She Looks Puerto Rican—& Isn’t

At the beginning of the debate, Apple Pham was on the losing side. But by speaking from personal experience, the ninth-grader convinced her classmates that ethnicity sometimes has little to do with how you look.

The debate took place this week at New Haven Academy. It put on display not only some of the complex racial dynamics that kids and adults alike find it hard to discuss in America. It also showed how one school is teaching kids to think for themselves and argue for what they believe—prerequisites for active citizenship in a democracy.

In that sense, Hang “Apple” Pham served as a model student as she debated her classmates.

Students in Apple’s class took up the question of whether a person is justified in trying to change the race listed on her birth certificate if it’s not the race with which she identifies.

As students argued over what makes a person white or black, Apple argued that your race is determined by your ancestry, not by the way you look. She said even though everyone thinks she’s Puerto Rican, she’s not. She was not born in the U.S. and identifies herself as Vietnamese and African-American.

Click play above to see excerpts from the debate.

The class discussion was part of an open house day on Wednesday at New Haven Academy. The interdistrict magnet high school has just moved its 240 students into its a home in the old Co-Op High School and St. Mary’s building on Orange Street.

At 11:30 a.m. parents and neighbors gathered in the school’s library to hear school founders Greg Baldwin and Meredith Gavrin speak about their vision.  New Haven Academy (NHA) has “a twofold mission,” Gavrin said: to prepare students for success in college and to have them “ready to be active citizens in a democracy.”

To that end, NHA emphasizes hands-on learning and critical thinking. That means exploring an issue through discussion and then being able to defend your opinion. Students are encouraged to cultivate five “Habits of Mind” that train them to question what they know and how they know it.

100709_TM_0038.jpgReggie Mayo, New Haven’s superintendent of schools, praised the NHA teaching methods. The school prepares students for life, he said. “They have to defend their positions. That’s what life is about.”

That’s what Gavrin’s 11:40 a.m. class was about.

100709_TM_0041.jpgFollowing her speech in the library, Gavrin (pictured) went to room 205 to teach Apple and her classmates in one of the two weekly periods of a curriculum called Facing History And Ourselves. The program, which is a required class for all freshman, asks students to grapple with race, identity, and discrimination by looking at the history of events like genocide.

Visitors were invited to sit in on the 80-minute class, in which students discussed the history of eugenics science in the U.S. and argued about what it means to be white or black.

The culmination of the period was a classwide debate about a 1977 incident in Louisiana, in which a New Orleans woman named Susie Guillory Phipps discovered at 43 years old that her birth certificate listed her as “colored.”

Although Phipps considered herself white, the state traced her family tree back 222 years and discovered that her great-great-great-great-grandmother had been black. Without the 97 percent white ancestry required to be “white” in the eyes of the state, Phipps was listed as “colored.”

Phipps spent $20,000 trying to have her birth certificate changed to say “white.” She wasn’t successful, but Louisiana repealed its 97 percent law just a few years later, in 1983.

The question for Apple’s class on Wednesday: Was Phipps justified in asking Louisiana to change it?

100709_TM_0071.jpgMost of the class thought she was. Apple didn’t agree. Neither did Eddy Cordova (pictured) or Jonandrew Ochoa. The three students faced off across the classroom against 11 other classmates. 

It was a “forced choice” debate, Gavrin explained. If the other side convinces you they are right, you can walk across the room and join them, but you can’t stay neutral.

As the debate began, Aaryn Russell supported Phipps’ right to try to change her birth certificate to say “white.” “If one member—one single member—of her family was black, and everyone else was white, then she’s white,” Aaryn said.

“She decided to waste $20,000 to change her [race]?” said Eddy. “That’s like being racist, because if she put that much money in it, she must not have liked the race for some reason.”

Apple responded directly to Aaryn’s comments.

“When you say it like that, it seems like you’re saying that she had a right to kind of like not accept her great—however many greats—grandmother as her ancestor because she wasn’t white,” she said.  “I don’t see why she has to go through so much trouble, because it seems like she doesn’t accept that part of her, when it is a part of her.”

Alondra Arguello disagreed with Eddy’s assessment of Phipps. “I don’t think she was being racist,” Alondra said.

“OK, she had a great grandmother who was black, but right now, she’s white. And everyone she knows is white, so she is white. So she had a right to go and change [the birth certificate].”

