So You Want To Talk About Race?

Ijeoma Oluo speaks about race at Parker


Photo credit: Nick Robinson

Ijeoma Oluo speaks to the Parker community during Morning Ex.

A “well-versed speaker” is what Assistant Principal Priyanka Rupani describes as the best tool – the gold standard – for productive conversation about race. By inviting this year’s D’Rita and Robbie Robinson DEIB speaker, Ijeoma Oluo, to Francis Parker, Rupani was able to bring in a qualified expert to participate in a school-wide discussion about race. 


Oluo is a writer, speaker, and activist who advocates for a progressive and intersectional approach to discussing racism. Her books, “So You Want to Talk About Race” and “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America,” have become award-winning publications that Rupani believes are “leading pieces of work to help spark important conversations in many communities.” 


Rupani describes Parker’s conversations about race as “intentional yet infrequent,” while acknowledging the school’s willingness to engage in an important discussion. Rupani believes that Parker students and faculty must focus on “building the muscle of constant productive conversations” throughout the school. 


Junior Audrey Hunter also admires Oluo’s responses to the community, as they “really resonated” with her. “She was great,” Hunter said. “I actually loved everything she talked about.” 


However, Hunter is doubtful that Oluo truly impacted the Parker community. “As much as I’d like to wish she truly affected Parker,” Hunter said, “I don’t really think every single person was fully engaged and listening.” 


Rupani believes Oluo’s discussion was a “conversational way to encourage students and adults to participate in DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging] discussions,” which builds on Parker’s year-long work in DEIB studies.


This school year, DEIB courses have been a consistent aspect of Parker’s curriculum and Rupani’s effort to “promote the amount of healthy conversation at Parker.” Oluo’s invitation preceded an interactive lesson about DEIB, a presentation from outside representatives, and many other conversations.


“The idea of DEIB is great, but I don’t feel like it’s being executed properly,” said senior Lavanya Goyal. “That’s why no one’s paying attention.” 


While the entire Parker community was seated in the auditorium during Oluo’s visit, Hunter believes the message would have resonated with students better in small groups. “We would’ve had the opportunity to actually talk about race if this was done in advisories or graderoom,” Hunter said. “But because the talk was in the auditorium, it was very difficult for the audience to engage.” 


Hunter’s solution to the issue of inactive audience members is to open discussion within a small group with fewer adults in the room. “I think, maybe, people are afraid to say anything because of the amount of students and adults in the room,” Hunter explains. “If we have one adult and fewer students, and even mix up students of color and white students, we’ll have many different perspectives and good conversations,” she said. 


Goyal shares this opinion. “I understand that it’s really important for the whole school to learn about DEIB, but when they cram everyone together, like high schoolers with fourth graders, it’s hard for everyone’s needs to be met,” Goyal said. 


Goyal acknowledges Parker’s positive intentions for school-wide education but also sees the school’s inability to do so efficiently without being counterproductive. “At a certain point, the school can’t keep giving the same information to the entire student body. Younger students learn in a different way than older students, and you don’t want to risk misunderstandings,” she said.


For the future of DEIB studies, Rupani wants to continue her work in “important but difficult” conversations throughout Parker. Goyal explains her appreciation for the range of thoughtfully selected topics during these meetings and her hope for them to continue. “They’re doing a great job with who they pick for speakers and what they decide to talk about,” said Goyal. “I really hope they continue with this.” 


As long as the topics continue being factually correct with helpful information, Hunter believes DEIB discussions are a critical part of Parker’s curriculum. “I’m really happy that we’re taking the time to talk about these topics. I hope they don’t start getting repetitive. That’s really when they’ll lose engagement.” 


Oluo focuses on educating adults about how to interact with their students, especially in conversations around race. Rupani asked Oluo to connect with the Parker community once more to engage with faculty and parents for an evening presentation. “We invited her back that same evening so parents and guardians could have their questions answered about their pursuit of supporting students,” said Rupani. “It’s so important that they were included in the conversation.” 


Rupani  hopes that Oluo’s presentation with adults and students will spark conversation outside of Parker. “You know, education should be carried out into the world, and that’s why I hope Oluo’s presentation was the spark to these conversations at home.” 


A common thread between the conversation with students and adults was Oluo’s advice on hw to discuss race. Oluo described different methods of how to begin or continue these conversations and the situations where they were appropriate. “I agree with everything she said about how to talk about race,” explained Hunter. “She was really careful and thoughtful with her responses, which I really appreciated.” 

When asked about the most important takeaway from the discussion, Hunter explains that Oluo said something so great that she had to write it down: “If they don’t want to listen or learn, leave them alone/walk away.”