White like me

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

** This is the end of a paper I wrote about White priviledge and my journey as a Teacher and Parent. I think You'll see the beginning at some other point...****

I should have noticed the signs that something had occurred. Emily began verbally identifying herself as a “black girl” to her father and myself. She began to express that she wished she were “white and have straight hair like you, Mama”. When talking about a play date at a friends house, Emily told the little girls mother, “But you’ll have a black girl in your house”, looking for a reaction.

Each of these things rippled uncomfortably across my awareness. It was nearly a week later that I finally pieced together the puzzle. As we lay in bed reading together, the light bulb made a blinding flash in my head. “Did someone at school say something to you about being black?” I asked her. I waited for her answer, knowing that with all my professional and personal work, I was woefully unready for her response.

The answer, of course, was yes. Another little girl had told Emily that “She was black and had no friends, but that Alexander is black and he has lots of friends”. Emily took this to mean that it was undesirable to be a black girl and her expressions of desire to be “white like Mom” began.

With all my professional and personal preparation, my first instinct was to wrap her in my arms and cry. However, I didn’t do that. What I did do was call her father into the bedroom and explain the situation so we could have a family conversation about being black, being white and being bi-racial. In order to offer Emily some strategies to handle these situations, we talked at length about truth. Was it true she is black? Yes. Was it true that she has no friends? No. Was it true that Alexander is black? No, he is of South American heritage and has very dark skin, but is not black. Does he also have friends? Yes.

After Emily was settled into bed, Terrance and I talked at length about what to do. Should I speak with the teachers? While Terrance did not think this was necessary, I could not allow this to pass without comment. For Terrance, his reluctance sprang not from a desire to keep this issue quiet, but from the knowledge of the resistance that we would face. He, after all, has dealt with being black in New England for twenty years.

Simultaneously, I could feel my deep gut embarrassment at having to address this issue with these teachers and other parents. Polite white people do not discuss racist remarks. My entire socialization as a liberal White woman demanded that I look away from this incident as distasteful, or simply the words of a child who didn’t know better. As in the other arenas, these were well-educated people whom I liked and respected. How could I walk in and tell these white people that racism is in their midst! Why didn’t they already know it?

I quickly realized that as Emily’s mother and a White person who is committed to the work of Anti-Bias, my socialized embarrassment could not stop me from doing what the situation demanded. For Emily’s sake, I needed to be proactive and address the issue of these remarks to the teachers. I needed Emily to see that her White mother would never be embarrassed to defend and protect her, regardless of my own internal discomfort.

The next morning, I called the teacher aside and explained what I had learned. She was appropriately horrified. What should she do? Should she have a group meeting? Should she call the other child’s parents? Her panic indicated that she too had never thought through having to deal with the issue of racism in this private school setting.

I began to talk with her about what I knew about children and racism. I brought her resources I copied from the book Beyond Heroes and Holiday’s. I asked her to be prepared to support Emily in conversations about race. I explained to her that being black in a White dominant culture was apparent to all the children and it was natural for them to notice and discuss it.

However, it was when I began to talk about the privileges of being white in New Hampshire that I realized that I had never talked to her, or many other white people about this issue. Polite white people don’t point out racism to other polite white people, especially those in the upper middle class. Polite white mothers don’t tell the teacher that the other children are saying hurtful remarks. Polite white mothers don’t notice such things.

I don’t think that the teacher fully understood what I was saying, but she was willing to listen. The Head of School and the teachers met, and planned a course of action to respond to this issue with both the children and families. While not yet fully resolved, I am satisfied with the way the school is beginning their journey.

Some parents are avoiding me now; some are overextending themselves to be friendly. White guilt is a funny thing. One little girl involved in the incident told Emily that if she didn’t stop telling me about the things she was saying, the little girl would get kicked out of school. Emily promptly told me this when I picked her up that afternoon. Working through my discomfort has offered my daughter the strength to actively begin her own journey in the work of anti-bias.

It has become clear to me through this experience and this journey into Anti-Bias curriculum that part of the important work that I am called to do is being that White person who talks about the impolite issues of race and culture. It occurs to me that for some White people that I may be the first White person to call attention to the elephant of racism in the room.

19 Baleful Regards:

halloweenlover said...

This is AWESOME Dawn. Really really amazing. I'd love to read that book you mentioned.

I grew up in a super white (Irish) school, and was one of two latina girls in several grades around me. While I never suffered the kind of racism you described, I was treated differently, I did have mean comments said to me, I felt badly about my dark hair, olive skin and different language. It is a terrible thing.

