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The writer Anand Giridharadas writes a blog called The.Ink. In a recent post, he interviewed author Courtney Martin about her decision to send her child to the neighborhood public school, which was majority black and brown. Anand wrote a book that is very relevant to readers of this blog: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
In it, he argues that the global elite engage in great acts of philanthropy that do little to help the great masses of people but preserves the status quo in which they are the winners.
This is Anand’s introduction to his interview with Martin about her new book:
A few years ago, like millions of parents, Courtney Martin had to decide where to send her child to school. Because she is an acute and thoughtful journalist and social chronicler, she understood what a complicated and fraught and historically loaded decision that was. And so, in addition to making the decision, she set out on a journey to understand the dilemma she was facing — being torn between sending her daughter to the same places all the other white kids were going and sending her daughter to the local, majority-Black-and-brown public school.
It was around this time that, in one of the signal essays of the era, Nikole Hannah-Jones grappled with her own version of this dilemma as a Black woman highly accomplished in journalism, with the options and resources to choose among many places.
Courtney approaches the dilemma from the very different standpoint of a white woman in Oakland, California, trying to understand the deep and enduring segregation in places that, on the surface, seem progressive and woke.
I caught up with Courtney for her first interview anywhere about the much-anticipated new book that grew out of this searching: “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School.” You’ll find that below.
Read the entire interview. This is an excerpt:
“The racism on the left is obscured and full of guilt and shame”: a conversation with Courtney Martin
THE INK: Tell us the story of how you decided what school to send your daughter to.
COURTNEY: When I would take walks around our gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland with my first daughter strapped in snug in the carrier on my chest, I would always walk by our local elementary school. The kids seemed joyful and the grounds seemed beautiful, but I noticed that there were almost no white kids in the playground (which seemed strange given all the white families I’d seen living here). When my baby grew up, and was old enough to go to transitionary kindergarten, I sort of put my journalist hat on and started researching where all the white kids are. That led me on a journey of thousand moral miles.
Ultimately, I learned that despite all the hype about Brown v. Board and Ruby Bridges, our schools hit the peak of integration in the 1980s, and it’s only been downhill from there, largely because of white parents like me who either disinvest from public schools entirely by sending our kids to private schools, or navigate to make sure our kids go to the whitest, most highly resourced public schools in our district. I also learned that integration is the only thing we know that actually works to break the cycle of poverty for Black and brown kids, and that white kids who go to integrated schools do fine. It felt hard, in some ways, to choose a school that most of our friends weren’t choosing, and one with a 1-out-of-10 rating on GreatSchools.org to boot, but the research I did (thank you, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Rucker C. Johnson!) helped us get over that initial fear. And thank goodness it did, because we all love our kid’s school so much.
THE INK: In your introduction, you say that “this book is very much about racializing white people” and that you “attempt to write with a ‘white double-consciousness.’” What does that mean?
COURTNEY: There are so many incredible books about educational inequity and the failed promise of integration, but they tend to be academic. I wanted to write a book that would serve as a gateway drug of sorts to all those great books — a fast-moving, personal story that would draw people in and then hit them with a bunch of new knowledge about race and education, and leave them with some good self-searching to do. My audience is white and/or privileged parents, though I did a lot of work to make sure the book felt useful and true to BIPOC folks in my own community, but also in the educational space writ large.
In any case, I wrote about myself and my family in a deeply vulnerable way, trying to force myself to see the water I swam in and describe it for other white people. Part of what keeps white supremacy in place is that whiteness is treated as a default, as neutral, instead of a distinct culture with its own language, norms, and problems. In a sense, I was trying to center whiteness, so we can get better at decentering white people.
THE INK: You write about Dr. Janet Helms’ “framework for white racial development” that she developed in the 1990s. You quote her as saying: “In the first stage, you are basically oblivious, interacting with very few people of color, and when you do, you do your best to pretend as if nothing is different about them.” A lot of white Americans are still very much in this stage, at best — the colorblind stage. But I would imagine that a lot of your fellow white parents in places like Oakland think they’re different from that, further along the journey. Are they, in fact?
COURTNEY: Exactly. I think Americans who live in largely white neighborhoods and mostly interact with white people — of which there are A LOT — are probably still hanging out in this stage. But most of the white people I know who have chosen to live in hip cities like Oakland, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, etc., pride themselves on wanting to live in multi-racial community. And yet I think many of us, in fact, only have this as an aspiration, not a lived experience. When we actually look around the table at our dinner parties, or check out our kids’ soccer teams, we are confronted with the reality that we live in multi-racial cities, but many of us also lead very segregated lives, particularly socioeconomically.