they learned it from watching you

My four year old is the only black girl – hell, person – in her preschool. Last year this wasn’t the case, as her brother was there with her. But this year she is all alone.

Last year, there were some problems with “mean girls” – yes, in preschool. They would exclude Little A, and if there is one thing Little A cannot stand is being excluded. Even when children tell her they won’t be her friend, she replies, “Well, we don’t have to be friends to play together.” Yeah.

So imagine how pissed I am that now children in the preschool are still excluding – but making it explicitly about skin color, eye shape, and hair texture.

What is the school doing about it? Well, first they discussed it with the kids, pointing out how the teachers (none of them black, but two white, one southeast Asian and another east Asian) are all different but they all like and love one another. Next they plan to consult with folks who have experience handling this in early education. They also talked to a few parents, three of whom have a child of color and the other a parent of a white child, because “those were the names that came up.”

Will there be a parent meeting about this? Well, yes, but no date has been set. And their next step today in this conversation? Talking about animals.

Animals.

This whole situation pisses. me. off.

One, this is not a new issue, so I’m quite annoyed at the school’s reactive posture. This should have been seen as a possible problem from what happened last year with exclusion, and me specifically bringing up the problem of race and racial differences. Why they are unprepared for this blows my mind.

Two, why only have conversations with the children most negatively affected – the conversations should really be with the parents of white children. They are the ones doing the excluding. They are the ones acting out racial prejudice.

Which leads me to my last issue – having the teachers address it in school is fine with me, but let’s please recognize that these children learned this behavior at home.

They learned racial prejudice and exclusion from watching their parents.

Young children emulate their parents. They think their parents are the best thing in the world. And in thinking so, they copy what they see their parents doing. I know, because my kids, at 5 and 4, are copying me all the time. My son wants to “wear pajamas like Mommy.” My daughter tries to match my clothes each day. They talk like me, use the same idioms as me.

And while being an overt racist will probably lead to racist kids, you don’t need to be a verbal racist to show racism in your life. You don’t need to say that black people are bad or Asian people are weird for your kids to learn racism. They learn it through the daily experiences of our lives, from what we watch on TV to the people they see on the street everyday. And most importantly – who you hang out with, who you invite over, who are obviously your friends send messages to kids about what you value as a family. For my kids, living in an area that is 2% black, we practically have no choice but to live truly multi-racial and multi-cultural lives. We have white friends who come over, who are obviously mommy and daddy’s friends. We have babysitters that are white. We have good friends of practically every race. And our kids know they are our friends because we talk about them, we hang out with them, they have a constant pressence in our lives. So our kids don’t get any idea about excluding children based on race or appearance.

For (some of) these white kids though, their lives are white. Their parents don’t have friends of other races – they don’t have to. Their kids witness their parents having mono-racial ideas of who is worth hanging out with and who is not. And while kids may not, at this age, put an inherent value on thing like skin color, hair type, and eye shape, they do recognize difference easily enough to see that the only place they interact with people not like them is in school. And they make an inference that if Mom and Dad don’t hang out with these people, then I shouldn’t either – for whatever reason.

This is a nasty lesson to start learning at 4 and 5. I’m determined, however, to make this a teaching moment for all involved, especially the white parents.

Put on your dancing shoes

by cocoa mama contributor rlb08863/mamatiti

I know that seems like an odd title given the events of the past year. We are coming fresh off the state sanctioned murder of Troy Davis. The anguish, pain, frustration and rage are still right under the surface. There was the trial and conviction of Raquel Nelson* who was senselessly charged with the vehicular manslaughter of her son despite the fact she was not driving and did not even own a car. There were the racist anti-abortion ads that cropped up in urban areas across the country, with a keen interest in black and Latino neighborhoods. There was the day of national shame when our President had to produce his birth certificate to the nation to prove he was in fact born here, a real American and thus fit to serve in a position that he was elected to. Across our great, post-racial nation, there are laws that seem to be in competition to see who can be the most xenophobic, the most anti-woman, the harshest against the poor and working class, the most draconian against sex workers, all in an effort it seems to prove who is the most American. The year started off horribly with the news out of Cleveland, Texas where an 11 year old Latina girl was gang raped by at least 20 black boys and men. The response by that community, in particular the women, seemed to confirm that the world was in fact going to hell in a handbasket.

So it would seem frivolous at least and idiotic at the most to ask any of you to dance. For many of us, myself included, dance brings to mind images of joy, abandonment, of lightness and exhilaration. We think of proms, weddings, birthday parties, and summer barbeques. It is a time of celebration and validation. It is more though than just a good time.

Our foremothers and forefathers understood  this. They knew dance, movement whether in harmony with other bodies or swaying on its own, was a way of communicating with their homeland. It was a way of connecting with the earth, sky, smells and sounds that had been so cruelly and irrevocably taken away from them. When they got together with a drum, all of the day events, the degradation, the pain, the suffering, the blood, the sweat, the anguish was expelled just for a moment. So long as their bodies were in motion, no matter the amount of time, the dance was the spike in the eye of those who thought they owned their minds and spirits along with their bodies. As arms, legs, torsos, necks, breasts moved, they became birds, antelope, fish, butterflies, and snakes. For that moment, they were free.  Lest you think this is trivial, think to many black churches who still understand the power of dance – yes “a shout” is a dance. The transformative nature of movement still has a place after all this time.

