Reed: New Trier parents, students should listen closely to differing perspectives on civil rights education

Chase Reed, Columnist

The recent debate over the benefits of New Trier High School’s upcoming seminar on civil rights stems from a lack of listening. The program assesses student privilege and educates students on racial issues like implicit bias, angering some parents who claim there is a dearth of conservative perspective on the topic. Several parents at the high school’s Winnetka campus, which serves roughly 4,200 students, have decried the program’s attempt to tackle race-related issues from the perspectives of people of color.

Of course, as a white, straight, cisgender male, I have not been affected firsthand by implicit bias in education. Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to grow up in a diverse community in northern San Diego County — albeit one entrenched in a deep-red pocket uncharacteristic of the rest of the majority liberal state. I went to school with people from a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, which prepared me from an early age to think critically about issues of race and class and listen to those whose perspectives differed from my own.

In high school, I joined the Speech and Debate team, which was comprised of a spectrum of racial, gender and political identities. We learned how to listen to both sides of loaded topics such as gun control, immigration reform and environmental regulation. Our coach pushed us to challenge our preconceived beliefs and to bolster our arguments with knowledge, rather than buzzwords or reactionary catchphrases.

When it comes to debating sensitive topics like race, we must refrain from reacting instinctively. Listening plays a crucial role in the establishment of well thought-out opinions; without listening, a spirited discussion can easily devolve into unproductive shouting. It’s especially important to teach this skill to adolescents in the environment in which they are most susceptible to outside influences: at school. Listening has the potential to foster empathy, selflessness and compassion for one another, a skill that is especially important to unify diverse communities. If we fail to teach adolescents to listen, it can reinforce implicit prejudices that may blossom into bullying or exclusion.

Regardless of individual students’ political preferences, it’s essential for all students to engage with subjects such as the state of race relations in America. And at New Trier, where 85 percent of students identify as white, administrators must ensure students understand the reality of systemic, top-down discrimination that survives because of the ignorance and inaction of white people. Acknowledging racial inequality is especially important in near-homogeneous settings where students can’t establish dialogue with peers who don’t look like them because students of color are a disproportionately small part of the student population.

I encourage New Trier parents, as well as the students themselves, to open their minds listen to different points of view and begin to candidly discuss issues of race and inequality. Rather than declare that racism doesn’t exist, we should work toward creating a culture in which it’s OK to talk openly about America’s racist history.

Chase Reed is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.