you know, missionaries and various people who were teaching there.

DEMBY: The reason these schools exist in the first place, the reason they are still so important and such big pillars of black American life is because up until about six years ago, they were essentially the only colleges that black folks could attend. And Marybeth was like, look; white institutions had rules that kept black people out of their schools. It was so essential to how they function that those schools are still trying to unravel that stuff to this day. But HBCUs have always accepted people who were barred from other institutions. They accepted women. They accepted Latinx people. They accepted native people. They were safe havens for Jews during the McCarthy era. I did not know this.

MERAJI: I didn't either.

DEMBY: Yeah, when they took in Jewish professors who were fired from their positions at white institutions. And today Marybeth says that's why the professional schools at HBCUs are models of diversity.

GASMAN: Because they're not racist in their college admissions processes.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Boom.

DEMBY: She said that the most diverse law school in the United States is at North Carolina Central. Morehouse School of Medicine has always been especially diverse along race and gender lines. The same is true for Howard University Medical School.

MERAJI: So, Gerald, you will not be integrating the school. It's already happened.

DEMBY: Their faculties are also more diverse than the faculties at predominantly white institutions.

MERAJI: I'm wondering what the numbers are like for HBCUs in general, not the professional schools.

DEMBY: Here's what HBCUs look like overall - undergrad and grad, according to Marybeth. About 13 percent of the student populations at HBCUs overall are white. That's slowly creeping up. The Asian-American population has been growing. It's about 1.5 percent, which - I know. It doesn't sound like a lot, but Marybeth said that, you know, just 10 years ago, it was zero percent.

MERAJI: OK.

DEMBY: The Latinx population is about 3 percent. But she says that in the next decade or so, that will get up to about 6 percent. But again, these are just averages. There are some HBCUs that are close to a quarter nonblack. And those numbers, again, of nonblack kids are higher at public institutions and, again, higher in the graduate programs.

MERAJI: Got it.

DEMBY: For a lot of HBCUs, this emphasis on diversity is just about survival. I mean, there's more competition for students generally, and so HCBUs just have to cast a wider net.

MERAJI: Let's get back to the idea that Gerald was trying to get at of nonblack people, quote, "invading a black space."

DEMBY: Right. So I called up Robert Palmer. He's a professor at Howard. And he's been researching the experiences of nonblack students at HBCUs. And he talked about this friction.

ROBERT PALMER: You know, typically at the undergraduate level, black students to some extent feel like - you know, if they see a large number of white students or nonblack students, I think that black students feel like these students are encroaching on their space.

DEMBY: And, like, you know, we should validate that anxiety a little bit, right? I mean, there aren't many spaces in America where black students are welcome and where they're not treated as interlopers, and HBCUs are one of them. You know, I've talked to a lot of Howard alumni in D.C. And, you know, there are a lot of them in D.C. And you know that everybody at Howard is required to tell you that they went to Howard within five minutes of you meeting them.

MERAJI: No comment.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: And they worry a lot about new Howard - I'm doing air quotes - new Howard. And that's about a lot of stuff. It's about the way the school is run, but it's also code for the way they see that the mecca - which is what they call Howard - they see the mecca becoming less black. And so they want to protect this space from that. But here's the thing about Howard and other private institutions. Like, it - unlike at public HBCUs and the graduate programs we were talking about before, Marybeth Gasman said that the whitening of Howard - that's not really happening. She read me the numbers.

MERAJI: Huh.

DEMBY: Howard University undergrad and grad is only about 1.5 percent white. It's more than 90 percent black. I've read other numbers that have been a little bit higher in terms of the black percentage. So maybe it's just that this feeling of the whitening of Howard's campus just that, you know, white people are hypervisible, you know?

MERAJI: Maybe, or maybe it's because the neighborhoods surrounding Howard have gentrified so much.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So if you're an alum walking around there during homecoming, for example, it's a much whiter place than it was 10 years ago.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: And that could probably affect how you think about what the campus looks like.

DEMBY: Right, how the campus feels. That's a good point. Either way, there is this nostalgia when people talk about the old Howard whether or not the student body was actually all that much different from when they attended. And I'm sure if Gerald went to Howard, he would pick up on that. He would up on that tension, that sort of friction. Robert Palmer was saying that when he spoke to white students at historically black colleges, particularly undergrads, some of them said that they got, you know, side eyes. They got weird looks. People said slick stuff to them because they were the interlopers. Maybe there's a little bit of an upside to that.