We need to dance by ourselves, with our children, our partners, and our families. We need to put the good foot down so that our sons and daughters will see that the world has not defeated us, has not taken away our joy. We need to throw our heads back and lift our hands while we shake our tail feathers so that we can get it all out. All of the disappointments, inequalities, the setbacks, the downgrades and the layoffs. If the sweat gets in your eye, wipe it away and keep dancing. The world, the Tea Party, Republicans, those on Wall Street, the rich and elite, want us to be defeated so that we can’t fight. They do not know about our ancestors and the power of movement. They forgot – or never knew that slave revolts were started by drums.

When you dance, laugh, cry, shout, twirl. Hold your children. Be silly. Jump on the furniture. Do a conga line around the kitchen table. Do a dougie in the family room. Hell, do the Macerna.  Just don’t be still.

After you are good and worn out, rest. Eat. Laugh some more. Snuggle or meditate alone. Call someone you haven’t in a long time and tell them you love them.  Take a nice hot bath or shower.  After you put your children to bed, if you are able make love to someone you love. Sleep as much as you can. In the morning, you will be clear-eyed, determined, steadfast and most of all, ready to fight like hell.

* Because of the power of  black blogs,social justice blogs, Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media and ordinary citizens who were rightly outraged by her plight, Ms. Nelson was offered a chance for a new trial.

Why We All Can’t Just Get Along

I’m comfortable with who I am and what I believe in. I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer for the same naive reasons I guess a lot of kids say they want to be lawyers: I truly believe in justice and fairness. As someone yesterday said to me, “Right is right.” I’ve never heard more true words.

I used to wonder why justice was so important to me. Why the littlest amount of unfairness touched me in a place so deep. So there was a time in my life where I routinely took personality tests.  I was obsessed with knowing about myself, trying to understand what made me tick. My favorite test is the MBTI, which splits people into 16 personality types based on combinations of pairs of four dyads: Introverted or Extroverted; Sensing or iNtuitive; Thinking or Feeling; and Judging or Perceiving. My type has changed slightly over the years, and I’m an almost even split between both Introverted/Extroverted and Perceiving/Judging. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I gravate more toward a particular “type.”

I am an ENFP: The Champion.

As a Champion, I’m an easy person to get along with. I smile, I laugh, I joke. I’m charming, in my most humble opinion. I make friends easily too, everywhere I go. But there are some things that I believe in, and when you mess with me and those things, when you mess with one of my values, then…well, all bets are off.

And so my life is one of a strong dichotomy. I’ve been accused of being too serious. I’ve been told to lighten up, take a chill pill, relax, calm down, and breathe. I’ve been told to choose my battles, that nothing in life is that serious, and that I just get too worked up. I’ve been told that I am intimidating, aggressive, overbearing, argumentative, contrary and loud-mouthed.

For telling my truth. For saying what I believe to be right.

I’m working this summer for a large urban school district that ranks at the almost bottom for educational equity. The opportunity and achievement gaps in this district are shameful. So when I go to work every day, and when I interact with my fellow interns who are working at other educational institutions this summer, I’m not always smiling. I’m not agreeing to so-called “community agreements” on how I’m supposed to talk about race, class, and power. I’m not giving everyone the benefit of the doubt that folks have good intentions. I’m not assuming that no one in the room is a racist.

I’m thinking about what needs to be said and done right here, right now, to get it across to these people that a crime is being committed again children – who look like my kids – every single day in the school that’s right down the block.

I’m thinking about what needs to be said right here, right now, to get these folks to stop experimenting on our kids and just teach them to read, write, and count. I’m thinking about wanting them to stop hiding the real issues of racism and classism and white privilege behind hollow conversations of “results-based-budgeting” that have no student results actually driving it.

That’s what I’m doing.

We can’t all just get along because getting along often means being silent. Getting along means being a bystander. Getting along means, if you want to keep it real, making white folks feel comfortable. Well, I’m not here to make you comfortable. I’m not here to make you feel good that you’ve chosen to work in education. I’m not here to sing fucking kumbaya. For me, while I’ve always had a passion for justice, now it’s personal.

See, my baby …

 

… my beautiful black boy. . .

is starting kindergarten in the fall. And I’m scared as hell.

Look, I don’t need friends, I need foot soldiers. I don’t care if you like me or not. I just want you to be as mad as I am that children like him are undervalued because of the color of their skin.

So I need you to be ready to  work for change. I’ll be right there with you. If I have to piss you off to move you toward action, then so be it.

Let’s get it started.