As I've gotten older, I've realized that it isn't as apparent to people that my background is hispanic, and they've made inappropriate comments in my presence. It is a terrible situation to be in, for the reason you mention- being the "white person" that is pointing it out.

Love this post. I'd love to chat with you more sometime about it. Hugs to sweet Emily. I hope this gets resolved asap.

Diana said...

I am "a Spanish" as someone blatantly said to me one day. I grew up in a world where we, "the spanish" and black were the majority. Then I went to a semi-private college prep high school where all the white kids who hid from our public schools went. Needless to say it was very apparent that i was treated differently. Darker hair, darker skin (but I'm YELLOW!) "different" accent (I've been speaking english my whole life) my whole culture was suddenly alienated because they didn't understand how to accept. I left the school my sophomore year. (Pussy move, I know but-I just couldnt be there. the atmosphere was just....)
Emily has two great cultures running through her blood, and with you being the great mom that you are she will be the one calling attention to the elephant when she is old enough.
Great post, it will open lots of eyes.

TB said...

Wow. I can't imagine how difficult it is to hear your daughter tell you what children have said to her about her race. As if it isn't hard enough to be a kid, to have to deal with racist and divisionist language in elementary school is too much.
As someone who is educated in child development, you have such an advantage. It makes me sad to think that there are many black and bi-racial parents who don't have the resources to advocate for their children.
They end up being marginalized and a cycle of racism and divisionism is perpetuated.
This just plain sucks and I wish there were a way to ensure that it wouldn't happen to any other children, but as long as racism exists in the world, people will be passing it on to their kids.
What we can do it continue to call attention to it every chance we get.
Thanks for the reminder.

Beth said...

I've said it before - we need more people like you in education. I have that book "Beyond Heroes..." and did some work in anti-bias education. I took a workshop with NCBI in college and worked (shortly, due to illness) at the Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, MA - the curriculum there is strongly based off anti-bias.

It was a difficult procedure for me. First, there was guilt. Then there was anger about the guilt. And then there was soul-crushing sadness. At the beginning, I felt the curriculum was too "in your face". But at the end, I realized what I felt to be "in my face" was the pressure that some people feel every day.

Good for you. The key to communication is not to pretend that race is invisible, but to accept and celebrate, rather than denigrate, the ways that we all differ.

Unfortunately - it feels like a naive and unattainable goal these days.

Lauren said...

I grew up in Texas. Now, being Mexican in Texas is no big thing. In fact, we are the majority down there. But, now that I have moved up to Maine the racial issue is more at play here. I notice it more. I notice that my eldest son gets ribbed for being a "spic", all in good fun. *grimace* And while the bias for Hispanics is no where near as noticable as it is for Blacks, it is still there. Aggravating to say the least. My way of dealing with it? I tell the boys to be proud of their Heritage. To be proud of being Mexican. There is nothing wrong with it. My children, as well as Emily, come from Cultures that are rich in traditions, strength, and character. I think in learning about that will make her a stronger person. I think in teaching her that it's not only okay, but wonderful to be different, she will be a better person for it. I think it is sad that she is having to deal with this, but she obviously has two very strong and loving parents who are there for her. You realized the problem and you are dealing with it. That is what parents are for. Good luck.

Nancy said...

Excellent post, Dawn. I don't know if you read my (late) comment to Mignon's post on this topic, but I went to a high school where race was never discussed: predominately white, and the only black kids in the school (siblings from the only black family in town) were treated almost like exotic animals. There was a whole unease about the whole thing, probably with the same dynamics that you and Emily have experienced.

I admire your strength in bringing this issue to the school's attention and handling it so tactfully.

I agree with your comments and with others above, the challenge is to accept and celebrate differences in race rather than pretending they don't exist. Until there is equal treatment, equal and open discussion -- there will still be an environment fraught with bias and misunderstanding.

Dawn said...

The first part of this VERY long paper was all about my discovery of White Priviledge and what that term really meant.

This incident happened last year. Em was at a lovely private school. That was one of the reasons it was so very shocking to me. I thought I had purchased her the freedom from this type of comment with the tuition.

Emily now announces to everyone that she is "Biracial". She spends summers with her grandparents and cousins in Detroit. She needs to absorb some things that I , by virtue of being white, can't teach her. Her grandmothers and Aunts can and do.

It seemed fitting with Coretta Scott King's passing and the beginning of Black History Month to post this.

Maybe tomorrow I'll put the first part of the paper up.

V said...

