Exploring Assimilation in American Promise

Essential Questions
  • How does race influence the process of assimilation?
  • How is race-based assimilation occurring in educational institutions?
  • Encourage reflection or discussion about how institutions play a role in achievement, access, assumptions and success.
  • Examine how educational institutions may unintentionally foster race-based assimilation.

You need:

  • ability to access audio and video on your device;
  • pen and paper or a computer; and
  • about one hour.

Create a triple-column document. Label the columns with these headings:

I am certain about…
I am uncertain about…
Questions I have regarding race and assimilation…

Take 3-5 minutes to respond to each prompt.

Background Experience

Step 1 — Generate a list of authors, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, scholars, leaders, politicians and theorists you learned about and learned from during your high school years.

Step 2 — Circle the names of the individuals who share your racial identity.

Independent Activity

Step 1 — Examine your list closely, noting what other aspects of identity, like gender, ethnicity, educational level, are present.  

Step 2 — Determine what common identities appear most often, and make a list.

Step 3 — Take 10 minutes to write in response to this prompt:

How does the list of names inform learners about whose voice and presence should be followed for access to success?

How do the people from and about whom we learn inform our understanding of access to success?

Extended Activity:

Working in a group? Discuss aspects of your written response with others. Jot down new ideas or questions that emerge.

Working independently? Commit to keeping for one week a log of the voices of senior leadership and high-ranking authority you encounter in your institution.

Note their educational standing, gender, race and other characteristics.

After one week, review the list for patterns.

Reflect: If you see racialized patterns, how might these patterns unconsciously shape a student’s perception about race?                                    

Acquisition of knowledge

To access success, youth of color must make choices and compromises—some conscious, others unconscious—about what parts of themselves to bring into the intellectual experience and which to leave behind.

Acknowledging this reality allows students to understand and articulate how and why their crucial decisions affect their learning and shape their humanity.

Acknowledging this reality allows educators to interrogate how educational institutions consciously or unconsciously affect the lives and choices of youth and their parents.


Next, you’ll see some clips from American Promise

As you watch, consider the choices Seun and Idris make.


At what points do Seun and Idris make choices about who and what comes with them into the Dalton experience?

How and when do you see Seun and Idris choosing to leave a person, idea, belief, or value behind?

What are some of the specific results of these choices? 


Create two timelines. Each boy should be the focus of one timeline.

On each timeline, highlight specific decisions Idris and Seun made about fitting into the dominant culture at Dalton.

Include at least two instances when each boy’s parents expressed concerns about the way race was shaping their son’s learning experiences.

 In a group? work with a partner on this activity.


The decision to attend a school like Dalton requires families of color to suspend their cultural world-view in exchange for the educational opportunity and the school’s longstanding prestige. Students and families understand their culture will not be placed at the center of the independent school learning experience.

Think about the scene where Idris asks his parents if Dalton would be easier if he were white.

What specific situation prompts this important question?

After Idris poses the question, his parents’ silence provides an answer. How does the silence inform Idris, the family, and you about African-American racial identity?        

How does the silence inform Idris, the family and you about white racial identity?       


Return to the triple-column document you created earlier. Add new thoughts, considerations or questions.


View these clips, noting the statements made by Libby Hixon, Daryl Rock and Debbie Almontaser.


In what different ways does each educator talk about Seun, his progress, his learning potential and his educational success?

How does each educator facilitate Seun’s educational success?

In Closing, reflect on these three questions:

1. To attend Dalton, both families must commit to making sacrifices, noticeable changes and radical shifts to assimilate and navigate the institution. Both families examine and reshape their familial, racial, cultural and economic identities as well as their educational philosophies. Meanwhile, schools like Dalton stand on traditions, reputations and histories that ensure permanence. Dalton makes some adjustments for the boys, but the institution’s structures and missions do not shift. As a result, the task of assimilating falls on the families and the students. In a short journal entry, reflect on this reality and the demands it puts on students.

2. What messages does your institution send to students and families about race-based assimilation? In what ways do you see students either attempting to assimilate or rejecting and resisting assimilation?

3. Assimilating is both necessary and problematic for African Americans. How do Seun’s and Idris’s experiences reflect that dichotomy?

This is the second in a four-part series. Next in the series is “Fulfilling the American Promise: Rethinking Achievement.”

Stacey Gibson is a 15 year veteran teacher in the Chicagoland area.