Black History Month:
Black Culture on Campus
Febuary 26, 2019
How do Black History Month and other celebrations of cultures of color fit in at private institutions like Westridge where Black students are in the minority? Black History Month takes place each February, and its purpose is to recognize the experiences of African-American individuals and appreciate the progress they have made.
At its core, Black History Month is a celebration of culture, but on our campus, most celebrations are small-scale and student-driven. It is a rare opportunity to showcase the culture and experiences of Black students, teachers, and faculty on our campus.
Historically at Westridge, cultural celebrations are distinctly separated from everyday campus experiences. Gary Baldwin, Director of Upper School, described his understanding of the role of African-American culture on campus. “In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve seen that the conversation about making sure the students and faculty in our population can see themselves in the things we are teaching has always been a priority, but we can be better about talking about how that actually plays out,” said Mr. Baldwin.
Furthermore, Amber Arbet, a Lower School history teacher, explained her perception of Black History Month and where it should be present on our campus and in our classroom. Ms. Arbet described the use of “mirrors” and “windows” to understand individual experiences and the experiences of others. “Schools should be places where children are given opportunities to explore what is unfamiliar and see their own lives valued and validated. ‘Mirrors’ can be extremely powerful for students who are of a different race, culture, gender, language, or socioeconomic status from the majority. They also help cultivate a positive and healthy environment for our underrepresented students while raising the awareness of all. When teachers make a conscious effort to use ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’ in the classroom, we see the needs of our students more fully, and our teaching encompasses a more critical eye.”
This year, Westridge commenced Black History Month with the annual Martin Luther King Jr. assembly. The rest of February consisted of a Black History Month Assembly, a now annual event. Westridge’s Black Student Union also participated in Black Excellence Expo, an event for African-American students of independent schools across Los Angeles.
“I think we need to do a better job planning events during this month, but I also feel torn sometimes because Black History Month should not be one month out of the year. I don’t know if that’s the reason there’s not a lot of focus around it,” explained Dr. Jessica Pérez del Toro, Dean of Student Voices and a Spanish Teacher. “We need to make sure it's not just something we talk about once a month or one month out of the year but ongoing conversations about the Black experience,” argued Dr. del Toro.
Comparatively, throughout Los Angeles, independent schools had their own way of celebrating Black History Month. In La Cañada, Flintridge Preparatory School’s Black Student Union took charge and planned a soul food sale and a panel of African-American entrepreneurs, doctors, and businessmen. Furthermore, in our own community, Lower School students participated in a unit about influential African-Americans in the United States. Westridge’s Black Student Union posted flyers of influential figures across campus, and in the Upper School course, “Perspectives in Literature: Signs, Systems, and Codes,” students continued their interdisciplinary study of “Slave Narratives to Lemonade — Listening to the Voices of Black Women.”
The Black Student Union (BSU) at Westridge plays a significant role in African-American culture on campus. “The purpose of the BSU is to provide a space for students who identify as Black to have a place to talk about what is special, challenging, and exciting about being Black,” elaborated Summer G., ’19, co-head of BSU. Consequently, Annie L., ’19, co-head of BSU, elaborated on her own experiences with Black History Month at Westridge. “I don't see my culture too much around campus. … I think during Black History Month people are forced to notice Black culture even if they don't want to. … It is a month where our culture is really accepted,” she explained. When looking at the role of culture on our campus, Annie noted the ways it brought the community together.
The Yam Festival, a school-wide potluck started by an African-American family, remains one of the only celebrations of cultures of color on campus, along with Tortilla Day and the Lunar New Year Assembly. “We also need to go beyond fun, food, and festivities when it comes to introducing cultural experiences because if we are not careful, these can reinforce stereotypes, so it is important to strike a delicate balance,” argued Dr. del Toro.
Later, Dr. del Toro noted the absence of cultural awareness in the everyday Westridge experience. “The celebration of culture is definitely an element that I feel is missing on our campus, and I would love to see a lot more highlighting of culture. … I think that we get so busy that we don’t make time for some of these moments. However, it should not just fall on affinity groups to educate the community. This also needs to come more from the day-to-day curriculum, and there is work currently being done to improve that,” stated Dr. del Toro.
Mr. Baldwin explained what the school is doing to further educate and celebrate student identity on our campus. “Among the things we’re really concerned about as a school [are] all the issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion; part of that means having a common language and common culture that supports and celebrates all the different cultural elements. So, we’re having conversations at a department level and at the division level about ways we might do that,” said Mr. Baldwin.
Oona L., ’19, the Senior Head of Student Voices, promised that Student Voices would also do more to celebrate Black History Month in not only hosting the annual MLK Jr. assembly but also an assembly on Black History Month itself. “The purpose of this [assembly] will be to delve deeper into the history of the holiday and how Black History Month exists in the modern day. It should be a chance to reexamine the importance of the month and kick off a new tradition where Black History Month is more widely celebrated at Westridge,” remarked Oona. When asked about the place of culture on our campus, Oona noted the ways in which it served our community. “Cultural expression gives us a really fun, important way to remember that even though we are all going to the same school and live in the same place, we come from many different backgrounds that make us unique. … In my four years at Westridge, I have seen the number of student-led culture initiatives skyrocket, and I really hope it continues to do so,” concluded Oona.
Black History Month reminds us of our differences, and how they divide and connect us. “I do find it shocking sometimes when I look around the room and I’m the only Black person in there. I do find that my white peers are understanding, and it is good to be a part of a community where people learn from their mistakes,” stated Zaynab E., ’20. Several other Black students echoed a similar sentiment. “In terms of my own cultural identity and how it intersects with the atmosphere at Westridge, I can say the two are simply incompatible. I know that seems pretty brash, but I feel like because this institution is so white there is no way for me to share my experiences or figure out and be who I am,” described Eva B., ’21.
“I think it’s important to share [culture] to combat ignorance. The more we know about each other, the more we can come together and the better we can understand one another, but it is everyone's job to engage in this learning and to strive to be culturally sensitive and competent. We also can't assume or expect that one group holds all the knowledge and responsibility to educate an entire community about their experience,” concluded Dr. del Toro.