Difficult Thoughts on Homeschooling and Race

A warning to readers. This is sort of a personal exploration post about a lot of things. I rarely post much about politics. One of the things I enjoy about the online homeschooling community is how it gives me a peek into different perspectives on the world. But every once in awhile, I share some of mine beyond simply the practical stuff, the parenting trials, and the books we’re reading. I promise, next post about math instead.

Last week, I listened to This American Life’s two part series about integration in schools today called “The Problem We All Live With.” I think a lot of homeschoolers only pay attention to school education news in limited doses. Many of us have had bad experiences with schools and know that even supposedly good education news can rile us up. This has been true for me at times as well, but I’m also interested in the education world in general. I have strong feelings and opinions from when I used to teach in schools. While sometimes school stories do make me want to gnash my teeth, I’m drawn into them often.

This story, about the increasing segregation in schools and the lack of movement toward integration overall, was depressing and teeth gnashing to say the least. It followed two districts where integration is happening and the difficulties of making it work in the face of angry parents. The second district had a story that was especially familiar to me. You see, during most of my youth, I attended schools that were much more integrated than most apparently are, in part because of a magnet program that drew mostly white suburban kids to mostly black city schools, just like the program profiled in the second part of the story. It was, for me, a great experience. I can remember clearly before heading off to middle school my mother saying to me that one of the things I needed to think about was that I would need to be comfortable being in the minority as a white student. I don’t remember that being an issue to me. On the contrary, I’m so glad I had that experience. It was not always as rosy a racial harmony picture as all that, but it was, overall, a positive experience for me.

A few things make this difficult to reflect upon. First and foremost, we live in the inner city in a very racially diverse neighborhood. While the schools weren’t good when we first came here, they’ve improved greatly. If I wanted to, I could enter the charter lottery and send my kids to one of several diverse urban schools that are really, all in all, not bad places. And I’m all too aware that, whether they mean to or not, white parents have been the driving force resegregating schools, in part by moving but also in part by choosing educational alternatives to keep their kids away from what is seen as the wrong kind of culture in schools. One of those alternatives is homeschooling.

Homeschooling among minority groups is growing, in part to escape the segregated attitudes in schools. Recently there was an excellent article about the growth of African-American homeschooling in my city and several others about the rise nationwide. However, it’s still disproportionately white. And the tribal mentality in homeschooling means that sometimes different religious groups don’t even mix, much less different racial groups. I’m also sadly aware that the racism in some elements of homeschooling are much closer to the surface than in other places. Some of the most popular homeschool programs include racist language, read older literature that is filled with racial stereotypes, and filter American history through a providential lens, one that emphasizes that Europeans (and not anyone else) were given this country by God.

That’s not why we chose homeschooling. We avoid those sorts of materials. I’d homeschool if we lived in a ritzy suburb or a rural area or even a foreign country. I decided to homeschool years before we moved here, years before we had kids even. Some homeschoolers decide on this path after seeing their local school or even after experiencing its negative impact on their child. But we chose it because of the benefits of learning at home, not because of the negatives of being in school.

But, by doing so, we’ve removed our kids from their environment in many ways. There are no other homeschoolers my kids’ age in walking distance the way school friends would be. We travel, sometimes half an hour or more, to see friends, mostly in the suburbs. There is some diversity in our group of extended friends, but mostly it’s very white. It does not reflect the neighborhood around my kids. They have, in the last year or two, started to make more neighborhood friends simply by being old enough and confident enough to be outside at the parks and strike up friendships. Still, when I reflect on this, it makes me uncomfortable, to say the least, that we leave our neighborhood, where the kids are more than half black and Latino, to see our friends, who are almost all white.

However, I get that few parents want to sacrifice their ideals about society for their child’s education. When I think about Civil Rights parents, willing to send their kids into atmospheres of hatred and derision, I’m constantly awed and astounded by how difficult that must have been. I made education decisions for my kids, not for society as a whole. I don’t plan to change even though, I’m aware that for society as a whole to shift, sometimes people have to make decisions that are not great for them in the short run in order to make a better future in the long run. Sending my kids to school wouldn’t change much, but when everyone makes the decision to opt out, for whatever reason, that’s bad for the people who don’t have the resources to opt out, whether by moving away, starting a private school, or homeschooling.