PALMER: You know, I think that that would be a great learning experience, particularly if that student, that white student seeks to work in the inner city.

DEMBY: That might be a chance, you know, for a white student - a future doctor in the case of Gerald - to understand what it's like to be in the minority. Robert said that depending on what you want to do in your medical career and where you want to work, that understanding can maybe help you do your job with more empathy.

PALMER: We know that, you know, white students who graduate, you know, from an HBCU have a better understanding of the racial plight, the racial experience and the racial struggles and the discrimination that African-Americans endure, you know? They're also able to see African-Americans or black people as human beings.

MERAJI: I think that's a really strong argument for Gerald going to an HBCU.

DEMBY: No, it is. I think it really is. And, Gerald, no one can tell you whether to apply or not, but you should really think strongly about why you want to go and what your motivations are and what your expectations are about going to an HBCU. As any HBCU graduate will tell you, Gerald, some of the most important lessons they learned were outside of the classroom.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Is that what they say?

DEMBY: I mean, it's always I learned so much about myself at Howard. Like...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: ...That's happens in college, bruh (ph). That's just what happens. Sorry. Anyway...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, a student wants to know how to Kaepernick the Pledge of Allegiance without making his teachers mad.

DEMBY: Uh-oh. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back with more of your questions about race in the classroom.

DEMBY: This question comes from Alexis Hanh (ph). She's from Portland, Ore. I'm sorry (laughter). She's Vietnamese-American.

MERAJI: I love Portland.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: OK (laughter).

DEMBY: She asked us this question back when she was a senior in high school.

ALEXIS HANH: I go to a primarily white school with many people not being used to racial issues or racial exposure at all. I want to be able to bring up touchy race issues in the classroom to add onto the conversation and to help others learn more without sounding like someone who solely focuses on race. I want to be able to share with others my experience as a person of color without feeling like that one Asian who uses white guilt to get her point across. How should I open up a respectful discourse where both I and my classmates can feel comfortable talking about important race issues?

MERAJI: Don't worry about being the person who sounds like someone who focuses solely on race because if you talk about race even a little bit, people will say, oh, all you do is talk about race. Right, Gene?

DEMBY: Yeah. Oh, my God.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: Let's give a little bit more context to the listeners. Alexis asked us this question when she and some of her classmates were trying to start this schoolwide effort to talk about identity.

HANH: Which is kind of like an easier way to say race, basically, without making it sound, like, too harsh.

DEMBY: Right. So Alexis decided to plan this school-wide assembly.

MERAJI: And people came onstage. And they shared their personal stories. And while some of her classmates thanked Alexis, it wasn't all positive.

HANH: A lot of students were like, oh, they just made us feel guilty. They made us feel like we're the ones at fault here. And because we're white, we don't have an identity.

DEMBY: Shereen, are you surprised? Aren't you shocked by that response?

MERAJI: Not at all.

DEMBY: Oh.

MERAJI: But to help us answer her question, Gene, you talked to Keith.

DEMBY: I did.

MERAJI: Keith Woods - he's edited our podcast in the past. He's a CODE SWITCH adviser. But his formal title is NPR's vice president of newsroom training and diversity.

DEMBY: So, Keith, you spend a lot of your professional life moderating difficult conversations about race.

KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: True.

DEMBY: So what jumps out at you about this question?

WOODS: Well, the first thing I think is that the question implies that there's an answer for how to avoid making someone else feel a certain way, especially when we're talking about race. It's impossible to be able to predict what the thing will be that you will say that will cause someone to feel like they're being accused of something, being made to feel guilty about something. You don't know the threshold for the person that you're conversing with.

I understand the question. I understand all of the fear and obvious experience behind the question. But I think like a lot of things, the work that this young woman needs to do is with herself and the part of this conversation that she can control because she can't actually do much to guarantee that somebody else will either be respectful in a way that she defines respectful or will feel comfortable having the conversation.

DEMBY: So what part of this can she control?

WOODS: Well, she can control her own ability to articulate what these issues are. She can provide for people examples. She can provide for people ways of framing the conversation. And she can decide - and I think this is an important thing - how much of this conversation - how far into this conversation she's willing to go, where her line might be in a debate around matters of race because invariably, you wind up having to decide whether in the end you're willing to defend your own humanity in some of these conversations. You're willing to have a conversation in which the person across from you might begin with the premise that maybe there is something to this superiority thing.

