One night earlier this year, I found myself sitting on a couch, drunk and stoned out of my gourd, as my friends engaged in a heated discussion about race.
Our friend was getting married the next day, and the night before involved the typical pre-wedding gallivanting, but somehow the after-party turned into a raucous debate about racial dynamics at our alma mater, Oak Park and River Forest High School, west of Chicago.
A former classmate, who’s white, said his experience at OPRF gave him the faulty impression that the world was less racist than he later discovered it to be. His comment irritated two of our other friends, both of whom are black.
Racism was alive and well at OPRF when we were students there, they said, and the white classmate’s failure to recognize it was, at best, a function of white privilege - at worst, a case of callous, willful ignorance.
The debate lasted for at least an hour, with the white classmate trying to clarify his statements, only to frustrate the other two even further.
For once in my life, I refrained from interjecting myself into the debate. Probably because drunk and high at 4 a.m. wasn’t the ideal scenario for forming a nuanced opinion about the most taboo of subjects. Partly because I was enjoying watching my friends scream past each other. (It was like watching an internet comment section come to life.) But mostly because I wasn’t sure whose side I agreed with.
Having your hometown come under national media scrutiny can be a flattering or harrowing experience. For me, “America to Me” has been decidedly the latter.
For the last two months, Starz has aired a 10-part documentary series about OPRF. The project comes from Steve James, the critically acclaimed documentarian behind “Hoop Dreams,” and follows a group of OPRF students (the majority of them black) over the course of the 2015-16 school year. The result is an intimate, unsparing look at their lives and the intersection of race, education and class at the school. And, well, OPRF doesn’t come out looking good.
Sure, there are moments of pride, like when the football team beats the Red Devils from Hinsdale Central, or when the wrestling team wins the state title. I found myself screaming at the television about sporting events that occurred three years ago. Or Ke’Shawn Kumsa eking out a passing grade despite struggling with housing insecurity.
But the docuseries mostly shows a school with enormous racial inequities and an administration largely uninterested in addressing them. The series starts with the school board discussing a report about the achievement gap between white and black students. Somehow, the gap has widened over the past 12 years - white students’ ACT scores have improved, while black students’ have remained flat.
The school board expresses concern, but ultimately does less than nothing to right the imbalance. English teacher Jessica Stovall proposes Woven, a racial equity program based on research she conducted in Australia, where a similar discrepancy exists between the country’s white and aboriginal students. The board rejects it, and she later pilots the program at a nearby Chicago grade school to encouraging results.
There are dozens of similarly exasperating moments in “America to Me,” but the most affecting occurs just two minutes into the series, when student and spoken word star Charles Donalson provides a withering critique of OPRF: “Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids, because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids.”
I bristled at Donalson’s comment at first. The OPRF he describes is not the one I fondly remember. I never thought of OPRF as a school catered to me. In fact, I loved that it wasn’t.
I grew up in River Forest, Oak Park’s wealthier, whiter neighbor to the west, and my perception of high school was shaped by the movies directed by John Hughes. You can imagine my surprise when I realized football players didn’t place at the top of OPRF’s social hierarchy.
OPRF didn’t feel made for me any more than it felt made for band geeks, debate team members, Orchesis dancers, theater kids, spoken word poets, baseball players, black kids and white kids. Watching the series, I was reminded that OPRF felt like a living organism during passing periods - thousands of students, each their own cell, with its own discrete function, teeming through the veins of the school in imperfect harmony. I enjoyed being a small but not insignificant part of it.
Mostly, though, I liked knowing OPRF wasn’t like the other boring, white-bread suburban schools. Ours was the suburb that had the courage to resist white flight and create a truly multicultural community - a microcosm of the grand American experiment and proof that it could work.
But that rosy perception obscured me from problems brimming just beneath the surface. “America to Me” brings them into harsh focus.
Such as the AP American history teacher who says white parents question his bona fides once they discover he’s black. The former department head who claims he was ousted for pushing too hard on racial equity issues. The teachers who form a racial equity task force, only to be told they’re not allowed to hold meetings on campus. The cafeteria workers who say black employees aren’t allowed to work the register.
The term “white privilege” isn’t used until late in the series, Episode 7, when it’s explored in detail. But really, it’s the predominant theme throughout the documentary.
White people often take offense with that term because they conflate it with racism, an active and overt race-based hatred. White privilege is far less cruel than that, but insidious nonetheless. It’s all the subtle ways our social institutions act to the benefit of white people and the detriment of nonwhite people. At worst, it makes white people oblivious to those advantages.
And of that, I’m definitely guilty. The problems presented in “America to Me” existed when I was an OPRF student too; I just chose not to see them. I was on the honors track, for instance, and there were hardly any black students in my classes. I always figured this was the vestige of some unfortunate bygone era and would rectify itself in time. In the dozen years since I graduated, the problem has only gotten worse.
It’s difficult for white people to rid themselves of this blindness, especially when, like me, they want to believe they’re one of the good ones. How do we become aware of something we’ve been immersed in our entire lives? It’s like describing water to a fish.
The greatest triumph of “America to Me” is that it robs white viewers of that blindness, forcing them to confront head-on all the racism they’d rather overlook. It shows them how white privilege, while not as brutal as racism, allows racism to persist. It’s not a pleasant viewing experience, but it’s an important one.
Months after that conversation between my friends, I realized both sides of the argument have merit.
Yes, attending OPRF gives white students the false impression that the world isn’t so racist. And yes, that perception is a product of white privilege. Refusing to acknowledge as much only hinders progress.
John McDermott is a writer, a former resident of River Forest, and a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School. He lives in Los Angeles.