What America to Me Told Me About My Own High School

Photo: Starz Entertainment, LLC

Steve James’s ten-part documentary series America to Me is a bitingly honest mediation of the ways race, class, and equity play out in Chicago’s progressive suburb of Oak Park. I’m a native of Oak Park, and attended preschool through high school in the public school district. I can say from my lived experience that growing up there was an education in the glaring contradictions inherent in its progressive community. The town is both hyperaware of race and simultaneously scared to have honest conversations — conversely, it’s a national leader in diversity and inclusion. I enjoyed growing up in Oak Park, but it taught me about the limits of the white progressive imagination.

I’ll be honest: I thought about avoiding America to Me altogether. I suspected that watching the documentary would bring up unpleasant memories my time at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I intimately know what it feels like to be the only black kid in class and viscerally aware of the differences between myself and my classmates even when they and the teacher were well-meaning. Watching the series gave me a sinking sense of déjà vu and it shocked me that so much remained the same after the 15 years since I entered the high school. After tuning into the first six episodes, I thought about novelist Brit Bennett’s 2015 essay on “good white people.” Like Bennett, I find myself exasperated by well-intentioned white people. America to Me illustrates that the Oak Park community is teeming with well-meaning “good white people” who espouse progressive values but have trouble with a tangible follow-through. This impasse is harmful. It certainly harmed me during my high-school tenure from 2003 to 2007, and America to Me is clear that it’s still harming black students in Oak Park’s school district.

America to Me takes care to introduce the viewers to its cross-section of students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Viewers are introduced to black and biracial students across many gender identities, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds including Charles Donalson Jr., Ke’Shawn Kumsa, Kendale McCoy, Tiara Oliphant, and Jada Buford. Later in the series, two white students, Caroline Robling-Griest and Brendan Barrette, join the roster as subjects. (It’s very telling that it apparently took James and his documentary team well into the semester to find white students and families willing to have candid conversations about race.) We are also introduced to teachers and administrators, notably former assistant principal Chala Holland, English teachers Jessica Stovall and Paul Noble, physics teacher Aaron Podolner, and spoken word educator Peter Kahn. After viewing each episode, I returned to the disappointing fact that they mirror my experience from over a decade ago: Some things have changed, like the smartphones and social media, but the institutional racism has not.

The third episode is where the series hits its stride, encapsulating the ways in which Oak Park strives to equitable, but fails to meets its goals. Despite Oak Park’s values, it is not a vacuum. It is impacted by the same institutional racism that is built into the very fabric of the nation. Good intentions can’t escape the overarching narratives about race that saturate our culture.

Harmful microaggressions show up in small moments all over the school community. There’s the cheerleading coach who earnestly comments that her majority-black team is not full of shy girls when a casual glance could identify many struggling with the typical self-esteem issues inherent to teen girlhood. But black girls, as many studies have concluded, aren’t given the same space as their white peers to be seen as vulnerable or express a full range of human emotion. It also shows up in the classroom of Aaron Podolner, the physics teacher whose appears overly self-satisfied in his understanding of race to the point that it causes conflict between him and the black students in his class. These people are well-meaning, but what consolation is that when the harm of the microaggressions remain the same? I thought back to the conversations on the achievement gap I attended as a high-school student. I hoped at the time that those conversations and action plans would mean that future black students would avoid some of the institutional racism my peers and I faced. It’s devastating that is not the case.

Everyone should be forced to watch a documentary about their high school a decade after they graduated. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways growing up in Oak Park shaped me over the years, but viewing America to Me offered invaluable insight. I didn’t have the language to acutely discuss race, class, and other issues of structural systems in 2003, the year I entered Oak Park and River Forest High School, but I have the language now. What I’ve realized in the years since graduation is that my experience in the school district was inextricably linked to being black and being upper-middle-class. I seamlessly entered honors-level classes because I had been tracked as gifted beginning in early elementary school. Among the many things America to Me illuminates is that Oak Park and River Forest High School operates in practice as three separate schools: one for those tracked in honors classes, one for those in college-preparatory classes, and one for students in the school’s “on campus” program. All three operate with race and class inherently linked to how they are perceived by community members. English teacher Paul Noble acutely notes this when he says that white parents actively push for their children to be put in honors classes because they have internalized negative racialized stereotypes about standard college-preparatory classes and the black and brown students who fill them. Looking back, I shudder thinking about how many cracks I would’ve fallen through had my family not had the financial access and upper-middle-class cultural capital that enabled them to advocate on my behalf and be listened to when they did. I was lucky, but America to Me makes it clear that many black students leave the high school feeling failed emotionally, socially, and academically, and that is unacceptable.

My corner of Oak Park is filled with Black Lives Matter and “Hate has no home here” placards. I know that the community is invested in equity, but America to Me should serve as a wake-up call. What I want is for the community to have honest conversations with an urgent intent to act. If Oak Park, a town deeply invested in equity, is having trouble achieving it, what does it say about the country at large? If not Oak Park, where? If not now, when? In the end, what I want most is for the Oak Park and River Forest students of the future to look back at America to Me and see a stark difference between their reality and that of the documentary.

What America to Me Told Me About My Own High School