Addressing discrimination in school still matters

Every student has the right to an education free from discrimination that provides high-quality, equitable opportunities to learn and pursue scholarships, such as The Walker Rising Star’s Competition. Unfortunately, sometimes individuals or systems may act in ways that violate this right.

Discrimination, ThursdayDiscrimination occurs when people are treated unequally or less favorably than others because of some real or perceived characteristic. In this instance, my daughter was treated unfairly because the teachers that served as the panelist of judges perceived that members of the Rising Walker Star’s Scholarship Committee would prefer to see white dancers perform other genres, as oppose to my daughter who is African American, perform tap, a dance that was born out of African American Culture.

In every community and every school, discrimination exists in both intended and unintended ways. It may take the form of direct, overt discrimination, such as barring all members of a specific group from being admitted to an organization. But, discrimination may also be indirect or less obvious, such as seemingly neutral admission policies that actually favor one group over another.

In this case, it was the elimination of contest rules and guidelines that gave white students an unfair advantage and eliminated my daughter from a fair competition and an opportunity to be evaluated on her talents, skills and abilities. Regardless of rather or not the teachers governing the competition had wrongful intent, the decision to base their criteria on a “subjective” standard alone and eliminate processes that were in already in place resulted in an unethical practice and discriminatory act that caused emotional distress for both my daughter, me and our family.

My daughter is not a novice or stranger to competition. She has been dancing since the early age of two and competing since the age of five. She has always displayed good sportsmanship and she has no problem not excelling in a competition when she is evaluated by competent judges, using appropriate criteria based on her talent and technique.

Although trained in ballet, Pointe, jazz, lyrical, contemporary, and hip-hop, as she matured as a dancer and an entertainer, she chooses to stay true to her love of rhythm and passion for tap. She has continuously stated her case to me that she is not going to change her dance costume choices, deviate from her personal style, and conform her dance approach to become “all showy” to elevate in the ranks of the dance industry. In fact, her commitment to tap is so strong that she joined a professional dance company, Tapped In, at the age of 16 so that she could continue to train and share her love for the dance with her community.

As a young inspiring artist, I was never more proud of her decision. This summer she earned her first national title in the tap category at Dance Olympics after several years of placing her technique, personal style, and craft over all else. She also ranked in the top 20, earning the 17th highest ranking score in the national competition that included diverse dancers and dance styles from across the region.

But last Thursday, December 11, 2014, was one of my saddest moments for her. I had to leave my job to console her, as she called me hysterical and in tears. I have never seen nor heard my daughter in such a state. She was extremely upset, not because she had lost the competition, but because she felt that she was denied an opportunity to fairly compete for a local dance scholarship opportunity.

Now mind you, she has always displayed great sportsmanship. She is serving her second year as the competition team captain and has also served as a junior teacher at her dance studio. She was distraught because for the very first time in her life she had to struggle with addressing the issues surrounding her race and her ethnicity. After years of gauging her lost by judges scores, critiques, and comments, for the first time in her life, my daughter was forced to ponder, beg the question, as to rather her race was the underlying cause in her failure to advance.

What was the most hurtful, is the fact that her drama teacher told her that her “performance blew them a way” that “she has a very unique style.”  He further added “there was nothing wrong with her performance” that “she does not need to change a thing.” She simply was not selected to compete for the scholarship opportunity because they choose what “they thought the judges and audience would want to see” and that their decision not to select her was purely “subjective.”

The way the teachers handled this competition was wrong and it was harmful to my daughter and hurtful to me. In my opinion, they might as well have told her that they thought a white girl performing ballet had a better chance at winning than a black girl that tapped.

Confronting discrimination can be challenging and intimidating, but it is critical to safeguarding students’, like my daughter, rights to learn, rights to meaningful school experiences, rights to a valuable education, and rights to scholarship opportunities. That is why I feel that it is crucial that incidents such as these be evaluated to establish an open dialogue with school leadership about discrimination and why addressing it in our school system still matters. Addressing discrimination in today’s school system matters because, it is extremely important in the steps to creating more equitable experiences and opportunities for our children.

In schools, discrimination can make it difficult for students to focus and learn, because they don’t feel safe or accepted. In this case, my daughter felt demeaned and her art devalued. It is hard enough for high school students to deal with the pressures of fitting in and feeling accepted, but can you imagine the humiliation from being degraded and debased alongside peers in a corrupted competition. As such, finding ways to fight discrimination is essential to ensuring our students’ educational opportunity and eliminating incidents like this from their educational experiences.

This case goes far beyond the bias that was exhibited in my daughter’s treatment and rises to the occasion of discrimination and its impact on African American children in so many ways. If you think you or your child has faced discrimination in schools, or if you have observed discrimination toward others, it is important to speak up. Families and educators generally share the common goal of ensuring that all students have access to high-quality educational opportunities in schools where they feel valued and secure.

The problems our children face in the school system cannot be resolved without calling the school’s leadership and official’s attention to potential discrimination. It is of great consequence for administrators and teachers to understand what may constitute discrimination in schools. More importantly, it is imperative for them to understand the psychological and emotional impact that these artificial barriers and adverse actions make in the day and the life of our children.

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