You Know What?

Written by CocoaMamas contributor HarlemMommy

You know what’s dangerous? It’s dangerous to speak your mind as a Black child in an inner-city school. I’m an educator. I love (almost) all my students.  As a middle school teacher, I saw tons of kids who chose to be disrespectful, arrogant, or jerky. But except for one or two cases, I was always able to remind myself that they were children. Just kids stretching their muscles of power, testing limits and sometimes making others miserable because they themselves were miserable. As I taught in a school where the majority of students were Black or Brown, my skin color might have gained me some cred at first. Despite what other (white) teachers sometimes said, being Black wasn’t enough for a kid to respect or listen to me. They soon figured out that I liked them, cared about their futures and would do my best to help them succeed. They also soon learned that I knew my subject area and wouldn’t tolerate crap or chaos.

In Maya Angelou’s Heart of a Woman, Maya is summoned to her son’s school one day. Guy had been explaining to some white classmates on the bus about how babies were made. Well, the little white girls freaked the heck out and Guy was in trouble for using bad language in front of students, especially girls. When Maya was in the principal’s office and heard the story, she asked what her son had said about the incident. Turns out, they hadn’t even asked Guy for his side of the story. They just assumed that what the girls conveyed was true. Maya was, of course, upset and demanded to see her son. She then gives voice to how many parents of color feel: You give your child to people who often do not look like you. You have to trust that they will not mar his sense of self, and if they do, you must do your part to repair it. I’ve read this book many times, but reading it last month this part really struck me.

The success of my students was personal for me. The more Black and Brown faces without a degree meant less of those faces in power; meant more of those faces dead or in jail. I knew that my eventual child would be okay academically, but some cop or lady on the street wouldn’t necessarily distinguish between my polite, kind, hilarious kid with the high reading level from a “dangerous thug up to no good.”

I pushed my kids academically, stressed the importance of respect for each other and themselves and laughed with them. (Middle schoolers are hilarious. Especially if you find fart jokes funny. I do.)

However, there are many teachers that are not like me: teachers that call students “dirtbags” teachers that see any deviation from given instructions as dangerous, defiant and insubordinate behavior. Too many Black boys are in special education classrooms because they are “behavior issues.” We have to ask though, how much is it about the behavior and how much is it about the color of the kid? The same behavior — being wiggly in class, speaking without raising your hand, being mouthy — by a white kid in Scarsdale is seen as childish antics, but in a Black or Brown child in Harlem is seen as insolent. (Now if a parent wants to have different standards fine, but schools need to be consistent.)

The guidelines for suspension are so very subjective. Was the student was defiant or disrespectful? Defiant is suspension, disrespectful is a detention. There are shades of meaning there that are left to the beholder. Don’t have too many suspensions on your record or it will be harder to find a school that wants you in NYC. (Students must apply and matched to public high schools in New York City in a complicated system.)

I get it. It is extremely difficult to itemize what exactly is meant by defiant. There are millions of ways a kid will find to be defiant. But we have to do better. We need to somehow quantify how bad an attitude must be before a suspension. Otherwise, we just give license to suspend kids for being jerks instead of working with them through this angsty, trying period in the lives. How many of us would want to be judged for how we were at 14? Yet, by suspending kids for arguably age-appropriate behavior, and not helping them grow through or learn from the process, we are stunting their growth academically and emotionally. We need to hold them accountable for bad behavior, but still care about them as people. We must do better. If that means more time is taken to really piece out events that have occurred, so be it. Just as our justice system would rather let a guilty man go free than an innocent one imprisoned, we need to make sure suspended kids really deserve it.

Schools are supposed to be the place where it’s okay to fail sometimes. You see how far you can push and experience safe consequences. Too often, this is not how school operates for Black children. A student that feels that he is heard, respected and valued is more likely to succeed at school and at life. Teachers are not the bad guys. But I will make sure to be in my kid’s classroom when the time comes. That teacher will know that I am paying attention. I am a fierce ally for the teacher, but I am also an advocate for my son.

HarlemMommy is a breastfeeding, cloth diapering mother of one. She works with middle schools and loves to read. Her husband is very funny and they love to travel. She also writes at

Happy Birthday to Us

One year ago, January 2, 2010, I started this blog. A week or so before, I’d put out a clarion call on facebook for mothers of color to start a group blog about being, well, mothers of color, because I was appalled by the lack of brown mommy representation on the 2009 annual list of the best mommy blogs.

