“I think your daughter and Ezra are the only two left in that room,” she said.
I was picking up my then 18-month-old daughter from daycare and I had just been chatting with one of the staff members. As I walked down the hall to my daughter’s room, I looked through the window and saw three kids.
“Which one is Ezra?” I asked, looking back down the hall to where she was standing.
She looked at me blankly.
“There are two other little boys,” I said.
She lowered her voice, put a hand up to her mouth, and whispered…
“He’s the little black boy.”
That. Right there.
That’s where it starts.
Why did she feel compelled to whisper, the little black boy?
My intuition tells me that she thought we shouldn’t acknowledge his race. (Because that would make us racist?)
But whispering words like this also sends an implicit message. One that could be internalized and filed away to young ears: That being black was something to be ashamed of.
It’s a common approach that American educators–many of whom are white women (me included)–use to show that they are being sensitive. It’s called colorblindness. And to some ears, it sounds okay.
I don’t see colors in my classroom. I treat everyone the same.
I teach the kids that we’re all the same. That it doesn’t matter what skin color we have.
That might be okay to teach kids–if it were true.
But it’s not true. Race does matter.
When we create these completely alternate universes in schools where we pretend that we don’t see the shades of our own children’s skins–and acknowledge how that affects their experience in our society–we create a generation of Americans who assume that everyone has the same experiences.
We create situations like this.
In the Storycorps podcast, “Traffic Stop,” a white mother and her adopted black son share the story of the night when he was brutally attacked by police officers during a traffic stop.
What struck me most about this podcast was the mother’s words of colorblindness:
“I thought love would conquer all and that skin color didn’t really matter.”
She speaks with a mother’s love. You love your child unconditionally. No matter what. But in projecting her own unconditional love for her son onto the cultural lens that American society uses to see her son, she blinds herself to the simple fact that…
Not everyone shares her love.
Not everyone believes that race doesn’t matter.
I dare say, she thinks as many white people do–that we have reached a point in our society when racism is not tolerated anymore. We may not believe that racism is completely dead, but it certainly doesn’t reside where we live and work and play. Racism is for the uneducated and the unemployed who need a scapegoat.
And if it dares happens, people say something.
But what about the covert racism that still exists? What about our own implicit biases that shape our split-second reactions?
As Hillary Clinton pointed out in the September 24th debate, implicit bias is not just a police problem. It’s a problem for everyone.
He’s the little black boy.
I don’t want to admit that I know he’s black, but he is. It’s the easiest way for you to tell him apart from the crowd of white kids.
I don’t want to admit that I have no idea what he’s wearing or how tall he is or the shape of his eyes or what his hair looks like or what he might be playing with. All I can tell you is that he’s black.
I don’t want to admit that he’s only one of six to eight black kids that we have in this school.
I don’t feel comfortable saying these thoughts, so I have to whisper them.
Just in case someone overhears us talking about race… let’s use whispers.
Because race doesn’t matter.
And because it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist.
When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I went to a predominantly black school.
You read that right.
My family moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1984, well before the Internet and its amazing capability of scoping out a location before moving. We moved into a neighborhood known as Five Oaks. It had a nice ring to it, but the real draw was the fact that the rent was well within our means. For $500 a month, we could live in half of a giant duplex with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement, and an attic spread across four floors.
Once upon a time, Five Oaks was a prestigious neighborhood for the wealthy. Which is why there were so many spacious houses available for dirt cheap rent.
Here’s a “tour” around the community, done in 2008 by a community activist.
Because of our new home’s location, I attended Jefferson Primary School, where 80-90% of the students were black.
My best friend’s name was Princess. Like most of the kids in my class, she was black. I loved her intricately braided hair, like a curtain of beads that softly clinked against each other when she walked. She convinced her friends to include me in their games of Double Dutch jump rope. And when it was clear that 1) I really sucked at it and 2) her friends had no patience for me learning how to do it well, Princess sat with me at recess and clapped her hands against mine, clumsily at first, to “Miss Mary Mack.”
Princess was the only one who came to my sixth birthday party at my house. Even though I invited most of the girls in my thirty-person class.
My other best friend was Colleen. She carried a denim purse with a sticker of a man in a black hat. When I confessed that I didn’t know who he was, she looked at me in shock. You don’t know who Michael Jackson is? Then she showed me her moonwalk, her Rapunzel-like curly hair billowing in the wind. She was unlike anyone else that I had ever seen. Who else in the world had hair like hers?