After a few more exchanges, Apple and her debate partners had convinced several of their classmates to switch positions and join them on the their side of the classroom.

Apple disagreed with Alondra’s argument that Phipps was white because she looks white. “People say that I’m Puerto Rican, but I have no Puerto Rican in me,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that I should be Puerto Rican because that’s the way people saw me.”

Shortly thereafter, Unique Johnson switched over to Apple’s side, making the class evenly split as the class came to an end.

After the bell rang, Gavrin said Wednesday’s class was “pretty typical.” The curriculum gives students the tools to discuss complicated issues like race and identity and asks them to think critically about their choices, she said.

She explained why her school places such an emphasis on the Facing History And Ourselves curriculum. As an interdistrict magnet school, NHA combines students from a variety of backgrounds. You can’t put them all together without giving them the tools to talk about the differences, Gavrin said. “You don’t just do that. They have to be comfortable talking about race and class.” That’s what Facing History is designed to do.

The curriculum is also important because it looks at the repercussions of individual choices, Gavrin said. This speaks to the NHA themes of informed citizenship, critical thinking, and personal responsibility. When students study the Holocaust, for example, it is interpreted by examining not just the choices of people in power, but of everyone involved, Gavrin explained.

While looking at historical events through this lens, students are asked to consider the modern world and their place in it. “That’s the ‘And Ourselves’ part,” Gavrin said. “It’s ‘Alright, what’s going on around us?’”

By working on problems like “deconstructing what race is and isn’t,” Facing History teaches students to examine notions that others take for granted, Gavrin said.

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posted by: Bill on October 9, 2009  11:37am

A first step toward racial equality would be to stop classifying people. What is the purpose of identifying someones race on a birth certificate?

posted by: ange on October 9, 2009  12:36pm

So this is what schools are having kids spend their class time on? Terrific - they are sure to be great competitors in the job market later on. They can’t spell and cannot speak and write English properly, but boy, they can hold forth on issues of race.  Wow, great path to success and prosperity.

posted by: Josiah Brown on October 9, 2009  1:21pm

Congrats to Greg Baldwin, Meredith Gavrin, and their colleagues on the opening of of NH Academy in its new location.  It was good to hear about the open house, held in part further to acquaint the school community and neighborhood community with each other.

The article mentions historical and ethical study of subjects such as genocide and the eugenics movement.

History teacher Joseph Corsetti of the NH Academy faculty recently wrote, as a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow, a curriculum unit on “Genetic Testing: Modern-Day Eugenics?”

This was one of the units from a seminar on “Evolutionary Medicine” led by Paul E. Turner, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Joe Corsetti prepared an additional unit this year, as one of the program’s National Fellows, on “That’s My Right, Too: Punishment for Being Different”

This was one of the units produced in a seminar led by Robert A. Burt of the Yale Law School faculty, on “The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of the Civil Rights Movement”

NH Academy English teachers Sandy Friday and Leszek Ward also developed units as Institute Fellows in 2009, in seminars led by English professors Pericles Lewis (“The Modern World in Literature and the Arts”) and Janice Carlisle (“Writing, Knowing, Seeing”).

Sandy Friday writes, “While I have focused largely on literature, I will introduce Picasso’s Guernica, whose highly charged symbols layered with meaning may serve as a metaphor for this unit.”

Leszek Ward’s unit is on “Controlling Sight and Knowledge in The Tempest.”  He writes of this Shakespeare unit, “Studying The Tempest can . . . provid[e] students with a powerful metaphor for the artist in the character of Prospero, who is able to use his magical arts to control and manipulate what other characters in the play see and know. Seeing becomes a metaphor for understanding as students are asked to evaluate how various characters see each other, how the audience sees the play, how Europeans saw indigenous peoples, and how students themselves see criminals in need of forgiveness.”

Regarding the headline of this article, it happens an entire Institute seminar that political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock led in 2005 addressed “The Challenge of Intersecting Identities in American Society: Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Nation”

For example, that volume includes both English- and Spanish-language versions of a unit Spanish teacher María Cardalliaguet Gómez-Málaga (now of Career High School) wrote on “The Americas in America: Un Mar de Identidades”

posted by: Rafael Ramos on October 9, 2009  2:27pm

Thanks Bill, you right another lesson would be, that there is only one race and that is the Human Race. Also Puerto Ricans look like everybody. Proud to be a little of everybody. Say it loud….

posted by: Pat from Westville on October 9, 2009  6:29pm

“They can’t spell and cannot speak and write English properly…”

ANGE: You know this about these kids because?

posted by: selam on October 9, 2009  7:29pm

Cool article!