DEMBY: So we sort of assume that our listeners might have some issues with the premise of the question, you know, just the idea that it's your job to make the white people in the conversation feel comfortable. But she's a student at school, right? And so she has to engage with her classmates.

WOODS: Sure.

DEMBY: Is the advice that you would give her here - is that advice going to be different if she's talking to her friends?

WOODS: Well, I mean, frankly, the conversation can go really well off the rails with anybody. It really doesn't matter that much. But let me just legitimize the idea of comfort for a second because in the end, what she wants to do is have a successful conversation in which she feels that the needle got moved in some kind of meaningful way with the people she's talking to. She's invested, as many of us are, not just fact that there's going to be a conversation but that the result of the conversation is that she's able to go through the world a little easier than she can currently go through it. So that's - it's not an illegitimate goal.

DEMBY: But I hear a however or a clause.

WOODS: Well, if there is a however, it has to do with this sense of responsibility, right? If you're looking at this and saying that she has the job of doing this, then you've now put a burden on her that's unfair. Here, I'm going to give you a problem, and I'm going to cause you to be the one to solve it. She wants to be in this conversation. She's decided that she's going to engage in some kind of way.

Once you've made that decision - and you've got to accept also the conditions of that conversation, which means that there are going to be people who have one foot in and the other foot braced to bolt. And if your goal is to get all the way to the end of the sentence, then you've got to figure out a strategy to get there.

DEMBY: So let's complicate this a little bit. The letter writer actually pulled together an assembly at her school. It was school-wide conversation about race. What are the potential benefits of having this conversation in a public way like that, and what are the pitfalls and the challenges of doing it that way?

WOODS: Well, the benefit comes if the people who are conducting the conversation, the people who have the facilitation control of this conversation have a depth of understanding of the topic themselves that they can identify those pitfalls, they can identify those land mines ahead of time and be ready when they get triggered because that's going to happen.

When somebody says something euphemistically or somebody uses an old trope of race that you recognize immediately as having its roots in racism, you've got to be able to step in so that people know that you understand where you are in this conversation. But perhaps the person who just said that thing doesn't.

They go badly when people think that talking unto itself is a great goal, that just having the conversation, no matter how badly it goes, was itself an honorable thing. And I think that that's where we sort of build up the scar tissue of race and racial discourse in the country.

DEMBY: So what should the people who you're talking about, the people who are - you know, the people in positions of authority at a school - the principal, the teachers who are moderating this discussion at an assembly - like, what are the things that they should know? I mean, do they need - do they actually need training? Is there some advice that you would give them about how to moderate a conversation like this?

WOODS: I would say training can't ever hurt.

DEMBY: That's literally in your job title. Of course you're going to say that.

WOODS: It is, of course. But I think that the - there's some fundamental rules almost. I'm going to use this notion of the arc of the conversation when you get into a discussion like this that you have to understand exists - that you're walking into an environment of distrust, not in an environment of default to trust, and that there are people throughout this discussion, whether they're in high school or in Congress, who are waiting for the evidence that this thing is going to go as badly as they were afraid it was going to go.

There's also this conversation arc that has to be satisfied. People in a discussion around oppression have to first feel heard on the oppression. And so many of these conversations begin with the idea that says, yeah, yeah, yeah, there's been all this problem in America. We're going - we're not going to start with that stuff. We're not going to go back to the history. We're just going to start with today and see if we can move forward.

And what will happen over and over and over again is that the people in the audience will bring you back to the past. They'll bring you back to the history until it's heard, until it's acknowledged. That's when the conversation can move on. If you don't know that when you're starting this discussion, I'm pretty sure I can tell you where you're going to end up.

DEMBY: So to bring it back to Alexis, the listener who had the question, you mentioned that, you know, she should have a strategy going into this conversation. What is that strategy? What should it look like?

WOODS: Well, I would say whether you're having a conversation with your roommate or you're having a conversation with an assembly of people, you have to have some set of norms for this discussion that you can go back to when you run into the difficult stuff. People want - when you are having a conversation about race, they want honesty. They want to feel like we're going to have a real conversation. They want the benefit of the doubt. They want to know that if they say something that goes a little bit askew, awry that you won't nail them right there.

