Is It Cultural Appropriation To Believe In School Choice For All?

Photo Credit: Ballet Hispánico School of Dance © Christopher Duggan

This past weekend, I sat at Ballet Hispánico, watching my 15-year-old son perform in their annual Winter Showcase. His exhibition consisted of three performances: Ballet, Modern Dance, and Flamenco.

My three children are not even a little bit Hispanic. When my older son spit in a tube and had his DNA tested, the results came out: 42 percent European Jewish, 32 percent African (12 percent coming from Nigeria, 7 percent from Benin/Togo, and 7 percent from Cameroon/Congo), 15 percent Great Britain, 11 percent Middle Eastern. Yup, that pretty much lines up with what we know about our family.

Definitely not even a little bit Hispanic. And yet, from the time he began studying at Ballet Hispánico at the age of 8, my middle child has loved Spanish dance.

As I sat watching him perform this weekend, I thought to myself, “Somewhere, someone is going to think this is cultural appropriation. And they’re going to be against it.”

Not the people who run Ballet Hispánico. One of the things I love about this school is the diversity of its students: Kids of all ethnicities come from across the city to partake in its unique curriculum.

You know what else I love about Ballet Hispánico? Their no-nonsense attitude. The teachers, many from Cuba, don’t coddle these kids. They expect them to be responsible, well-mannered, prompt, respectful, and hard-working. The behavioral bar is set very high, and those who fail to reach it are dealt with accordingly.

In that sense, I find I have more in common, attitude-wise, with the families at Ballet Hispanico, than I do with many of my neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Despite the fact that all of us spitting into tubes would likely reveal multiple genetic similarities.

Because I write about education in NYC, I often find myself in the position of writing about policies that primarily affect people who are not my genetic match.

Many of the policies I write about disproportionately affect ‘blacks and browns’ (am I the only one who finds that term… odd?).

Does my advocacy equal cultural appropriation? Is it my version of White (Wo)Man’s Burden, like those parents who boast about how they bravely took on the task of improving their poor, unfortunate neighborhood schools and, what do you mean some didn’t appreciate it?

I don’t think so. Because I’m not speaking for them. I am advocating for their right to speak for themselves.

Those in charge of making policy decisions will often handpick a single representative of a group – strangely, that representative, 99.9 percent of the time, agrees with the entity that selected them – and proclaim that all people who belong to said group agree with the representative, and since the representative agrees with those in charge, well, here we go, democracy in action!

I would never dare to speak for anyone. Heck, based on my own, shall we say, iconoclastic views, I wouldn’t even dare speak for all the 49-year old, red-headed Soviet-Jewish women married to Black men who live on the Upper West Side. (Believe it or not, I’m not the only one).

But I dare, and I do, speak for everyone’s right to speak for themselves. Even when the things they say aren’t the “appropriate” opinions for those in their demographic. My husband isn’t only Black, but he’s also a teacher. Yes, he’s that unicorn, the one NYC claims they’re so desperate to recruit, because diversity of experiences is so vital in the classroom. My husband is a Black, male teacher — he even prefers middle school to all other grade levels. And yet, you would be shocked — or maybe you wouldn’t be — by how many times he’s been taken to task for harboring opinions about education that don’t fit with what those criticizing him believe his opinions should be. (Just one example: No, he doesn’t think SHSAT standards should be lowered for minority students. Yes, he is familiar with the plight of minority students at SHSAT schools. He went to Stuyvesant.)

In my school consulting practice, I work with hundreds of families. Many of them make choices for their children that I would never make for mine. Yet I still wholeheartedly support their right to make those choices.

When I wrote about Black parents who preferred Afrocentric schools to the integration they’re told they should want, I wasn’t validating their choices. I was validating their right to make them.

The same goes for when I wrote about parents who opted out of their zoned public schools for progressive unzoned ones, who chose a more academically rigorous charter school, a Gifted & Talented program, a dual language program, a private school, a religious school, or the publicly funded school for the highly gifted that even parents who swear they believe in public education are willing to quietly make an exception for.

I’m not the Lorax. I don’t speak for the trees. And I certainly don’t claim to be a tree. (Though, if I were a tree, what sort of tree would I be….)

As this earlier post demonstrates, I don’t even speak for my own son! I just believe the trees should be allowed to speak for themselves. And they should be listened to. Even when their opinions aren’t the most popularly-held ones in the forest.

What do you think?

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