Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Kindergarten racism

When my daughter CB was in kindergarten I spent about 2-3 hours every week volunteering in her classroom. I wanted to get to know her classmates and be part of her first year of school. The teacher was a good sport, he gave me interesting things to do with the kids, and I got to know all of them pretty well.

The class had 18 kids, 12 boys and 6 girls, mostly white, but five of the boys were black. The teacher, who was pretty young, and the teacher's aides, who tended to be older, were all white, as am I. I never thought much about it.

But then I started noticing that the teacher treated the black boys much differently than the white boys, reacting much more harshly to the same behaviors if committed by the black boys rather than the white ones.

The teachers' aide, a very nice woman, became almost a different person when working with the black kids. She would assume they couldn't do the project or assignment, and would often just give up. I'd step in and could see that these kids could do the projects just as well as any of the other kids in the class.

But the most memorable event had to do with a substitute teacher. She was white, probably in her 30s, from a suburban area. She was very uncomfortable with the black kids.

When one of them did something or needed some direction, she acted like she was afraid of them. In fact, I could see that she was afraid of them, the expression on her face was one of fear, almost terror. These are five year olds we're talking about.

She asked me to deal with them, which I did. I knew the kids pretty well by then, and they knew me.

What has stuck with me from that day is the fear on the face of this woman. A fear of five year olds. Because they were black. That really opened my eyes. I realized how naive I'd been.

From that moment I began noticing a lot of things that we white folks are used to not seeing, not recognizing, or ignoring. How black kids are treated differently, in a negative sense, by the white adults in authority. And of course other kids notice that.

One day my daughter came home from kindergarten and said, "the dark-skinned boys are bad." At the time we were shocked that she'd say that, but I realized that she was just saying what she was seeing. The adults in the room treated the black boys as bad, and so they were bad. White boys who did the same things were merely mischievous.

Most white Americans reportedly think that racism is a thing of the past, and that we live in a colorblind society. Any continuing disadvantages experienced by blacks must, by this logic, be their own fault. And we shouldn't even really talk about race, because, the thinking goes, that is what perpetuates racism.

We live in the US Northeast, in a town that is very liberal. No one is openly racist. Yet the attitudes of white adults towards these black children reflect an ingrained racism. What I saw in CB's kindergarten class was real. And it showed me that if most white Americans believe racism is dead, then most white Americans don't understand how insidious racism continues to be.

And of course part of the problem was me. I did not stand up to any of these people and call them on their racism. Thinking about it now, some of them were probably not even aware of what they were doing. I know that they would have been extremely offended had I pointed it out. Since I was a new kindergarten parent, I was overly cautious on this and on other issues. If it were now I think I would have reacted differently.

But would it have mattered?

All of these school district employees had been through "multicultural and diversity training," meant to make them sensitive to issues of race and class. But it didn't seem to help. I know groups that advocate for children of color in our town, and they are frustrated with the school district administration and much of the school board. The administration and board are all good white liberals, and they just don't get it.

I don't have an answer. But these personal experiences have led me to see that the bottom line is, the race problem in this country is a white problem.

Reposted (slightly revised) from daddychip2.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps its possible that popular black culture is the reason blacks are approached with prejudice and skepticism. In fact i know quite a few blacks that wouldnt go to a ghetto liquor store at 2am on a Saturday. Are they racist too or just wise?
MLK himself asked that he be judged by his character and not his skin color. The examples of blacks being judged by their character and them not deflecting that judgement into an issue of their skin color is few and far between. Blacks are in desperate need of mature minded leaders to point this simple fact out to them. That my friend is the way to the promised land.

Anonymous said...

Gee, you have a really good point. I also think it's possible that popular white American culture is the reason white Americans are approached with prejudice and skepticism. In fact I know quite a few whites that wouldn't be caught dead in rural Nebraska at any time of the day or night. Are they racist too or just wise? Richard M. Nixon himself asked that he be judged by his character and not his skin color. The examples of whites being judged by their character and them not deflecting that judgement into an issue of their skin color is few and far between. Whites are in desperate need of mature minded leaders -- men of courage like Ken Lay and Strom Thurmond -- to point this simple fact to them. That my friend is the way to the suburbs.

Granny said...

Where oh where are good old Ken and Strom when we need them?

Right where they belong.

Seriously, I hear you but I don't have answers. It's much worse here.

daddy in a strange land said...

Thank you for this post, Chip. I only wish that, we we talk about this kind of stuff, we didn't always end up feeling like we're preaching to the converted, you know what I mean?

Chip said...

Steve, these kids are five years old. Sorry, but blaming the victim, though a very common response, just doesn't explain anything, and really just is a way for us white folks to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

Anon, yup.

granny, you are right, there's no easy answer. And I have to admit that I really despair at times.

DISL, I know what you mean. As a white guy I try to do my part in various ways. But it is hard, because white people can ignore all of this stuff if they choose to. The challenge is to give them a motivation to make changes. I do what I can...

jo(e) said...