They want your passion, but they don't want you poisoned. They don't want you accusing them of things and calling them names. And they want to know that if in fact they give you the honesty and they say that thing that sets you off, that you will stay in a room with them and continue the conversation. You provide those kinds of guidelines at the beginning of the discussion. Everybody agrees that that's the conditions for having this discussion. And you might get much further than otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Always good advice from our very own Keith Woods, NPR's vice president of newsroom training and diversity.

All right, we've made it to the last period.

DEMBY: And we're going to sub in our teammate Leah Donnella to answer this last question. We expect you all to be on your best behavior.

MERAJI: And don't expect her to show a video. You will be learning something.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: OK, guys, enough, enough.

DEMBY: No, no, Shereen, she's mad at our jokes. She's going to put us in detention.

MERAJI: I thought we were going to get extra credit.

DEMBY: She's going to send us to the principal's office.

MERAJI: All right.

DEMBY: Leah, did they clap erasers when you were in school? Was that still a thing that happened?

DONNELLA: What are erasers?

MERAJI: Did they have erasers? She's really young.

DEMBY: What are - (laughter) oh, man.

MERAJI: (Laughter) All right, all right, so for this question, Leah, where are you taking us? Who are we helping?

DONNELLA: I am taking you down to Miami.

DEMBY: Yes.

RAYSHAWN: Well, I'm Rayshawn (ph). And currently, I'm going to school at FIU in my lovely little dorm room right now.

DONNELLA: So Rayshawn is a freshman right now. But he wrote to us when he was still in high school right around the time that Colin Kaepernick first started protesting police violence and anti-black racism by kneeling during the national anthem.

Are you a football fan?

RAYSHAWN: Not at all (laughter) - not at all, really. I'm more of a nerdy, media-loving guy.

DEMBY: Those things don't need to be mutually exclusive.

DONNELLA: It's true.

DEMBY: I'm just saying.

MERAJI: You're a man after my own heart.

DONNELLA: So Rayshawn's question was about how to get involved in activism and protest in a way that wouldn't make his teachers angry or his friends with different viewpoints upset.

RAYSHAWN: Because I am very much affected by it considering I am black. So I figured, why not do some small protest like backing the case of I think Tinker v. Des Moines?

DONNELLA: So Rayshawn has obviously done his homework. He knows...

MERAJI: Yes, he has.

DONNELLA: ...His history, which is a great first step. The case that he's referencing, Tinker v. Des Moines, happened back in the 1960s.

DEMBY: Oh, Everybody knows Tinker v. Des Moines.

MERAJI: But, Leah, please, like, refresh our memory.

DEMBY: Yeah, for those who don't know.

DONNELLA: Yeah, for those who don't remember, this happened in 1965. So this group of high schoolers decided to wear black armbands to school to show that they were against the Vietnam War. And the school administration was like, no, take those off. And the students were like, make us.

DEMBY: Oh.

DONNELLA: So this conflict lasted four years and made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

DEMBY: Wow.

DONNELLA: When the court eventually heard the case in 1969, they ruled 7-2 in favor of the students. And basically they said that students don't lose their freedom of speech just because it makes other people uncomfortable. So as long as their opinions don't disrupt the natural flow of school, they're allowed to express them.

MERAJI: All right, so that's a wonderful story. But when Rayshawn gets called out for disrupting school or his friends call him out, is it really going to make him feel better to be, like, excuse me, Tinker v. Des Moines says I have the rights to do this?

DONNELLA: OK, no. No, it's not, as much as I wish it would. So I called up someone with a little more practical experience in this arena. Her name is Gaye Theresa Johnson. She's a professor in the Chicano Studies Department and the African-American studies department at UCLA.

GAYE THERESA JOHNSON: Mostly, I'm interested in how people get free. I'm really interested in the ways that people resist under really difficult circumstances to produce really extraordinary movements and the ways that they connect to each other - sometimes in very unlikely alliances.

DONNELLA: So Gaye said a couple of things that I think will really resonate with Rayshawn and other aspiring young activists out there. First of all, she was like, do what feels right for you at any given moment. It doesn't have to be something huge.

JOHNSON: Sometimes that means that when you hear your roommates say, you know, I was listening to this person the other day, and they were so gay, or they were so retarded, that you say something as simple, as you know what? I don't tolerate that kind of language in my room. That's not going to work for me. The smallest acts of solidarity - they don't have to be seen by anybody else.

