MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Columbia High School graduate Joanna Lee Williams, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of Virginia, returned to her alma mater Nov. 20 to discuss how ethnicity influences teenagers in forming friendships; Williams was the latest guest of the Hamingson Literary Showcase speaker series.
In her speech “Finding a Place in the School Cafeteria: Race and Identity in Adolescence,” Williams disputed the notion that “race doesn’t matter” in diverse school districts such as South Orange-Maplewood’s, explaining that her research shows middle and high school students will often self-segregate into social groups based on their skin colors. While many may view this as detrimental to race relations within a district, Williams told the News-Record that the practice has both benefits and drawbacks.
“My own research and the research of my colleagues has shown that having a strong sense of racial or ethnic pride is positively related to psychological well-being, it’s related to academic success and it’s related to pro-social behavior,” Williams, who specializes in the implications of race and ethnicity on youth development, said in a Nov. 23 phone interview. “It’s a double-edged sword, though, because if race is a central part of your identity in adolescence when you’re understanding messages that the world might be sending to you, you are likely also very aware of racial discrimination.”
And being very aware of racial discrimination might lead young people to interpret subtle social cues as racist when other youths less focused on their racial identity would have viewed them otherwise, Williams said.
But forming relationships with people of one’s own race should not be discouraged, according to Williams.
On the contrary, she said such a practice is quite normal among adolescents. That is because teens want to be around people who they think understand them, she explained, and sharing the same skin color is a major way to relate to each other. Plus, she said the empowerment gained from bonding with people of one’s own ethnicity can act as an important means of support for students when they face definite instances of discrimination in the future.
At the same time, Williams said she would encourage youths to befriend people of racial backgrounds outside of their own as a way of learning that one should not fear those who are different from them. She said schools can help facilitate this by sponsoring race-based discussions and programming, like the district has done in the past, as well as highlighting values shared by students. What she said should not be done, however, is force such bonding to happen.
“You can’t just place kids physically within the same space and expect that all of a sudden they are going to naturally interact with one another,” Williams said. “There needs to be scaffolding, some sort of support, so the kids feel they are able to do that and it lessens some of the anxiety of getting to know someone who is different from you.”
Williams recalled that her own circle of friends while attending CHS, where she was a member of the Class of 1993, actually consisted of a diverse mix of ethnicities. But she said she would often see people self-segregating, just as she has observed students doing today, and that she herself felt uncomfortable as one of the few black students in Advanced Placement classes.
The latter experience mirrors many of today’s students’ experiences. In fact, the relatively small number of minority students taking upper level courses has been a hot button issue ever since a 2013 federal investigation revealed that just 19 percent of the district’s AP students were black. To remedy the situation, the district enlisted an educational consultant to study its schools’ diversity. The Board of Education also recently passed a policy allowing students to choose to enter upper level classes rather than having to take a test for admittance, which Williams said she believes is a good idea in theory.
In practice, though, Williams said the measure will be meaningless without a corresponding change in the district’s climate — after all, there is no guarantee black students will decide to enroll in higher level courses just because they have the opportunity.
“It’s important to definitely say ‘All kids have the ability to work at a really high level, and all kids should have access to education that’s really high quality,’” Williams said. “But it goes hand-in-hand with saying ‘We’ve created a climate in which kids actually feel that that is true for them, and that they have the sense that this is what they want for themselves as well, and that they are not going to continue to feel isolated or that they have to make some sort of false choice between social relationships with friends and academic quality.’”
To bring about such a change, Williams said teachers should place high expectations on students of all races from kindergarten onward so they will develop the self-confidence to take on challenges. They should also do a self-reflection to make sure that they are not exhibiting any unconscious biases against students of a particular ethnicity, such as punishing black students for doing something white students do without consequence. Additionally, she said teachers should make sure individuality is emphasized for everyone while also celebrating each student’s racial identity.
Williams also said it is vital that district officials not believe themselves to be colorblind, saying that this is inherently untrue, and ignores a key component of a student’s identity. Instead, she said it should eliminate taboos and encourage open and meaningful conversations about race, something she believes CHS students are eager to have.
While giving her speech, Williams said she noticed that the students in attendance appeared engaged despite the fact that it was a Friday afternoon. Afterward, she said several students told her that they have seen the issues she addressed in their own school. Many also asked how they can learn more about ethnicity and identity and how to start racial dialogs of their own.
This enthusiastic response meant a lot to Williams, especially coming from the community she said inspired her to study the racial implications of identity in the first place. Moving forward, she said she hopes her speech leads to more discussions about race at CHS.
“I encourage the students to become comfortable talking about race, and the only way to do that is to talk about it,” Williams said. “We have a tendency starting at early childhood to kind of silence kids when they ask questions or point things out that are related to race, and so from early on kids get the sense that only certain people can talk about it and there are only certain places to talk about it. And kids get afraid of saying the wrong thing.
“But I do think we need to change that and create spaces, especially for teenagers, to ask questions and get to know another person’s perspective,” she said.