** This is the end of the thesis I wrote about White privilege and my journey as a Teacher and Parent. I've been thinking about my experience in Canada - especially around race, culture and issues of language ( a huge issue in Quebec. I suspect you'll see that in a while****
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.