The recent flap at a Montgomery County high school student newspaper reminded me of a childhood joke:
"What's black and white and 'red' all over?"
The answer is, of course, a newspaper. But for some news junkies, the riddle has a double meaning: Quite often, newspapers are indeed a black-and-white affair--and not just because of the ink.
I'm talking about the skin colors of the men, women and children that newspapers cover and the influence of race on how people are portrayed. Readers of every persuasion filter stories with racial elements through personal lenses that can often amplify or distort them.
How many of us keep mental tallies of crimes by the race of perpetrators or victims? How many of us are more drawn to stories about people like us--and assume that articles about "those people" don't concern us?
Journalists learn early: Writing about race can be like dancing in a minefield. You never know what explosive feelings you might set off.
That's what staffers at the Blueprint newspaper at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring realized after running a frank, two-page feature in which six students with diverse backgrounds--including my son Hamani--described their everyday experiences. Most agreed that race relations are admirably harmonious at the school, which is 35 percent black, 27 percent white, 23 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic.
Yet a Korean student described how many of her classmates harbor conflicting stereotypes of Asian students as being either "Asian mafia" gang members or Harvard-bound eggheads. A Latina student wrote about being accused of not being a "true" Hispanic because of her diverse friends, clothes and speech.
My son wrote that although Springbrook "embraces" diversity, "I can't help but feel a little alienated . . . [being] the only black male" in some honors classes. A white senior described abandoning basketball after being harassed by a black student. He turned to lacrosse, where "it was okay to be white and scrawny."
I loved the students' courage as they boogied across the minefield. But predictably, days after the feature ran, my son came home fuming about an unsigned "Letter to the Editor" from a white student.
"I'm so tired of hearing that it's my race that ruined [blacks']...," wrote the girl, who suggested black classmates had called her names. "You never hear the white community blaming the black community for their problems, like unemployment due to affirmative action or honors classes being filled with people that aren't qualified because the school needs a quota. . . . I hate having to be shameful of my heritage."
And so on. Despite factual errors--honors enrollment is based on grades, not race; though employment is at a record high, joblessness is more prevalent among blacks--the letter intrigued me. I've received dozens like it, missives teeming with resentment, shame, ignorance and hurt. And often, with racism.
The letter surprised Blueprint faculty adviser Evva Forster, a Springbrook graduate who ran a similar package when she was the newspaper's editor in 1991.
The original package sparked "a lot of good discussions," recalls Forster, 27. But this time, reactions troubled her. Some readers said they would have preferred that certain student authors be poor and/or academically challenged, a feeling that she says exemplifies "the exact kind of racism we want to end."
Though the Blueprint's usual policy is not to print anonymous letters, the staff's predominant feeling was, "If some of our students feel that way, so be it"--a decision students and teachers have since questioned.
Forster said, "I'm not happy [that] black students were walking around thinking, "Do all white people feel that way? . . . I hoped the letter would make people be honest about their emotions. . . . But one teacher told me she didn't think high school students are mature enough to do that."
Who is mature enough when it comes to this painful, complex subject? As an African American, I understand the letter-writer's frustration--feeling unacknowledged and blamed is a terrible thing. But I wish she realized that black students, too, are hassled by tough, rude classmates--many of whom are black. I wish she could approach America's brutal racial past as a subject that enlightens rather than accuses.
Springbrook students, in response letters to the next Blueprint, said it better:
"Diversity should be a privilege, not a punishment," wrote Teresa Morcho, who is black. "I am in an honors class, and I deserve everything I have worked for." Senior Annabelle Smith wishes more students appreciated "being exposed to more cultures, ethnicities and races than they may ever be again."
A white student was more blunt:
"Our school is about one-quarter white, and this person seems outraged that our honors classes have minority students . . . and that anyone besides white people get any attention. . . . I constantly labor to be reasonable and equal in the way I treat and think of other people. . . . All you need is an open mind.
Sincerely--and no, I'm not ashamed to sign my name,
Samuel F. Biagetti"