Who Should a Yearbook Remember?

I go to the oldest school in Denver, and its noble past is littered all over the place. Glass cases in stairwells are stocked with trophies from years past. A display on the second floor has the names of East Angel veterans engraved in brass. An exhibit outside of the library showcases East’s most notable alumni — Harold Lloyd, Douglass Fairbanks, Judy Collins, Ward Bond.

In the clocktower, shelves hold every yearbook published by East for nearly one-hundred years. There are framed pictures and paintings of varsity teams, principles and politicians. Almost all of them are white men.

After four years at East, I’ve racked up lots of hours looking at East’s statues and trophies. And now that I’m a senior, I’ve started wondering about what my school will look like in the distant future. How will this year be remembered on the walls of the school, in the yearbooks piled in the clocktower?

Today, East is around 43% white, 32% black, 23% Hispanic and 2% Asian– an unimaginable concept to the old white men enshrined in the hallways. So especially at a school like East, a school which values its history as much as it values its diversity, representation is incredibly important. What will students a century from now think of us? Who will we remember, and who will be forgotten?

I can’t have the full answer to such a question, but I have the beginnings of one.

I decided to audit East’s 2014 Yearbook to see how well we’re doing at representing East’s diversity. Using a random-number generator I found online, I took twenty-five pages from the book and calculated the percentage of white versus non-white students on each page. Sometimes identifying white people was simple, sometimes it was difficult. The few people whose ethnicity was ambiguous didn’t get counted in the page’s tally. With each person, I asked the question: “Would they be offended if I called them white?”

Each of the pages I audited is represented by one bar on the graph. The first red dotted line crossing the graph is the average percentage of white versus non-white faces per page. The second red line represents what the average would be if the yearbook perfectly represented East’s student body.

Even within a reasonable margin of error, the data conclusively show that although whites are no longer a majority at East High School in 2014, the yearbook represents them as if they are. The most exhaustive and durable record of what 2014 was to East, the thing we will store away in our attics somewhere for our grandchildren to take out one day and gaze over in awe, suggests the wrong thing about us.

Charts can provide the numbers, but they can’t provide explanations. In this case, the explanation is as interesting as it is complex.

The yearbook staff and its editors carry some blame, but not all of it. Some cases just aren’t excusable — for example, two or three of the pages I audited were titled “Juniors” or “Sophomores” and were simply photographs of East students hanging out in the hallways or outside. There is no reason why those pages shouldn’t have correctly represented East’s demographics, but white students were consistently represented at rates between 60 and 70 percent.

The more interesting (and more frequent) cases of white students being overrepresented were out of the editor’s control. Many of the pages audited were showcasing East sports, arts or clubs. White students were far over-represented in these sections (aside from Wrestling and J/V Women’s Basketball, where non-whites were over-represented). The baby pictures, which students have to pay extra to have their picture in, were also over-represented by whites.

So the issue that the data points to is a bigger problem with the number of non-whites participating in school activities compared to whites. It’s no secret that while East is diverse, we are still internally segregated by clubs, classes and sports. White students are far over-represented in Advanced Placement and Honors courses, which is a problem that East has been combating for years.

It’s easy to poke holes in how much all of this really matters in the long run. Sure, the yearbook isn’t doing a perfect job, or even a close to accurate job, but it’s just a yearbook. In a century, people will be able to see that East was a pretty-much diverse school. Isn’t that good enough?

That’s a reasonable argument, but if we can make the yearbook more accurate, then why wouldn’t we? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to be honest?

You could also argue that it’s to be expected that white students will end up being over-represented in the yearbook, because a sizable portion of the student body (many of them poor and black or Hispanic) don’t have the time to participate in sports or clubs because they have part-time jobs, or they have to care for family members. There’s no need to force everybody into doing school-sanctioned activities just so the yearbook can be accurate.

So then why not dedicate pages in the yearbook to East students with jobs? Why not make the yearbook’s breadth inclusive of every student’s life, instead of only the lives of college-bound, middle to upper-class students?

And I think there’s also much more to analyze about who gets in the yearbook and who doesn’t. What does the break-down look like of blacks, Hispanics and Asians? What about representation of socio-economic status? How were we representing East students twenty, thirty, forty years ago? Are things getting better or worse? Who’s buying and keeping the yearbooks? Are white students better represented because they’re more likely to buy a yearbook in the first place? And what about other schools in Denver? In the country?

In the wake of the grand jury ruling out of Clayton last week, CNN published a surprisingly good article about our new world of “racism without racists.” For the most part, the problem we have as a country isn’t about racial slurs, the KKK and the back of the bus. It’s about the foundational systems and beliefs we have in place that “cause unsuspecting people to see the world through a racially biased lens.” One of those racially biased lenses is the lens of history– the lens that East has used to celebrate the vast majority of its long existence.

So we can agree that the yearbook isn’t racist. But it’s participating in the telling of history with antiquated traditions. Especially given the crazy and significant year that 2014 was, it’s clear, at least to me, that it’s time to create some new ones.

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4 Comments

  1. As someone who is in yearbook I can say that we are always striving to diversify the yearbook. It’s true, White kids are not the majority in school but they are the majority in the yearbook. I feel that most people gravitate towards similarity so It is no surprise that White kids seem to appear more often. I just want to make it clear that Diversity is our biggest push this year.

      1. I totally agree, hopefully the photographers will read this. Our constant nagging to take pictures of ALL types of student isn’t enough so hopefully reading this will be beneficial.

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