Dear White Elementary and High School Administrators:
As we approach graduation season, can we have a tough, but honest, conversation about something really important? Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I am just going to say this so we can start strategizing: For many people of color, White-organized graduation ceremonies, like most White-organized social functions, are boring! Attending them is like eating oatmeal for breakfast, or unseasoned pot roast for dinner.
For most people of color, your graduations and ceremonies are just the worst! So boring! And we people of color are powerless to control the program of the ceremony. So we suffer through the procession, flags and official seating of ranking administrators, etc.
And, the entire thing is about timing!
Instead of focusing on celebrating, you are focused on making sure it starts and ends on time. And, time, as an important value for a celebratory function, isn’t something that is important to most people of color. We operate on Colored People’s Time (CPT). I acknowledge this happens, but I’m with Damon Young: You’re not allowed to joke about it.
Because of the different ways White people and people of color view time, graduation ceremonies become even more terrible. Not only are we rushed through this stale, boring, “traditional ceremony,” we also have to either try to hide our natural responses to celebrate (like clapping) or risk being punished for not doing things the “White/quiet way.”
I know, I know. I told you this was going to be hard. But it is the truth. Like church, BBQs and weddings and funerals, people of color have different traditions. And, usually we can do good with our separate, but equal, traditions, like Black church and White church, Black BBQs and White BBQs, when we get to school stuff, it is harder.
Culturally Diverse Graduation Ceremonies Do Not Equal Jim Crow
It sounds soooo bad: “racially segregated events” and “separate but equal” events. They should sound bad, because America has a horrible history of actually implementing these policies.
OK, before you overreact, please know, I am not talking about Jim Crow segregation. But for the sake of an opportunity to truly celebrate our loved ones, in a free and open way, I am willing to take the criticism for asking that we have racially segregated graduation ceremonies, starting in elementary school and continuing through high school.
The idea is not unique. In fact, it is common in many Predominantly White Colleges and Universities (PWIs). Since 1978, the University of Illinois has held a Black Congratulatory ceremony for its graduates, one of the oldest ceremonies of this kind in the country. Stanford holds another. At Brown University, the Onyx Rite of Passage, or Blackalaurate, ceremony takes place the night before the main commencement ceremony. A recent New York Times article highlighted alternative graduation ceremonies honoring first-generation college students and LGBTA students, as well as students of color.
“I went to the Black Congratulatory and it was a party, a celebration. You know how we celebrate,” recalled my husband’s best friend, Eric, who graduated from the University of Illinois in 1996. “It was a festive affair compared to my college graduation. I didn’t go to the general populace graduation. Went to the Black Congratulatory and then the engineering college graduation.”
Let’s apply this idea not just to college graduation ceremonies, but to high school and eighth-grade graduations. People of all races could choose which ceremony they wanted to attend, or attend both. Diplomas would be given at both. Students would wear graduation robes at both.
At the Very Least, You’ve Got to Let Us Cheer, But There’s So Much More
But for the Black graduation ceremonies, these aspects would look different:
- Time: The, for lack of a better term, “Colored Graduation” would have an “estimated start and end time.”
- Noise: Noise is expected and planned around. People might chew gum, have ring tones that go off during the ceremony, bring a tambourine. All of these things will be planned around and will not affect the ceremony.
- Expression of Emotions: This is the biggie. Look, POC, and Black folks in particular, are expressive people. The idea that we should withhold our emotions of joy, on one of the happiest days of our lives, the graduation of our children, is insulting. It is also, as many people who firmly hold onto the values of quietness can attest, at “White Graduations,” it’s unreasonable and unrealistic. It goes against everything in our cultural DNA, to not express, with words, noises, dances, tambourines, bullhorns, whatever tool we feel most expresses how excited we are, our complete joy and happiness.
- The Black American Experience: There are specific trials and ancestral tributes that are important to include in Black ceremonies. Black people know they didn’t get their success on their own. There were a lot of people, ancestors who were enslaved, ancestors who weren’t allowed to go school, parents who worked two or three jobs, and this is not just a moment for the student, but to honor all those who helped the student get to where they are.
- Diverse Entertainment: Perhaps someone would like to do a praise dance, or a stepping routine, or a miming. Basically, there are so many ways to celebrate a graduation, and having a keynote speaker and the band playing one, usually European, song is just not enough.
- Potluck BBQ after graduation: Another way that we enjoy celebrating, is with food and socializing. Why not hold an after-graduation BBQ in the parking lot? Seriously, it isn’t hard to plan. Just send out a group email and ask people what they are bringing. People of color are experts at planning BBQs on a short time deadline.
In the end, we all want the same thing, to celebrate the wonderful achievements of students with their school and family community. I believe that each culture should be able to create that celebration in a way that reflects who they are and how they celebrate.
So that might mean more than one “official” graduation ceremony. Administrators, look at this honestly and encourage racially diverse graduation ceremonies for elementary and high schools.
And, at the very least, please stop telling parents to hold their cheers for their children when their names are called. That is a direct assault on our cultural expression. We cheer. We cheer loudly and proudly. We cheer because we know where we have been as a people and how far we have come. The pride of that moment, getting a diploma, is worthy of multiple cultural expressions of celebrating.