We’ve officially reached the halfway point of America to Me, and it’s time to ask: Where are the white students?
In a voiceover early in the episode, director Steve James explains that when he set out to film the series, he intended to follow both white and black students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. His crew helmed an information table in the lunch room. They followed up with possible candidates. But for some reason it was difficult to get white parents to let their children star in a documentary about race at their high school.
The episode opens with a montage of what a handful of white students think about racial disparity at the school.
“As a preacher’s daughter, as someone who is a higher class, I guess, I expect myself to be a high performing student.”
“I don’t have black friends.”
“For some reason, the white kids try harder at school.”
“For some reason, the white kids try harder at school”? Did everyone’s head burst into flames when they heard that, or was that just mine? Each of these kids, by the way, delivers these statements with a shrug — a resigned acceptance that at OPRF, this is just the way things are. There’s nothing we can do about it, I guess. I just don’t have any black friends. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
This particular episode of America to Me doesn’t begin to question where some of these white students are getting their ideas — probably because their parents didn’t want James getting close enough to figure it out. That’s doubly disappointing.
Despite the struggle to recruit candidates, America to Me does manage to introduce two white students in this episode to show how the other half lives. Up first is Caroline, a freshman who loves learning and says that school gives her a reason to wake up in the morning.
Yeah. You’re 14. Going to school is literally the only thing you have to do.
Caroline knows that lots of other people fight to get the kind of education she has, so she might as well appreciate it. Her father lost his job in 2008 and has worked three jobs to keep their family in Oak Park since.
The other white student we meet is star baseball pitcher Brendan Barrette. He arrived at OPRF as a standout on the mound but doesn’t exactly apply himself when it comes to schoolwork.
The most interesting parts of Brendan’s time onscreen are with his family. His father grew up in Logan Square, between a Mexican and Puerto Rican community, and recalls gang violence unfolding around him. Brendan’s mom grew up in Park Ridge, where a Jewish neighbor girl was thrilling.
They wanted to raise their son somewhere diverse and settled on Oak Park. Mhmm, we’ll see.
Meanwhile, it’s the end of the semester and students’ grades are falling into place. Jada presents her final project in Creative Filmmaking, a documentary short about colorism. It consists of multiple interviews with fellow students and ends with an uplifting montage of black students declaring that they love the skin they’re in.
Afterward, her classmates latch onto a few comments about men preferring to date light skinned black women or white women. It starts with one student throwing a little shade on another, who openly admits to preferring white women, asserting that his “preference” isn’t “racist.”
Jada gets frustrated that her work is turning into a conversation about dating. (For so many creative people, it’s hard to listen to criticism or hear your work be misconstrued. Also, Jada is in high school.) Her teacher and classmates characterize her complicated feelings as “anger” and Jada takes off her mic and leaves. Jada is having a lot of feelings, but it’s not great to interpret what’s clearly young creative frustration as “anger.”
Elsewhere, Terrance, newly enrolled in a more advanced “college prep” course, works with an assistive tech leader on learning tools that will help him finish his schoolwork. The tech leader calls it a quick fix to a complicated problem. Terrance is failing Mr. Noble’s English class, and Mr. Noble thinks his enrolling in the college prep track was detrimental. Still, he doesn’t blame Terrance’s mother for wanting college and academic achievement to be her son’s reality.
Chanti is dealing with the fallout from a basketball game against Fenwick, a private high school in Oak Park whose demographics tend to be whiter and richer than OPRF’s — which is saying something. To put it in simpler terms, OPRF is the Pawnee to Fenwick’s Eagleton.
During the schools’ annual matchup at a Chicago-area hoops event, things get out of hand. On the way to the game, OPRF students take over an L car, singing and screaming. But at the game, the rivalry takes a dark turn. OPRF students shout “DADDY’S MONEY” at Fenwick’s students, and the Fenwick kids shout back, “YOU’RE GONNA PUMP OUR GAS ONE DAY.”
The prior year, we learn, there was a massive fight in the parking lot. But this year, when OPRF students confront the Fenwick kids outside the stadium, Fenwick doesn’t do shit. (Listen: I’m not advocating that children fight, but if you’re willing to shout “GOD’S ON OUR SIDE” at a basketball game and don’t believe you’re predestined to win a fight, you’re all talk.
Later, students in a leadership class, Chanti among them, are chastised by administrators for… not doing something? About a basketball game that not all of them even attended? Once again, OPRF’s fixation with maintaining its pristine image gets in the way of plain old logic. After all, Principal Rouse was at the game and he didn’t pull an Officer Krupke and step in.
Finally, we see Ke’Shawn coming into the school during his winter break to meet with his teacher, Jessica Stovall. Ke’Shawn didn’t finish a few crucial essays required to pass her class, but she’s letting him finish the work in private tutoring sessions. Ke’Shawn is resistant, and going through a turbulent time at home.
At the end of their session, Ke’Shawn hands Jessica what he says is a little gift “from his grandma.” But when Jessica opens it, there’s a card from Ke’Shawn himself thanking her for pushing him harder than he pushes himself. Jessica tapes it up in her classroom — something to look at for assurance that she’s doing the right thing.