I recently worked in the suburbs outside of New York City. The reading lesson we were working on was around social issues. Something like…Let’s study the character Rachel in the short story Eleven, asking ourselves what groups (like class, race and gender) does she belong in and how does that make life easier or hard for her. After the work with the kids, we gathered and debriefed the classroom work. The teachers all said that they loved the lesson, especially opening up the groups—groups like only-child, single-moms, and teenagers. I said something like “yes, it helps to understand and really feel for the character once you study them in a more complex way.” I continued: “I have been wanting to have more conversations with kids around race, since there has been so much tension lately in the news.”
One teacher quickly replied “Oh our kids can’t see that. They don’t live in New York City, where there is so much diversity.”
“And the parents would be upset and confront us if we did that,” another replied.
I had a rough day. It was 2:30, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to end my day by pushing into this topic. But I knew I needed to. So I did.
“It’s about acceptance really.” I said. “Whether it’s about race, class, or gender.”
“Oh, they definitely can relate to class differences!” one said.
And so the conversation continued along in that manner, and ended on a peaceful note. Those white teachers left feeling fine about teaching their white children about tension around class instead of race. They felt fine about staying in their privileged suburban comfort zone.
I left, too, but I didn’t feel fine. I felt stunned and disappointed in myself, but at least no one was telling me to get lost or to never come back. Whew. I was relieved and went back to my privileged life, too.
I know exactly how the teachers felt. I grew up in a community very similar to theirs. There was no diversity in my neighborhood, and barely any at my school. My dad is pretty much a racist, and my mom never had any black friends that I know of. And she occasionally catches herself using the word “colored.” I lived in a world of privilege and everyone around me was perfectly happy to stay in that world.
It wasn’t until I finished college and started teaching that I became really aware of the tension around race. It was when I met my good friend Jozelle my first year teaching that I began to understand. Once I bought her daughter some outfits as a gift for a birthday or something, and I gave her the receipt in case the clothes didn’t fit. She laughed a little, and told me that would make no difference–Dillard’s wouldn’t let her return the outfit, and if it had to be returned, I would have to go with her to the store. At first, I didn’t understand what she meant. I was completely naive to that experience. However, if I dig enough and really am honest with myself, even then I knew things like that existed. It just wasn’t until my friend, this person I cared so deeply for, shared her horrific experience that I really acknowledged that this is a serious issue. And when I read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh for a literacy class in graduate school at Teachers College, I finally had a term for my experience.
Racial tension is high right now, and some people are doing something about it. Even judges are trying to reform the system that led to no indictments in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Educators need to start doing something, too. After all, we are mostly white people teaching mostly white children (see this amazing post from “Crawling Out of the Classroom,” a great blog written by a classroom teacher). I am a white educator teaching mostly white educators. What is my responsibility? I started the conversation in that suburb, but I didn’t finish it. I should have.
How can I finish it? It is my job to help teachers see how they can help kids see their privilege, begin to really understand the tension, and to fight for change.
They can do that by reading books that bring up these tensions:
The Other Side
Fly Away Home
And by having class discussions… Say things to kids like:
- Who has the power in this book and why?
- How does race or racism show up in these characters lives?
- Why did Jacqueline Woodson decide to have her main characters black?
- Why did Eve Bunting do the same in Your Move?
- A white author and a black author both depicted blacks in a derogatory way—why?
- In the short story Those Shoes, the main character is poor and black. However, the secondary character is white and poor. Could author Maribeth Boelts have switched them?
When parents ask us why we are having discussions about race in school, we can respond by saying things like “there are amazing children’s books that discuss race, and the Common Core Standards ask students to explore author’s purpose across text through a discussion with discourse. That’s what we are doing in this lesson.” And then we can also say something like “things need to change, and it needs to start with the youngest members of our community. We care about kindness to all in this class. We can’t be kind to others if we don’t have a clue about their lives.”
Maybe we all need to step back and take hard looks at how race has impacted our lives—looking at our own race identity. Maybe we don’t know, or maybe we do know and we don’t want to. After all, it’s pretty nice living in privilege. But we can’t deliberately keep closing our eyes and pretending that we don’t see what’s out there.