Bill - That’s a million dollar question you got there. Reality is that most of us identify eachother superficially, so…

Ange - Hmm…interesting point you bring up, although I think that what they’re learning is critical thinking, which I view to be a more important skill than spelling and/speaking.

posted by: nhteacher on October 9, 2009  8:11pm

Dear Ange,

Is school, in your view, just about the job market?  Do schools have no responsibility to deal with moral questions?  Do you think questions about prejudice are not important, and should not be examined?  Should all schools be trade schools?

posted by: Rafael on October 9, 2009  11:08pm

To, ANGE you can help get involved, the schools need all the help they can get. One of these KIDs
may marry into your family one day. Or do you have better Ideas on how to educate. I think debate is good, like math, reading , writing and spanish. The School have read out loud day sign up. Or…........

posted by: urban ed on October 10, 2009  9:33am

It’s critical thinking, Ange….THE most important variable for success in college and the workplace….as reported by colleges and workplaces, no less.

Since apparently, you lack it, please accept my sympathies that you had such an inadequate high school education.

posted by: Edward_H on October 10, 2009  12:04pm

While other countries are teaching their children math and science this is the fluff American teachers are filling classroom time with. No wonder high paying jobs are either being filled by people who move here from other countries or being outsourced to places like India.

posted by: A Mom's Perspective on October 10, 2009  10:01pm

I think the school, class, and debate are wonderful. As a mother of multiracial, multi-ethnic children, I think this class is essential. I agree that we are all members of the human race, yet we all have ethnic, racial, cultural, spiritual, and gender identities that we can and should explore and celebrate. If people talk about these things openly, there will be less ignorance in the world, or at least fewer excuses for it. Bill, Ange, and Edward_H, I think you missed the mark—and the point—entirely. Maybe you live in homogeneous, ethnocentric bubbles…Right on, NHTeacher and Urban Ed, you hit the nail on the head!

posted by: nhteacher on October 11, 2009  5:52pm

Dear Edward,

Math and science are great, but you also need critical thinking.  In fact, success on the CAPT and SAT tests DEPENDS on critical thinking.  And kids need classes on how to be human too, how to make moral choices.  Money needn’t be the only goal.  What about reducing violence and racism?  Science and math are not going to solve those problems.  Also, by the way, New Haven Academy happens to boast some of the best Science and Math teachers in the city.  Come visit and you’ll see.

posted by: David on October 12, 2009  6:32pm

As a person of Puerto Rican descent, I am keenly aware of the nature of racial stereotyping and the way society reinforces racial stratification.  I don’t know how many times on any given number of forms, I have had to check off an association with race in addition to checking off the “Hispanic” box. I resent it.  There is a box for black, white, but not pleasingly tan.  In seriousness, I usually just over ride the form in heavy scrawl with “HUMAN”- my race is human.
Content of the debate aside, I appreciate the teaching methodology employed. Students are asked to react and come to conlusions and then defend those conclusions, not unlike a class exercise in law school.  This encourages solid critical thinking among students and also teaches students to listen as well as speak. The debate skills students learn in class, will serve them well in society in later years.  Kudos to the New Haven Public School system.

posted by: Apple on October 13, 2009  10:30pm

Bill, Ange, and Edward_H, I think your sarcastic comments are truly unnecessary. You don’t think race and racism isn’t an important issue? Considering that we just elected our FIRST African-America president this year? I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’m going to take a guess that you’re not of African-American descendants or you’ll never think that race isn’t an issue. You’re parents would’ve told you all about how segregation affected, and sometimes also dictated, their lives when they were in school. If race isn’t an issue, then why are the KKK around? Why do they set out hurting African-Americans just for having a darker skin complexion than them? If you have something to say about my comments, please comment back, but try to keep the sarcasism down to a minimum, it’s rude and kind of annoying. And Edward_H, you say that school’s in America are filling their students’ heads with “fluff” that other countries are doing better than us at education, yet Oprah is an America, and she’s one of the richest people in the world. And she didn’t get there by being stupid, so apparently the school systems ARE doing something right.You just think about that.