 

 

What She Sees

When my daughter was born, complications at the hospital made it so that we were discharged before we established breastfeeding.  I was desperate to nurse her, believing that it was the healthiest start for her, and I was already wary from pumping around the clock.  Our pediatrician advised me to go to a particular lactation center near my home. “Don’t worry,” he assured me; “They’ll get you on track.”  And he was right: Magalee* had me breastfeeding during my very first visit to the center.  It took over 2 months for breastfeeding to become comfortable for me, and I returned to her on an almost weekly basis.  Some of the visits were comic:

Me: It still hurts when she latches on!
Magalee: Okay, put her on the breast….
Magalee: What the heck is that?  That’s not what I taught you!
Me: Well, the book said—
Magalee:  What did I tell you about those books???

Over the next year, even after breastfeeding was firmly established, Magalee continued to be a guide for me as I learned to take care of my baby.  I called her with whatever questions or concerns I had, and she always responded with the same patient and encouraging attitude she had during my first visit with her.  Her belief that I could take good care of my child eventually encouraged me to develop confidence in my own parenting abilities.  As months went by, I learned more about her.  I had always detected a Haitian accent, but she had blonde hair, white skin, and green eyes. I eventually learned that although her ancestry was Syrian, she had been raised in Haiti.  I learned that she dreamed of opening her own restaurant.   “Your leaving this center will be such a loss,” I said to her; her skills, and the success of the center, were legend around the city.  “But you have to follow your dreams.  I’ll come to your restaurant!,” I told her.

As the baby grew older, I spoke to her less and less, although I recently ran into her at our pediatrician’s office for my daughter’s 18-month check-up.  It turns out she has been taking her own son to the same doctor since he was a child, and he was now in for a check-up, even though he was almost 18.  “Magalee!,” I exclaimed when I entered the waiting room.  I was so excited to show off my baby–now a walking, talking, fantastically engaging toddler–to her: “Can you believe this is the newborn you first helped me nurse?,” I asked.

As I waited to be seen by the doctor, we got to talking about Haiti, and why her parents eventually left the country.  She told me the disturbing story of how her parents were robbed at gunpoint in their home, but miraculously escaped alive.  I shook my head and said, “It’s so sad; the country is in such ruins, and just thinking about the work it will take to rebuild it is overwhelming.”  She responded with:

“Please; Haitians don’t even like their country; they destroy it.  They’re hostile to us, calling us white cockroaches.  They don’t see that we’re helping advance the country.  We’re starting business, and employing them.”

When discussing developing countries, people often fail to take note of the history behind the country’s economic state. As has been addressed by scholars, Haiti’s suffering can be traced directly to the isolation and economic rejection the country faced at its inception, as punishment for being the first black country in the Caribbean to successfully fight for its independence. Haiti’s suffering can also be traced to meddling in its domestic affairs by more powerful countries like the United States. Haiti’s suffering can, for sure, be tied to ruthless autocrats and dictators that have taken advantage of the country’s resources for personal gain. Haiti is not, however, suffering merely because its inhabitants “don’t like their country.”

Uninformed by historical context, it is easy to blame the inhabitants of disenfranchised communities for their poor attitudes or mental outlook; for failing to “appreciate” what they have, even if what they have is barely anything, and even if the critics themselves are so accustomed to having plenty, that it’s unlikely they would be “grateful” to share the fate of less well-off peoples. I recently read an article about George Washington, who believed that slavery was a fair deal. In his mind, slaves should have been happy to work to the best of their ability in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.  It never seemed to occur to him that his slaves would not think it such an equitable arrangement.  Suggestions that Haitians are irrationally resentful of the wealthy foreigners who make money using Haitian labor echo Washington’s sentiments. While nobody deserves to be called a “cockroach” just for making a living, surely one can understand how frustrating it is to know that in your homeland, Syrians have likely been given advantages you will never be given to get ahead.  That knowledge is not any less painful just because those Syrians have now thrown you a few bones.

The comment didn’t surprise me–I’ve heard such unsubstantiated critiques of people of color before–the source did. As soon as the words left her mouth, I realized that Magalee didn’t really consider herself to be Haitian at all. Rather, she was a Syrian living in Haiti, blaming the people of color around her for many circumstances beyond their control; mistaking pain and frustration for apathy and laziness. She wasn’t at all who I thought she was.

Although I thought her comment reductive and ahistorical at best, racist at worst, I didn’t say anything in response.  I was standing in front of an examination room, my child—stripped down to just her diaper—on my hip, as we waited to be seen.  Babies and parents were all around us, and nurses were scurrying to and ‘fro.  It just didn’t seem like the time or place to get into a debate about the state of race relations, politics, and economic disenfranchisement in Haiti.  And even if it were, I wouldn’t have known where to start.  Instead, I furrowed my brow and nodded, indicating to her that I was listening.  As I sit here now, reflecting on the encounter, however, I feel sad.  It hurts to think that this woman who I respect so much, and who was such a source of support for me, has racist and uninformed ideas about Haitian people; about my people.  I had thought Haiti was something she and I had in common, but now I see that we see Haiti from two different vantage points; and that I don’t like what she sees.  I’m disappointed that I failed to offer up a snappy-yet-elucidating response.  So what if the timing was poor?; sometimes, people need to be checked, right? Finally, I wonder whether, if I had said something, I could have even changed her mind at all.

*Not her real name. Continue reading “What She Sees”