Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Color Blind

The start of the school year means multiple emails and meetings with various folks involved in educating our kids. For Sky, who started seventh grade this year, the exchanges I've had with his teacher center around ways to lessen his anxiety related to assignments or unclear instructions. For Stow, my time has been spent working with his first-grade IEP team to incorporate new strategies related to recently diagnosed language delays. These are the kinds of interventions I expect to have to make as a special needs mom.

But, this past week, I found myself writing a whole different kind of email to Pink's school principal in response to an incident on the school bus.

Before she even made it into the door, she was telling me what happened. "A mean boy on the bus said Jay and I were boyfriend and girlfriend," she fumed.

I was half-listening in that way I do when I am trying to do too many things at once and said something to her about just focusing on her friendship with Jay and not worrying much about the negativity of others. Then she said something that made me stop what I was doing and ask her to repeat it because I was sure I'd misheard.

"He said, 'I'm going to put a Made in China sticker on you,' and then he pointed at me. And, he said he'd put a Made in Africa sticker on Jay. I tried to tell him he was wrong because I wasn't made in China; I was sort of made in Japan, but even that's wrong. He wouldn't listen to me, though! He told me I didn't know anything! He only believed it when Jay told him he was dumb for not knowing the difference between Japan and China."

What do you say to your child when a thousand thoughts rush through your head at once? I wasn't sure where to start, so I started with the perhaps dumbest question possible.

"Is Jay black?" I asked.

Pink looked at me funny and said in an exasperated tone,  "No, Mom. He's brown."

We talk more about skin color at our house than other people might because it's a question that comes up, usually in first grade or so, when the kids become aware that they don't quite look like their peers. The conversation usually starts with the same question: "Am I white?" and is usually followed by the equally vexing, "Then what color AM I?"

This is not a simple conversation to have. Kids are not "color blind" and we shouldn't strive to raise children who are. Non-white kids see and feel the ways in which they are different and experience that difference sometimes quite painfully. If we tell them to be blind to these differences, we erase their experiences. Instead, what I've tried to teach my kids is that the color of a person's skin doesn't tell us a thing about their character, their talents, their flaws, their pasts, or their futures, but it can tell us a lot about how they experience the world around them. When Tamir Rice was shot, Sky was about the same age as he was, and it hit me in ways I hadn't understood before that parenting a black son is different than parenting an Asian son, so Sky, Pink, and I have talked a lot about how to recognize overt and covert racism and how to stand up for their peers.

I struggled to explain to Pink why what the kid on the bus said was so wrong. Sure, both of us bristled at the complete lack of awareness that Japan and China are nowhere near the same country. And, sure I was incredibly annoyed to see that "mansplaining" happens even in fourth grade. But, mostly I wanted her to know that everything that happened in that interaction was wrong and was not her fault. Pink was silenced and Jay was provoked almost to the point violent resistance. And, this was done to them solely because they look different than all the white people around them.

Pink didn't want to spend much time talking about any of this. Once she'd told me what happened on the bus she was ready to move to other things. But, I wasn't. It's hard to know how often things like this happen to my kids. I'm sure it happens much more than they tell me. I imagine something like this is why Stow to tells me that he hates his Japanese face but loves his American body. Maybe it explains why he wishes he looked like the neighbor boys and had a daddy that looked like theirs. It's hard to parent against the effects of ingrained stereotypes and ways of thinking. And, it's hard to help educators and others who have never not benefited from their white privilege to understand that it exists.

At first, I wasn't going to follow up with Pink's principal. I figured there was little I could say that would push him to think beyond a single disciplinary action for the mean boy on the bus. But, then I saw how worried Pink was about school, so I asked her if she wanted me to follow up with him. She did, so I did. Here is what I wrote:

This evening Pink told me about an incident on the bus that I wanted to relay to you. Apparently, she is assigned to sit next to Jay on the bus as well as at school, so the two of them have become friends. Today on the bus, a peer named D started to tease them about liking each other. This kind of thing happens, so when Pink told me about it, I told her just to ignore it. Later, though, she told me that D also said, "I'm going to put a 'Made in China' sticker on you (pointing at Pink) and a 'Made in Africa' sticker on you (pointing at Jay)." Pink was most upset by the fact that D didn't know the difference between Japan and China and that he ignored her when she tried to tell him this.

As you know non-white students like Pink and Jay are few and far between in the R schools, and I think this incident highlights the need for education in diversity and the often subtle but strong impact that racism (or at least the notion that the white majority prevails) can have on the thinking of kids even as young as 9 and 10 years old. I understand that it is hard for students from a small town in the rural Midwest to understand that there is a great big and diverse world out beyond the boundaries of their town, their state, and their country, but it is important that we start working to help them grasp this reality--if not by ensuring that it's reflected in the population of children and teachers they encounter from day to day, then at least in purposeful education about this.

On her one of her papers today, I saw that Pink had written, "I hate school." When I asked her why, she struggled to explain, but I imagine the fear and discomfort she felt at being made fun of because of the physical features she was born with (and that are an important part of her identity) had a lot to do with the development of such a sentiment. Implicit bias in any form can be detrimental to the person who is subject to it, but this is even more true for children like Pink who are just now starting to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I fear that disciplinary action directed at D will only lead to more trouble for Pink and her friend, but I wanted to make sure that you were aware of this incident in the hopes that we can work harder to prepare all students to be open-minded and accepting of difference.



The principal's response was entirely predictable. He assured me that he wanted all students to feel welcome and safe and that he did his best to make sure "situations like this stop completely." Then he met with all involved and meted out what he determined to be the appropriate punishment. I mean, I appreciate the effort, I really do. But, this is an issue that requires all of us to regularly interrogate the ways that we respond intentionally and unintentionally to people who aren't like us and to think about how we can best make sure our kids aren't inheriting biases we sometimes don't even realize we have. I can't imagine a lost recess or in-school suspension achieving that.

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