March 24, 2012
Bursting my bubble: On Trayvon Martin, disparities in school discipline, and attitudes toward interracial marriage
I've mentioned before that I've managed to live in a bit of a bubble since my first son was born 5 years ago. Surrounded by mostly liberal, supportive friends, life seems safe and cozy for our multiracial family. But consider my bubble burst. Because over the past month it feels like I keep getting slapped in the face by stories reminding me that, in spite of how far race relations have come in America, black Americans are not seen as equal. Suddenly, these stories are coming at me fast and furious.
First there was the AP article about interracial marriage, which reminded me that although the number of interracial marriages and multiracial children are rising rapidly, there are still a whole lotta people out there who have a problem with it. When 17% of Americans don't think it's okay for blacks and whites to date, that means racism is alive and well. (I wrote about that a few weeks ago.)
Then there is the horrible tragedy of Trayvon Martin. An example of racial profiling gone horribly wrong and an innocent child and his family suffering the irreparable consequences. Besides the awful fact Trayvon was killed simply because he was black, there is the fact that the police completely mishandled the case - again, because the victim was black. There is a message, loud and clear, about the impact of stereotypes in our communities and the (de)valuing of black lives.
And at work a couple of days ago I stumbled upon this article - "Disparities in School Discipline Move Students of Color Toward Prison." New data from the US. Department of Education shows that "youth of color are disproportionately the subjects of harsh school discipline." Nationwide, students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled, which not only affects academic achievement but also puts them at higher risk of ending up in prison. Think that if black kids are being punished more it must be because they are acting out more? Nope. The data shows this just isn't the case. Students of color are punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses. Discrimination in action. I imagine that in many cases school administrators would be appalled at the suggestion they are treating students of color differently on the basis of race - but stereotypes and attitudes are so deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious that it happens, whether intended or not. (And surely some of it is blatant discrimination.)
All of this scares the bejeezus out of me. I was under the illusion that if we live in a safe community, if I raise my boys to be responsible and educated and downright amazing (because they are), if they come from a middle-upper class family, if we teach them to take pride in their heritage and share with them examples of amazing black Americans, somehow my children would be protected. People will see just how awesome they are and won't care about the color of their skin. I suppose that was naive. In spite of the support our immediate community might provide, there is still a lot of hate out there and my children are the target of some of that hate. They are the boys that white parents don't want their daughter to bring home. They are the kids being unfairly suspended and expelled. They are Travyon Martin. Wow. Bubble. Burst.
Even outside of hate - so even among people who don't consider themselves racist - we are all affected by the stereotypes fed to us on a daily basis by the media, marketing, and other people. I am wife to a black man and mother to two biracial children, but even I catch myself having automatic reactions and making assumptions about people of color with whom I cross paths on the street or in the store - especially poor people of color. It mortifies me, but it is true. I suppose the important thing is that I recognize and fight it, but I am still ashamed of it. Lately I've taken to reminding myself, That boy or that man could be Bee or Zippy in 10 or 20 years, and I find myself seeing people in a whole new light. People are not stereotypes. Everyone is so much more than that. It is easy to see a person as more than a stereotype when you know him/her personally, but much harder when you don't, when that person and his/her life is unknown to you.
These sorts of stories - about the mistreatment of black people in America - have been in the news off and on for years, but never have they affected me the way they do now. Before, it was an intellectual recognition of the unfairness of racism. Now these stories touch my life in the most intimate way and my reaction is visceral and emotional. That could be my beautiful son killed with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea in his hands. God, I have tears in my eyes right now just thinking about it. It could be my husband - a college professor who lives in baggy jeans and hoodies on his days off. It may be my child who "isn't good enough" for some white girl to date or who realizes he's being punished worse than his classmates (better believe Momma will step in on that one). So I am scared shitless about what will happen when my sweeties leave our little nest of a home, the safe embrace of momma's wings - when they walk out into the world without Hubby and I by their sides, and are seen simply as black males.
(Photos via Flickr: Bubble by Justin D Martin & Bubbles 2 by Joshua Rothhaas. Some rights reserved.)
Labels: parenting biracial kids
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