Great post, Chip.

We made great strides toward equality in the early 1960s ... and have made pretty much no progress at all since then. It's frustrating.

Robert Jensen's book The Heart of Whiteness talks about this very issue. I would recommend it to anyone reading this blog post.

AMorris said...

I grew up in Mississippi in the 70s and racism is not such a hidden thing on either side down there. Most of the time it's right out in the open, but served up with a smile. It's just as easy to see now as it was then, you just have to know what you're looking at.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

When I lived in the Czech Republic in the late 90's, I taught English at the equivalent of a high school. Discrimination against the Roma (i.e., Gypsy) students was open and commonplace; I heard teachers and administrators say things about the Roma that would have fit right in at a Ku Klux Klan meeting in the turn of the century South.

I pretty openly spoke out against this and integrated Roma history and culture into my syllabi, which was difficult because I was an outsider and often didn't grasp many of the nuances involved. I confess I was probably guilty of feeling morally and politically superior to my Czech hosts, who undoubtedly sensed my sense of American entitlement and resisted what I had to say on that basis. It is probably the case that I was more willing to speak out in the CR than in the US precisely because I was an outsider and a priveleged American.

Well, the discrimination against the Roma was wrong and I did what I could according to my values and the means available to me at the time; it was partially my privelege that made it possible for me to speak. I hope I did more good than harm. That period of my life did in fact make me appreciate America and American culture. Yes, there is racism here but that there are also many people of all colors willing to speak out against it -- something that needs a social context in order to be effective, a context that in recent times has been built by social movements. You can't take that for granted. In much of Eastern Europe (where civil society really was driven underground during the authoritarian Stalinist period), that context doesn't exist. Immigrants and Roma are hated, and critical voices are few, far between, and exposed to retaliation.

But you know, when I left quite a few of my students (none of the teachers) told me that I had made them rethink their assumptions about the Roma. Some of these students had been quite hostile in class discussions about the Roma, and I often felt that I had been talking to a wall.

Social change is like driving through a desert at night: you might have a destination in mind but you can only see as far as the headlights shine. The worst thing a priveleged person can do is not speak out and join together with others to amplify voices of criticism and dissent. It might not do any good, but I think you have to do the right thing even if you can't foresee the longer term impact of your actions.

etbnc said...

Good post, and interesting comments.

I really like the metaphor of social change as night driving. May I borrow that, with attribution?

This morning I listened to a (podcast) talk by Debra Meyerson, author of The Tempered Radical. The example of teaching about the Roma despite social pressure, living one's values, was exactly what she talks about. She calls it "disruptive personal expression".

Thanks for sharing this!

(podcast link ... )

Chip said...

jo(e), thanks for the book ref, it looks like a great one. There seems to be more and more coming out by white folks reflecting on the meaning and effects of whiteness.

amorris, around here it is not open, and in a way it is therefore more insidious. Everyone denies that it exists, yet I think many white people don't even realize that it's kind of like in the air we as white people breathe.

etbnc, the meyerson piece you link to looks great, just reading the summary. I agree with Jeremy and with you (and Meyereson), it may seem impossible or hopeless, but large things can happen if people start by living their values in their day-to-day lives. I can only hope that, for example, by being in that classroom and working with all kids (not just in kindergarten, but up through fourth grade), the white kids could see a counter-example to what they saw from the teacher, the aides, and the sub. And I talked about this openly with my daughter (and son) as well.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Etbnc, when I get a chance I'm definitely checking out that link. Of course you can quote me, although I should note that I was drawing on a quote by E.L. Doctorow on writing a novel: I just applied his thought to a different context.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a mxed race family - both my adopted siblings are mixed racial, my brother more obviously so. The racism we experienced was no worse in Texas than it had been in Washington, but both were worse than Santa Barbara where we lived when they were adopted. This was the 70s for WA, 1974-75 for TX and the late 60s for CA.

We had much more negative reactions to my mother being a divorced single mother than we had for being a mixed race family in WA.

etbnc said...

E.L. Doctorow: got it, thanks to you and Google.

Paula said...

I am not impressed by much but I must say I was impressed by your honesty. I wrote a blog on Racism just yesterday, and your blog just confirms what I was talking about. There are things that can be done, you just have to do them. You said yourself that you should have said something. If you had that would have been significant to someone, if not the children then the teachers. Maybe next time?

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I work as a teacher's aide in a private, Christian elementary school in the deep south. There are two black girls in our class. One is being held back next year. The teacher has made the comment several times that she hopes the parents do not think her being held back has anything to do with race. Honestly, she needs to repeat kindergarten but there are three other children in the same grade that also need to be held back. The difference... their parents are all doctors and lawyers and white and the parents did not want to hold the children back. The principal and teacher only insisted with the black child's parents. Despite what many people think of the deep south, in this day and age most educated whites do not consider themselves racist in the least. All of the faculty at the school would be horrified if I accused them of racism but isn't that what this is?