by Mollie Butler
“America to Me” is a ten episode documentary series on the Starz network which takes places at Oak Park High School in the suburbs of Chicago that follows students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds at each grade level within the school. The documentary exposes the social, political, and administrative aspects of the school, and education as whole, while looking at both students, faculty and community members. Oak Park was considered an “American experiment in true diversity” because it was a place in which many members of the community had fought “white flight,” and young white liberal members prided themselves on staying in the diverse community. The hour long episodes cover certain events throughout the school year following students throughout their days at school, at extracurriculars, and at home. Steve James, the film maker, selects students whose education is far from equal and works to create an “eye opening” series, by comparing the vastly different education students are receiving within the same school and thus showing why the school is often referred to as “two schools within one.”
The show begins with the controversy of a Black Lives Matter assembly held at the school, primarily for students of color. The discussion was meant to be an outlet for black students, but was seen by many white students and parents as exclusive. While the school took pride in their diversity, the show touched on the idea of diversity not necessarily amounting to equity, but more inequity. It was made clear how change was not something the community was used to or wanted, and they used diversity in the school as a form of “tokenism” for the white teachers and parents who failed to see the underlying issues within Oak Park. They wanted diversity but when it came to the question of equality within the classroom they turned their heads. The phrase “not in my backyard” came to mind when watching the program, when faculty members tried to discuss teaching within a diverse environment, the Board of Education told them they had to do it on their own time and refused to fund their project and instead chose to divert funds to building a new pool. The documentary does a great job of showing the small mannerisms and microaggressions that occur and go unnoticed but have such large implications and reveal the inherent racist and prejudiced tendencies of the school’s community.
The documentary showed varying experiences, asking white students and their parents different questions in which some answered “I don’t have a lot of black friends”, “there are too many cultural differences”, and “the white kids try harder in school than the black kids”. The white students are on the honors and AP track and they view the other classes with more black students as “those classes,” implying that they hold lesser value. Many of the white students discussed their tutoring experiences outside of school which help them with organizational and academic skills while these same resources are not available to the black students. The show avoided relying on stereotypes, however; and painted a 3 dimensional image of each student.
The show revealed how the school held a color blind mentality and thought of themselves as a race neutral zone when clearly each aspect was dominated by race. One episode followed an African American student and the issue of residence within the Oak Park school district. As many parents worked hard to get their kids accepted into this school it became very competitive and the school took residence very seriously. One student shared his experience on how the school had hired officers to track him and follow him after school to make sure he wasn’t lying about where he lived. There were instances where they had knocked on his door to see if he was home. The teachers spoke about how this issue only ever come up for black students in which they have to prove their residency.
Each episode was shocking in itself, especially with the ties it has to our own school in the lack of diversity we have in our faculty and student body, in the distractions we use such as spending months changing our mascot instead focusing on fundamental issues within our school, and with the coded language used within communities that supposedly advocate for inclusion.