I didn’t realize until much, much later that she was biracial.
I knew that my skin was lighter than the skin of most of my classmates. But I had to learn that this difference had value attached to it.
It all started with a rock.
Thrown in my face.
My two older brothers and I were playing on the playground at Five Oaks park. A group of four to six black kids approached us and started telling us that we needed to go home.
This was their playground.
They threw rocks at us.
We cowered in front of them.
“That’s right. Get down on your knees and beg!” one of them yelled.
We ran home, rocks still pelting us from behind.
I didn’t understand why.
Why did they hate us? They didn’t even know who we were.
Did we do something wrong?
I could hold on to this memory as proof that racism goes both ways. That black people can be just as racist as white people. That I shouldn’t care about racism–whether it’s overt or covert–against black people because I “got over” the racism that was expressed toward me.
But such conclusions would disregard the larger truth that white spheres of influence are far, far more numerous and powerful. That these children could have been acting out of frustration with one of the many systems that they were just now learning were rigged against them (education, justice, economics–take your pick). Or perhaps they were giddy with the sheer novelty of exerting power over a group of white kids. I mean, really, how often did that opportunity arise in Five Oaks?
The truth is, I could leave the playground.
I could “get over” this racist incident because I could move to a place where my race would no longer be a reason to torment me.
We could leave Five Oaks. We could move to many other communities where we would have more social capital. More power. More voice. More influence. More advantages. Maybe we wouldn’t be rich by moving, but we could at least move underneath the protection of an umbrella that would look out for “our best interests.”
In fact, we did.
Within three years, we moved to a white working class neighborhood. My new friends were named Amanda and Kristen and Jennifer. I saw new standards of beauty. No more beautifully braided hair. Instead, beautiful was straight, long hair that lay still as sticks across your shoulders and back. I admired their clothes, their shoes, their embroidered backpacks and lunchboxes.
Racism is, at the least, the inability to leave behind your low social capital.
But racism is also knowing that no matter how far you rise, there will always be someone who skews your worth because of your skin color. It may not be everyone. It probably won’t be those who are closest to you. But there will always be someone who will only see your race.
It’s knowing that your race will be used to explain any moments when you behave badly.
It’s knowing that your race will be cited to explain why you struggle in your life.
And if you dare achieve, your race will be referenced as a facet of your identity that you overcame.
Whether you struggle or achieve, you will always wonder–even if only in your own mind–if the person across from you sees your real worth. Your real self.
Racism is knowing that you will never fit into the label of “normal” since society feels the need to add “black” to identify every black person in the news, but never feels compelled to identify when a person is “white.” (Instead, white people just get to be “man” or “woman” or “boy” or “girl.”)
White people would like to believe that race doesn’t matter anymore. In our spheres of whiteness, it is easy to come to that conclusion.
But if you’ve ever stepped outside of that sphere, you know differently.
You know that Princess can never leave.
As long as we keep our circles separate.
When I think about what I will teach my children about race, I think most of it will not be in words.
Certainly, some of it will.
But you learn more about race by working alongside someone who is different from you.
Or playing a game together. Or singing a song. Or reading a story.
You learn more about race by sharing a meal with someone.
You learn more by engaging in a common humanity.
Racism becomes more personal and hurtful to you when you hear a white girl call the same kind of hair that you thought was so beautiful and magical–just a year earlier–“nappy” and “dirty.” You take personal offense when the white girl asks the black girl if she ever even washed her hair.
You start to take racism to heart when they hurt your friends.
And so that is one of my biggest jobs as a parent–to expand the sphere of interaction that my daughter has. Beyond white suburbia. And into spheres where she is the outsider. Where she is different. Where she needs someone to include her in a game that she doesn’t know. Where she can make friends with children who are different than her. Not just different in skin color. But different in religion. In social class. In language.
By becoming the other, we learn a lesson in humility and compassion. We learn how to redefine and question the word normal. We begin to recognize the invisible walls that we’ve built around ourselves. We begin to see who they keep out and how they do it.
We may not be able to tear the walls down with only our own two hands.
But we can help others to see the wall.
And maybe together, we can start taking the bricks apart.