You help somebody with their groceries because you see that they're a single mom, and it's hard for them to lift everything into the car. A lot of people think, well, that's not big enough. I need to be out there protesting. No, you know, people need you in everyday little ways because the indignities and the injustices that we see on a macro level are influencing how people live their lives on a micro level.

MERAJI: Gaye Theresa Johnson, you need your own podcast. I would listen to you all day. You have a great voice.

DONNELLA: She really does.

DEMBY: She has a great voice.

DONNELLA: So the second piece of advice Gaye has is to look for inspiration in the people who aren't written about. The people who fuel social change, she says, aren't always the ones who get the most recognition.

JOHNSON: There are so many people who were sewing or making signs or doing all of the, kind of, untold labor of movements that have become so famous because of these charismatic leaders. But there are so many people who've sacrificed - so many mothers, grandmothers - who created these philosophies of togetherness and also of what was possible.

MERAJI: Ooh. That is a callback to Michael Moloi, the South African dancer who gave a shoutout to his grandmother who raised 22 grandkids and nine kids of her own.

DONNELLA: Oof.

MERAJI: Yes. Props to the grandmothers and mothers who make all of this possible.

DONNELLA: Totally. So Gaye's last piece of advice for people like Rayshawn is don't feel like you have to do this on your own. Find the people who are already doing the types of work that you're interested in and team up with them.

JOHNSON: Because when you start talking to people who are doing that work locally, your community expands, and you see yourself as part of a different and greater whole. And then after a while, that tension is more of an anecdote than the main story. It's not - it's not the big deal in the story. The big deal is the work you're doing together with these other people. And it always is uncomfortable, but it's worth it. It's so worth it.

DEMBY: We were talking about this question earlier. Sami Yenigun, our editor, was telling us a story about, you know, way before he was a journalist. When he was a high school student who was allowed to protest, he and his other schoolmates walked out of school. And someone asked their history teacher, am I going to get a cut for this? Am I going to get penalized for walking out of class?

And he said the teacher was like, I applaud you for walking out, but I'm giving you a cut because you need to understand that that's the trade-off - that protest comes with sacrifice. So shoutout to Mr. Boni (ph), Sami's history teacher in high school. That's a really important point though.

DONNELLA: Yeah, no, it totally is. I mean, there's no such thing as a risk-free protest or a protest that will make everyone happy. I'm thinking back to Colin Kaepernick here.

DEMBY: Yes.

DONNELLA: When you fight for something you believe in, you might make your teachers or your friends, the NFL, your family members angry. And people will never get sick of telling you that politics don't belong in schools or sports or dance or music, the dinner table, the day after a tragedy, whatever it is. But that is often coming from people who don't actually want anything to change. And if you do want things to change, sometimes that requires making people uncomfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "A CLOCK WITH NO HANDS")

MERAJI: And that's our show. But before we go, Rayshawn left us with the song that he listens to when he's in need of some activist inspiration. It's from a group from your hometown, GD.

DEMBY: The legendary Roots crew - my favorite group in the world. Good choice, Rayshawn.

MERAJI: I love them too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOCK WITH NO HANDS")

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) Yeah, sitting in the staircase, holding back tears, looking over mad years worth of photographs - pictures of some places I ain't never going back. Some people I used to love, why I ain't show them that?

MERAJI: It's The Roots, and the song is "Clock With No Hands."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOCK WITH NO HANDS")

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) My head is spinning - couldn't tell you if it's slow or fast. It's starting to get too clear. I got to go and grass. To y'all it's a shame, but life is what we know it as.

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us a burning question about race for ASK CODE SWITCH, like the ones you heard today, with the subject line ASK CODE SWITCH. That makes sense, right?

MERAJI: It does. And sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or where ever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOCK WITH NO HANDS")

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) People think that I'm crazy just because I want to be alone. You can't depend on friends to help you in a squeeze.

MERAJI: This episode was produced and edited by Leah Donella and Sami Yenigun. Kat Chow helped with the reporting.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Steve Drummond. And a warm welcome to our new intern Andrea Henderson - it's her third day on the job. We can already tell she's going to be dope. She's from Houston. That puts us one step closer to Beyonce.

MERAJI: Welcome, Andrea. Can you help us book her? We need her on the show.

DEMBY: Seriously - like next week. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.

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