Michael Wenger, author of “My Black Family, My White Privilege,” addresses Albany area high school students at Thursday’s Southwest Georgia Project Racial Healing forum. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY — Area high school students gathered Thursday at the Albany Civic Center for an open discussion about how they view race in their community and schools.
The forum, organized by the Southwest Georgia Project Racial Healing, brought students from Albany, Westover, Monroe, Dougherty, Deerfield Windsor, Sherwood Christian and Byne high schools together to share their feelings and experiences concerning racial issues.
“I think this discussion is really valuable,” began author and expert on racial issues, Michael Wenger. “We will learn from each other. It’s so important we see each other’s perspectives.”
Wenger, as well as forum moderators, Elvin and Shacobi Fluellen, were then treated to a variety of opinions, freely expressed by students.
After being asked a series of questions, such as whether or not students feel their teachers’ preconceived idea of each races’ abilities determines how they give instruction or whether a student’s decision to attend private schools versus public was racially driven, the students did not hesitate sharing their feelings.
One student, who said she had been in Dougherty County schools for six years, told the crowd that she definitely saw a difference in some teachers’ attitudes, but wasn’t able to determine if race played a role. She did, however, feel that teacher’s expectations play a huge role in her motivation to learn.
“I think the teachers who hold us to a higher level of expectation get more out of us,” she said. “Some were like, ‘we’re going to get this done together’ and then some expected to come in and have us to just learn out of the book. That’s crazy.”
While many other students agreed with that sentiment, others said they felt racial stereotypes did determine how they were treated by teachers. One student said that she felt she had teachers, both black and white, that acted as though a student’s ability to learn was determined by their color.
Wenger supported that observation using an illustration from his own experience. Wenger, who is white, told the students as a young man he “met and fell in love with an African American woman.” As a result of the marriage, he became a stepfather to two African American children and the father of a mixed-race son.
Wenger told the students that his son was treated differently by some of his teachers and that his son’s performance in school was often dictated by the teacher’s level of expectation.
“When teachers demand a lot from him, they get along from him,” he said. “When teachers don’t expect a lot, they don’t get much.”
Many of those who spoke shared Wenger’s view but others said that regardless of a teacher’s bias they felt as though achievement was based on each student’s drive and determination.
When discussing a person’s choice of whether or not to attend a private school versus a public school, students offered a variety of opinions. One student expressed his feeling that many white students attend private schools due to desegregation.
Another student said he thought those who went to private schools simply wanted to go to a school where they felt comfortable.
Lastly, a student who attended public school for two years and now goes to a private school, told the audience that the change opened his eyes to a lot of things. He said that prior to attending the private school he never really spoke to white kids, but now he has lots of white friends and has decided the most important thing to him is that everyone realizes that they are human beings first and foremost.
“There are smart white kids and smart black kids,” he said. “Then there are dumb white kids and dumb black kids. But we’re all humans.”
It was the notion that people of different races needed to talk and listen to each other in order to see their commonality that Wenger said was the most important thing that could come out of these types of forums. He praised the students for their courage and frankness.
“This has been terrific,” said Wenger. “Every single comment, whether I agreed with it or not, was very powerful. It came from the heart.”
Albany city commissioner Bob Langstaff Jr., on hand to hear the discussions, said he was impressed with the forum and the opinions coming from the students.
“I thought it was fascinating and fantastic,” Langstaff said. “It was good to hear the students being open and honest with each other. You could really hear them learning from each other.”
Event organizers thanked the crowd for attending and Wenger encouraged the students to carry on the discussion as often as possible.
“It’s my recommendation that these forums happen on a regular basis,” Wenger said. “If we could come together every month, every two months, whatever it might be, think of how great thing would be.”