Just last month, my 13 year old daughter came home from school with exciting news. She was going to be interviewed by a local news station about her participation in a basketball program at her school and the interview was to be aired on television! As with most 13 year olds, she was already dreaming up the names of people she needed to tell to watch her rise into stardom. Text messages started flying everywhere, her phone ‘binging’ almost every other second. She was going to be a star! Big deal, right?!? So the day finally came, she was interviewed and then a few days after, our family huddled together in the living room, holding our breaths for the interview to air.
Before we even saw the part with my daughter and her friends, a reporter introduced the segment, “…this nonprofit brings sports and exercise to under-served communities…” “Wait, what?” I thought. The words under-served communities gave me pause. They somehow erased all the excitement off my face and when I glanced over to my husband, I saw him looking back at me with the same irritated look. Yup, we both heard right, “under-served”. What does that really mean?
I watched the rest of the report with the interviews held in the school gymnasium and the teenaged girls playing basketball in the background. They looked beautiful on the screen, running up and down the court, warming up for their game. They were ‘under-served’. I looked over at my daughter as she watched the segment in awe, pointing and giggling with her siblings. Did they get the memo – “Kids, you know, just letting you know, you’re actually under-served”. I pictured all the other parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles watching this segment in their own homes with their children and being forcibly labeled as under-served. I thought about my under-served community, a majority African American community in West Harlem, the most vibrant place I’ve ever lived (compared to growing up in the north shore suburbs of Long Island).
There are so many places I could go with this notion of being “under-served”. I could define what that actually means. We’ve gotten pretty good, as a people, of making up phrases for communities that we just want to call ‘abnormal’ or ‘different’. Or, I could write about the history of it. Just why are these communities under-served? Where did it all begin, actually? What was the exact moment when the communities changed from being ‘well-served’ to ‘under-served’? Were they always under-served? I could even talk about who is now trying to serve these malnourished communities. Yes, there are hundreds and hundreds of groups scrambling to get the opportunity for their organizations to serve my under-served schools, housing agencies, parks, museums, you name it. Remarkably, get this, there’s a lot of money to be made in under-served communities.
But I won’t go there. I’m actually going to briefly give you a picture of what an “under-served” community looks like. In this case, I’m going to interpret under-served as meaning predominantly African-American. That’s what West Harlem looks like. I’m an African American woman, with an African husband and we have four children- two girls and two boys.
But I mostly just want to reject this title of being under-served. I reject being defined as ‘victim’. It’s a title that prevents one from growing. It’s a label that strips power away. There is no suggestion of overcoming the prejudice, violence, or wrong that was done to you. What’s so irritating about the news reporter’s description, which is actually part of the basketball organization’s mission statement, is that we’re constantly labeling a significant population of our American children and their families as victims. This “victim” population is disproportionately African American. Have our people in the African American community been victims of systematic racism and hate? Absolutely. Should we ignore that? No, we cannot- unfortunately, it’s still a very toxic part of today’s reality. Who needs to fix it? The people that are infected with the disease of hate. They are the actual ones living in ‘under-served’ communities if no one helps them see beyond skin color and stereotypes to rid them of hate.
As a teacher, I remember the month of February to be a challenging one. So many holidays (I’m not a fan of holidays), so many projects, and for the entire month, my school celebrated Black History Month. We had assemblies (those- I actually loved!) and my class often took part in the Black History Month Assembly. My school was predominantly ‘black’. Specifically, we had mostly African American families, and families from the West Indies, like Haiti and Jamaica. Because of the historical context, my students and I would study our country’s past and the people who made significant contributions to the present world we lived in. I also taught them about the historical heroes from the countries they came from. I remember reading and listening to information on some historical heroes with my young students. The children’s conversations moved me the most- we’d have whole class discussions about the great people of the Americas and what they did to rise above any hardships. Growth-mindset wasn’t a ‘hot topic’ back then, but boy, were we talking, living and breathing it! I vividly remember one subject that blew my 1st graders’ minds: Frederick Douglass taught himself how to read! Imagine that!
The photo below is from 2001 right before my first grade class went into the assembly to teach about African, West Indian and African American heroes like Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, and Marcus Garvey. I remember the energy and excitement in the room was so high. I don’t know how they stood still long enough for me to take this picture!
Fourteen years later, I’m still teaching the ideas of resilience, persistence, embracing challenges, giving effort. These are all the words I would use to describe the African American community I live in. I choose any of those words, rather than, under-served. The message we need to give to African American children is, “you are so much more than the label, victim. You, my children, matter.” #blacklivesmatter
So let’s all talk, actually — ok?
Monique & Christy