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In Delaware, Students (And Parents) Can Soon Choose Their Race And Gender At School

Angela Hsieh

When Shyaira Dineen was in first grade, a teacher of hers told her to mark her race as African-American on a standardized test. Dineen remembers that day clearly because she says it confused her. She has a black mother and a white father.

"I didn't argue with her," says the 23-year-old, but she did think it was weird. "Why do I feel like I only have to choose one? You know, if I chose two, would I get in trouble?"

Dineen is now a student at the University of Delaware and says she often thinks about how people might react if she introduced herself as a white woman. "They would be like, 'She's crazy.' "

Last year, after President Donald Trump's administration withdrew guidance on transgender students, Democratic Gov. John Carney issued an executive order to develop a policy protecting minors from discrimination in Delaware.

The administration proposed giving public school students the right to self-identify their race and gender without parental consent. But after facing a tidal wave of backlash, an unparalleled 11,000 comments from people in Delaware and around the country, and threats of legal action, the administration pulled back.

Delaware education officials revised the plan. This time with language to include the need for parental consent and opened the proposal again for public comment.

"We are extremely concerned about the revision," says ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Kathleen McRae. The revisions let schools isolate transgender students by making them use separate bathroom and locker room areas, she says. Civil rights groups have also said the revisions may force schools to out transgender students to unsupportive parents.

But Gov. Carney defends the changes saying that he understands the risks to students, but he also has to respect the rights of parents.

"I think if we start from the idea that every student ought to be cherished and every student ought to be respected, then we're going to end up with a good result," he says.

According to GLSEN, a group that champions LGBTQ issues in K-12 education, 16 states have considered legislation to restrict bathrooms and other gender-segregated facilities based on people's sex at birth. Eighteen states have laws prohibiting bullying based on gender identity, but there aren't any other states that have proposed allowing minors to choose their own race.

In Delaware, that idea divided members of the NAACP. The State NAACP Conference supports it, but President of the Central Delaware NAACP, La Mar Gunn, opposes it. He's also a father.

"I am raising my kid as a strong, young, black male. Period. Does my child have the right to say he's a young white male? Not in my house. No."

Some Delaware high school students are split on the proposed anti-discrimination rule. Amaya Williams, a junior at Mount Pleasant High School, says being mixed race is different than someone switching to their race to something they're not.

"If you're not going through the struggles that a black person faces on a daily basis, there's no way for you to feel black," she says. "You can appreciate black culture, you can have black friends and you can listen to black music, or whatever you do, but you're not black."

Delaware education officials are accepting public comments on the revised anti-discrimination policy through July 6th.

Delaware Public Media's Sophia Schmidt contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 Delaware Public Media

Sarah Mueller