I’m looking through this list again, for 2010, and sadly, not much has changed.

But CocoaMamas definitely made a splash amongst our own – we were nominated and in the running for a Black Weblog Award in the Parenting/Family category this year  – a huge honor for a blog as young as ours. And although we didn’t win, we made a name for ourselves as a well-written, highly timely, blog-to-know-and-read. For our first year, I think that’s fabulous.

So what have we talked about this year? Our most popular post was from just a few weeks ago, written by Carolyn in “Can Fathers Just Walk Away?” , a story about a father who is struggling to maintain a relationship with a son that seems to not want the same. Another post that generated a lot of discussion, written by ORJ in “Too School for HomeSchool”, focused on black parents and the homeschooling option in the face of failing public schools. I wrote, in “Dude, You’re a Fag” about the tragedy that is occurring in the country when children are taking their lives because of bullying for being who they are, which is gay. Benee wrote a provocative piece, in “Father’s Day is For Fathers. Period.” in which she spoke out against single mothers who claimed father’s day as their day. Salina wrote, in “First Day of School Blues” about how she still, in 2010, has to coach her son about the realities of racism as he attends his predominately white and Asian high school. And Tanji brought us to tears in “The Architecture of Violence” with the devastating story of baby Dalaysia, her second cousin, who was brutally raped and murdered this past summer.

But we’re just getting started, folks.

Continue to follow us, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. If I have my way, we WILL not only win a Black Weblog Award, we WILL also make our way onto one of those best mommy blog lists. You must conceive it to achieve it.

Peace and Blessings in this new year, this new decade,


Rainbows, Roses and Ruffians

My daughter is six and she started first grade back in August. To me, she seems so little sometimes, like she’s barely out of her toddler years. She still fits into some of her old smocks which we now pair with tights and call shirts. She is even happy to watch Sesame Street once in a while.

My girl is so excited about school that she bounds out of bed and begins to sing every single morning. I, who am notoriously not a morning person, have to keep myself from telling her to stop. She is enthusiastic about learning. I catch her muttering newly learned words under her breath. She adores her teacher and is eager to please.

And my little girl is being bullied.

I hesitated for a long time to call it that. I mean, bullying does not start in first grade, right? At that age, they are still all hearts and rainbows. Right?

No, not right.

We are living in a whole new world where it can, and does, start that early. I found–and still find–myself ill-prepared to handle it. But at least I am no longer in denial that such a thing can exist in first grade, among sweet, beautiful little girls who look like colorful butterflies flitting about the playground.

The bullying directed at my girl is oddly sophisticated. It is, I’ve observed, reserved strictly for when the child knows adults are not watching. It is a growl with an angry face, and hands waving within inches of my child’s eyes, telling her: “You have to” do whatever the bully is demanding at that moment. It is telling my daughter: “You cannot play” and “You cannot sit with us.” It is threatening to tell the teacher “something bad” if my child complains about the bully’s behavior to an adult. At one point, it was creating a “club” from which my daughter and another little girl were specifically excluded, though the teachers put a quick end to the clubs after several parents complained.

I can tell that it is tough for my girl to process what’s happening. She protests: “But she’s nice to me in the classroom. When she needs my help!” as if the two behaviors could not possibly coexist. And at other times, my daughter says: “When she’s happy, she’s nice. When she’s sad, she’s really really mean.”

I can tell that my girl is developmentally out of her depth. I know this because when I’ve dropped by to surreptitiously watch the goings-on at the playground, I see this little girl spotting me and changing her behavior dramatically for my benefit. She showers me with smiles, even waves sometimes, suddenly angelic. I have even seen her go over to my daughter, who just a moment ago was exiled, and begin a happy, animated conversation, as if they are the best of friends. Which they were at one point and still are, I suppose, when the little girl wishes it.

After a big incident last week that left my child in tears and demanding to go home, the teachers have made the issue a priority. We are supporting our daughter at home by doing role play, and reading a book and watching a DVD we got at the library. We know and love the child’s mother and get the sense that she is no less devastated than us by the bullying behavior. We are all doing what we know to do and hoping for the best.

And, we happened to spot this article in the New York Times about how and why mean-girl bullying has trickled down to grade school:

The one paragraph in this piece that made my stomach hurt was this:

“The girls who are the victims tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate,” … “The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along. They all want to be top dog.” And so the nastiness begins.

After reading this, I seriously considered home-schooling for about an hour. Let’s just say that for us, it’s not an option.