How Two High School Students Are Taking On Racial Literacy
While high school students are often maligned for wasting their time on Instagram or partying with friends, the stereotype is not true for two recent New Jersey high school graduates. Instead of hanging out with their friends or worrying about college admissions test, they decided to take on the slightly bigger problem of racial literacy.
Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi are two friends and former classmates at Princeton High School in New Jersey. Back in 2014, they thought they understood race, having heard all too common stories about race, discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping.
However, in their sophomore year, during one particular class discussion about current events, such as police brutality and racial profiling, they realised that this was the first time they’d discussed these topics in a classroom setting. Considering that children have been shown to develop signs of stereotyping as early as the ages of 3–4, it seemed crazy to the two friends that students don’t have these conversations in school sooner.
From this, they became convinced that racial literacy should have a place on every high school curriculum. So, instead of waiting for their teachers or the administration to tackle the problem, they took it on themselves.
But, before we go further, let’s take a look at what racial literacy actually means:
What is racial literacy?
Racial literacy is a concept developed by sociology professor and social filmmaker France Winddance Twine from her research in the UK with mixed race families.
The concept describes “a set of practices designed by parents and others to teach their children how to recognize, respond to and counter forms of everyday racism. The emphasis here is on teaching children as well as adults how to identify routine forms of racism and to develop strategies for countering it and coping with it.”
Guo and Vulchi considered themselves and their diverse group of high school friends as quite racially literate, until one particular lunch break.
One of their friends questioned the need for this discussion in their community, saying “there is no racism in my lunch group. There’s Asians and hispanics and a black girl.” When Vulchi asked her friend who the black girl was, she replied that she was referring to Vulchi, who is Indian American.
This conversation made Vulchi and Guo, who is Chinese American, realise that there was still a huge gap in racial literacy, even amongst their diverse group of friends, and that they wanted to try and improve education on this topic.
Of course, they encountered some criticism and even questioned how they would be able to bring about change as high school students. “But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that being high school students was our triumph” Vulchi says.
The way that racial history was taught in high school felt dry and disconnected from the real world and issues happening all around them. Of course, they had learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but it didn’t feel relevant in their modern context. They were interested to hear current stories of living people to bring the statistics and dates to life.
So, the duo set out to talk to people they saw every day in their neighbourhoods, and collect photos and stories, which they uploaded to their website.
These stories include that of a woman in Pittsburgh whose sister found out through a harmless Facebook search that their surname was that of a slave owner, the man who had owned her great great great grandmother. Stories like these make the historic facts feel more “relevant, immediate, because the connection to slavery’s lasting legacy today is made clear”, Guo said in their 2017 Ted Talk.
Once some stories had been collected on their website, the two students presented their findings to their teachers at a faculty meeting. The teachers were impressed and saw the value in the stories, but were still lacking a tool to translate these into a classroom setting. They were looking for action points to spark the conversation.
They were inspired by a tweet from Dr. Ruha Benjamin from Princeton University, who also wrote the foreword for their book, saying “all these schools and districts across our nation aren’t equipping their students with the proper tools to talk about race in America. What we need to do is equip all students with the historical and sociological toolkit for racial literacy.”
Encouraged by their teachers, Guo and Vulchi decided to create just that, a toolkit for racial literacy. With the help of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, they packaged the stories into a 50-page textbook about racial literacy, The Classroom Index.
Gaps in Education
Through their research, they learned that there were two gaps in racial education, which they call the heart gap and the mind gap.
The heart gap is “an inability to understand each of our experiences, to fiercely and unapologetically be compassionate beyond lip service.” And the mind gap describes “an inability to understand the larger, systemic ways in which racism operates.”
The stories and photos in The Classroom Index bridge both of these gaps, with the textbook equipping educators, parents and students with a toolkit to talk about race in America.
In an interview with Teen Vogue, Vulchi said “it enables students to enact change, it inspires activists so students leave the classroom not only equipped with other literacy such as math, reading, and science to make a difference in the world, but they are equipped now with a will and a fight in them for social justice.”
Guo added, “It’s really a platform for listening and learning and sharing the untold truths of race in America.”
In a recent interview, Guo stated: “we hope that anybody who has read through research in our book now understands race and racism in a historical, contemporary context. Now, they can have an idea of what we should do for a more equal society — actual steps that we can take moving forward.”
But the two friends have no interest in stopping there. Since publishing the second edition of their book, now 224 pages of stories, people of all backgrounds and walks of life, and discussion points, the friends have graduated high school and were accepted to Princeton and Harvard Universities.
However, instead of starting their college education right away, the two decided to take a gap year to travel through all 50 US states to collect more stories.
They have since travelled the entire country, documenting more than 500 stories and taking their mission to the next level with their next book, The Race Index, which will focus on the intersectionality of race, gender, class, religion, and ability.
By broadening the scope to the intersectionality of race, they aim to expand the conversation about racial literacy to include all the current important social justice issues that really matter.
The next edition will be published in Spring 2019 and a few sneak peek stories are already available on their website.