Rock on Dawn!
This is an awesome post, or start to a paper or anything.
It's really hard to feel anything but squimish talking about racism. But I have these conversations with my boyfriend a lot lately. He sees everything in terms of race. EVERYTHING. The prudy things that I do...I do because I'm white. The sketchy things that he's done, he's done because he's black. And so on and on and on. It drives me out of my bloody mind.
Ok...I was gonna write more, but I just realized its a whole stinking posts worth...back to blogger I go. Thanks for the awesome thoughtful post.

Kristen said...

I think that's awesome! Really great. We have the same interests in terms of writing - my deal is multitultural therapy (I have a book out on it) and I'm the straight person who talks about gay issues - specific to my field, music therapy. I think white and straight folks can relate to us - and we can be good advocates for these issues.

We need more people to call attention to the elephant of racism because, as I have learned, if you are not someone who is exposed to oppression in one form or another (although all women should identify with it...), you don't call attention. Why would you see the elephant if you've never had to even "go in that room."

It's like with the whole Memoirs of a Geisha thing - my one white friend who lives in NYC and is neck deep in diversity noticed it right off the back. My other white friend who lives in white town usa said nothing about it.

It's a different way of thinking - especially for people who have grown up in what is a homogenous existence.

In all my grad classes I would piss off the teachers because I would remind them (those that needed it) about such issues and how we need to adapt - lesson plans, curricula etc...

Okay - sorry this is so long. I LOVE this stuff and obviously, could go on forever.

Elizabeth said...

My parents did an excellent job, without being too obvious, of teaching us that the color of someone's skin had nothing to do with who they were as a person. I went to elementary school in a very white suburb of Detroit, and there was one black girl in the whole fourth grade. No one would play with her. While all the other girls had names like Lori and Amy and Susie, her name was Keesha. I was her friend. Her Mom made PBJ sandwiches just like mine, she had chores to do after school just like me. But I was too young to understand why everyone else thought she was different.

I'm glad to hear that the school reacted positively to the situation. The teachers and Head of School have a lot of work ahead of them. It takes a strong person to be Proactive instead of just Polite. Thanks for the excellent post.

Fraulein N said...

I think the way you handled the situation was spot-on. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Madeleine said...

Whoo boy. I'm still waiting for this one to hit, but I know it is coming someday. Thank you for sharing the way you handled it.

Last year, when she was in a predominantly white school, my biracial daughter asked why she was the only girl who wore braids, and why can't she wear her hair down or in just a ponytail? (Because your Mama refuses to spend an hour a day combing out your hair! Selfish me.) But this year she's in a more diverse school and has several classmates "with braids" (ehem) and I haven't heard it again. She has one friend who looks so much like her that people mix them up, and the other Mom and I have both had moments of seeing the side of a face and thinking "That's not how I did her hair" or "where'd she get that jacket?" before realizing it was the other girl.

Mignon said...

Dawn, I'm with tb - your daughter is so incredibly lucky to have you as her mom, but it immediately makes me worry for all the children that don't have that advantage.

Last night my daughter and I went to a high school girls' basketball game. One team had one black girl (the first black person I've seen this week). She was a good player, and stood out in that respect. Also, she was fairly masculine for a girl her age, and had short little dredlocks. A woman behind me kept making comments about her, but just quiet enough so that I couldn't hear and respond accordingly. Just the way she hid her words behind her hand and snickered made my skin crawl. At one point I stood up, looked at her pointedly and moved to a different seat. And I felt a little rush and a little fear of reprisal. Then I read your post, and I'm humbled. I want to go back and confront the issue now. I hope I won't let such an opportunity pass again, especially with my daughter with me!

Jess said...

I grew up in New England, and live in a very segregated (but relatively diverse) city. I hope that when the time comes, I also have the strength to be the white woman who points to that damned elephant in the room and does her part. Emily is lucky to have you.

roo said...

I am so proud of Emily that she told you what had been said to her, especially after that little brat tried to emotionally blackmail her.

She's gonna get kicked out of school if Emily talks? Great! Don't let the screen door hit you on the ass on your way out.

Great, great post.

roo said...

Also, Hey, new layout! It looks very clean.

mama_tulip said...

This is a fantastic post.

Fantastic.

(I really like the new layout, BTW. Very nice!)

Lisa said...

Bravo Dawn!

Now and again, when my son sees a black person, he'll say, "Look mom. A brown baby.(Or brown man or brown woman) Or he'll say, "Look. She has brown skin."

I've often just said, "Yes. That lady has very pretty brown skin." Or "That little girl is so pretty. I really like her pink dress."

But I do wonder what is the appropriate way to handle that. He doesn't do it often. And if this ever hurt someone's feelings, I'd feel horrible. So I haven't even asked my black friends how I should handle this.

The Gradual Gardener said...

This was such a great post. Wonderful job!

 
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