I suspected it would happen at some point – the day would come where we would need to address race in some way with the boys’ school. Would it be something in the curriculum? An inappropriate comment from a teacher? Some sort of differential treatment of students based on race? I have heard from parents whose black children, as seniors at a local high school, were directed to apply to community college in spite of A averages in honors classes. Seriously. I am an optimist at heart, but I figured it was entirely possibly at some point we’d be walking into the school to say, “Um, this is problematic, you know.” I just didn’t think it would happen so soon!
Zip mentioned at dinner last Wednesday that the 3rd graders had come to his kindergarten classroom that day as part of a class activity. As part of the activity, some of the students were pretending to be slaves. His understanding of the activity was murky at best, except to tell us that the “slaves” wore red arm bands so that the other students knew who they were. “What is going on at that school?!” Hubby wanted to know. We really didn’t know – we didn’t know what the activity was about or how it was being conducted, only a six-year-old’s vague report – so I suggested we just start off by asking the principal.
You know, if I am honest, I have to wonder: If I wasn’t a mom of children of color, if I had married a white guy and was raising white kids in a predominantly white community, would I have thought twice about this? Or would I have thought, How nice – the teachers are trying to make learning fun and hands-on, and gone about my merry business? I suspect it would have been the latter. And so, I get it. I get that schools can come from a place of genuine good intention but be engaging in activities that are not racially or culturally sensitive. I get that the staff may not have considered the broader implications of a project like this and its potential to be offensive or make some students feel uncomfortable. I get it, because if not for my family, I may not have considered all of that myself.
Even being more tuned into the more subtle nuances of how racism manifests itself, my radar is less sensitive than my husband’s. I have a slow-dawning, “Um, I think that may be offensive” reaction. My husband provides the no-doubt confirmation: “YES, that is offensive!” and, lucky for me, he can always explain the reasons to me. I want to make sure my boys are not exposed to things at school that could potentially make them feel uncomfortable as African-Americans and I understood my husband’s explanation of why the activity wasn’t a good idea. But I don’t have that immediate, visceral reaction my husband had and that he often has to race-related issues. He’s been the one black student in an otherwise all-white classroom, singled out during discussions of slavery. He’s also taught classes on race, so he has solid academic grounding in the topic. His radar is much more sensitive than mine, and I try my best to learn from him.
These sort of situations make me anxious. I worry about a confrontation, a debate, things getting uncomfortable. Lucky for me Hubby took the lead with reaching out to the school and emailed the principal. I have to give props to the school – they responded right away and even followed up by calling us the next day. While (thank God) the project didn’t involve a master-slave role play or auction block, as some schools have actually done (seriously?!), my husband explained to the school that any kind of “game” related to slavery trivializes a really horrific part of our country’s history and also has the potential to turn into an uncomfortable or even humiliating experience for some students. He shared a few resources (links to articles about situations where these sort of role plays have been harmful) and explained in a really reasonable, respectful way why the activity should not be repeated. The school quickly agreed to change the activity for next year.
Last week I shared a HuffPost Parents piece on Facebook that was written by a mother of biracial kids in response to a “what not to say to the parents of biracial children” list. Her take was that most people are not being intentionally offensive when they bring up race or ask about our diverse families, and that we should respond with compassion and openness. I shared this on Facebook and asked for others’ thoughts on the topic, because it is something I’ve been trying to work through over the past year. And I did, in fact, write one of those “what not to say to parents of biracial children” posts a couple of years ago.
What the Facebook comments (YOUR comments) helped me to determine is this: If I believe that open dialogue is important, I need to welcome questions and conversations, even if (especially if) the other person is not in the
same place I am. By responding in a compassionate and rational way, I can be a “bridge” to promote understanding. But the flip side is that sometimes being singled out really sucks. As a parent, I worry – rightly so – about the impact on my kids. And awkward comments are a reminder that there is still a lot of segregation in our country, a lot of “us” and “them.” They are reminders of where we’ve been and how far we still have to go. And so, sometimes I am uncomfortable or unsettled by others’ comments, but that doesn’t mean I am angry at that person, because I realize we have different histories and may be at different stages of understanding. I can do my part to move things forward by sharing what I know in a respectful way. What other choice is there?
I think this applies to the school situation as well. Yes, we could get really riled up about the project and storm into the school demanding they explain themselves. But, aside from the fact I don’t want to be labeled “difficult parents” by the school (that won’t do my kids any good and I’m probably already in the doghouse after being late to pick up Zip last week), I don’t think it would accomplish our goal. A school is an organization, but it is made up of human beings. So yes, we may be frustrated or disappointed, but if our goal is to help school personnel understand why the project is problematic and perhaps find a better way of reaching their goal, we do best to approach this as an opportunity for dialogue and information-sharing, and help the school move forward in their ability to provide a culturally sensitive environment for all students.
Have you encountered a problematic situation like this with your child’s school? Were you able to work it out? I realize not all schools may be as responsive as ours was, and I would love to hear others’ experiences.