There’s no easy answers, but it bothers me sometimes that homeschoolers like to bury their heads in the sand about some of these hard truths. We would like it to be simple that we’ve made the right decisions for our kids and would like to pretend that dropping out, tuning out, and isolating ourselves is without broader consequences both for us and society. Like I said, we homeschool, I believe in homeschooling for all sorts of families, and I don’t plan to change. But listening to those two stories is a heavy weight in a way.

The only silver lining, I hope, is that schools aren’t always much better when it comes to teaching tolerance and valuing diversity. By homeschooling, I can expose my kids to more diverse authors and literature than they might meet in schools as well as a more well-rounded history of the world as a whole. At least, that’s what I hope.  So I strive to teach my kids to recognize their privileges in the world, including the privilege of being educated at home.

4 thoughts on “Difficult Thoughts on Homeschooling and Race

  1. I listened to the same episodes last week and thought almost exactly the same things that you did. I do believe that learning at home is best for my children and I do hope I can expose them to a greater diversity of thought than they might receive in a traditional school, but at the same time, I know I am contributing to the problem by removing our family from the public school system. And, like you said, my one family may not make much of a difference, but we are part of a trend that leads to segregation. That is an uncomfortable truth for me. Thanks for writing this and helping me put into words what I was thinking!

  2. What further complicates it is that many minorities, especially blacks, are lothe to leave the public schools because it was such a hard road of work and sacrifice just to be allowed in. So, I think, they’re less likely to homeschool or choose non-public schools. (I’ve read blogs of minority homeschoolers who do say it is an issue).

    I just moved from a more diverse neighborhood (Gaithersburg) out to Frederick County in the middle of nowhere. It sort of bothers me. I prefer lots of different kinds of people around me. I choose where I live partially based on that (like when i moved to silicon valley, etc…).

    But when I weighed the pros and cons, the reasons we moved out here were more important to me. Nothing is perfect. I know my kids would be crushed by school and there isn’t anything I could do about it. I know how hard it is to work with the system — my mom did it for us when we were little, and you could have A LOT more impact back then. There is very little one person can do to change anything.

    Not a lot of point in beating yourself up about decisions you make if they’re the best choice. :/

  3. Ironically, I felt we had more diversity homeschooling, to some extent. The elementary school we go to has more Asian Indians than African Americans. Admittedly my kids did gravitate towards the minorities in their classes (i think just because we dont actually fit in to the dominant culture, either) – but homeschooling we hung out at the park with an mixed family, did video game club and robotics run by an african american mom, and Raven’s best friend’s dad is mexican and their family is bilingual. When Raven goes back to school, he’s been redistricted to the closer middle school, as opposed to the further one that his siblings went to. and that can mean only one thing – les diversity.

    This is a subject that comes up a lot at our UU church, as well. We seem entirely incapable of attracting and retaining people of color, except the vary rare exception.

    Oh, and I also have seen this in general in Richmond – the liberal young families want to move in to the hip parts of the city. The hippest areas have worked to improve their elementary school. But past that? private school or homeschool or move . . . no one wants their kids in those middle and high schools.

    I see it but I see no place I can fix it without radically changing my entire life – and I’ll be honest, I struggle enough trying to cope with my life as it is.

  4. So I just came across your blog through a google search because I’m contemplating blogging about that bullshit venn diagram about purpose as well… and after reading that post found this one. I like your honest thoughts here. I listened to those same This American Life episodes. Racial issues is something that I’m very interested in. My 2 older kids are in our rather diverse local public school (we are white)… partly because I don’t WANT to home school, partly because I want them there for certain reasons for their own good, and partly because we want to be there for the good of our town. But there are plenty of challenges and downsides with that- as you seem well aware. Anyways, props for your honest thoughts here. The struggle of imperfect options is real.

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