Seeking a rational lesson on race

In June, the Bangor Daily News published an article, “Racism is my high school experience,” which detailed the experiences of five Black students in their time at Bangor High School. Many of the stories highlighted grotesque examples of fellow students being monstrously cruel to the individuals in question, and race was at the center of the conflict. 


Following the publication of that article, the Bangor school system announced that it was going to respond to those experiences by taking dramatic steps to address racism in its schools. Among those steps was a commitment to put students in Bangor public schools through diversity and equity training during the first two weeks of school. 


Well, we’re in that first two weeks now.


A seventh-grade teacher at James F. Doughty School in Bangor was conducting one of those training seminars on race, gender and “privilege” that was ultimately recorded by one of the parents of the children, and later shared to social media.


In the lesson, the teacher told the children that race and gender help to create their identities and are responsible for how society ultimately treats them. “The fact that my race is white is part of my privileged identity,” she said. “Race is not something that gets in the way of me getting a job or puts me in danger, whereas my gender being female is something I have to think about and might be one of my more targeted identities.”


The video was shared, and the cesspool of social media took over. An online war of words began, partisan tribes began circling the wagons and everyone from the teacher, to administrators of the school, to the parents who shared the video received an avalanche of acid-spitting technological hate directed their way.


What is most upsetting about this situation, though, is that everything about it conspires to make any kind of rational discussion of it impossible. If you say that you think the Bangor school training is inappropriate, you are automatically labeled a right-wing racist scumbag. If you support a school’s decision to try to tackle the difficult problem of race in our society, then you are automatically a left-wing psychopath that wants to indoctrinate kids and turn them into agents of progressive activism. There is apparently no middle ground, so what should a reasonable person make of this situation?


I can only give you my opinion about it, and let you make up your own mind.


To start, I find the idea of ignoring the experiences of the students identified in the Bangor Daily News report in June to be unacceptable. Those are real kids who were telling us what they experienced, and absolutely every child who attends school anywhere in this country deserves to do so in the absence of hate, free of the burden of that kind of treatment. So I don’t blame Bangor for wanting to take steps to try to create a more welcoming and accepting environment.


But does that mean this kind of diversity training is appropriate?


The type of lesson being taught in Bangor is based in a philosophy known as Intersectionality, which looks at how the combinations of one’s social and political identities impact the power dynamics of “discrimination” and “privilege.” It is a central tenet of far-left political thinking, and is based heavily in both feminism and Marxism. 


Intersectionalists have interesting theories that certainly deserve to be considered and debated, but there is no getting around the fact that it is little more than a deeply left-wing ideological perspective on major social issues facing the country, and there are legitimate concerns that reasonable people have with the teaching of that ideology in schools.


I, for instance, am horrified by the prospect of my children being told to look at themselves, and look at their friends, and see a series of demographic group memberships, assigning superficial, stereotypical assumptions to them based on their various group identities. I don’t want my son to look at his Black friends and see “oppressed” or “maligned” any more than I want them to look at him and see “privileged.”


To do so, in my opinion, is to make our separation from one another far more likely, and only increase feelings of resentment and anger in both directions. That helps no one.


Growing up in the 1990s, I was taught to see the common humanity in everyone, and to reject and fight against superficial judgments about anyone’s life before getting to know them. We rejected labels, and fought against separation into groups.


If we are trying to teach tolerance and sensitivity, I think it far more appropriate to appeal to our common humanity, rather than the things that divide us from one another.


Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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