The Racism Radar

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Vera L

My older son got into trouble again at school the other day. I learned about it from his younger brother, who gleefully greeted me after school with the news. “Mommy, Oliver, got benched today.” He delivered it in classic younger brother fashion, one eye on me looking for a reaction and one eye out to dodge the swat he anticipated from his brother. Oliver yelled, “Shut up, Eric, why do you always have to do that! I hate it when he does that, Mom, it’s none of his business!” I refereed the spat and got them settled into the car, telling Oliver we’d talk about it later.

When we had time that afternoon, I opened the conversation. “Tell me what happened at school today, Oliver. Why did you have to spend recess on the bench again?”

“It wasn’t fair, Mom. We were in cooking class and Hannah was sitting at my table with Jill and Richard, and she kept kicking everyone under the table. You can ask Jill and Richard. She just kept swinging her feet and kicking everyone for no reason! And we kept asking her to stop and she didn’t! She said she had to swing her legs.” He paused, having worked himself into indignation.

“OK, Oliver. But that doesn’t get us to you getting benched, does it? What did you do?”

“Well, so she wouldn’t stop, so I went over to Mr. Smith and told him and he said I needed to care of it myself.” Another long pause.

“Oliver, what did you do?” I was trying hard to be low key and patient.

“I kicked her back.”

I couldn’t keep myself from letting my forehead fall into my hand.

“But Mom, but Mom, wait! I didn’t kick her hard! I just kicked her, well, harder than she was kicking us; I guess it was kind of hard. But she didn’t even start crying until she saw Mr. Smith coming over. And Mr. Smith got mad at me, not at her! And she started it! Jill and Richard even told him. And he just said ‘Oliver, you are in big trouble!’ and all he said to her was ‘Are you OK?’ All that fake crying. It wasn’t fair, he was being nicer to her because she’s white, he always does that. Well, maybe it wasn’t because she’s white. I shouldn’t have kicked her . . . “

“You know that’s right. You shouldn’t have kicked her.”

“But, Mom, I asked Mr. Smith to make her stop, and he wouldn’t do anything.”

“Well, Oliver, what else could you have done besides kick her?” And I guided him through the “choices and options” stuff that I’d learned from the parenting books, trying to help him figure out how to make decisions that wouldn’t result in him spending recess on the bench.

Inwardly, I was fuming at Mr. Smith for not giving him any help in dealing with the problem. Then I tried to tackle the race issue. “And Oliver, it doesn’t matter whether she’s black or white or Latino or Asian or whatever. If you kick someone, you’re going to get in trouble. And you should!”

“But, Mom, she didn’t get in trouble and she was kicking all of us!”

I sighed as I realized I had to go there. “Oliver, why do you think that has anything to do with her being white?”

“Because he does that all the time. He’s always yelling at me and Sean, and he never yells at Jonah and Rory. They talk all the time, and he doesn’t care.”

Sean is a black boy who is Oliver’s best friend. Jonah and Rory are two white boys in the class. The problem was, I couldn’t argue that point with him, because I’d seen it myself in the classroom. In fact, the African American parents at the school have started meeting to figure out how to address the uneven discipline problem we’re seeing. But the question in front of me right then was what should I say to Oliver?

“You know, Oliver, sometimes that happens to black kids. I know it isn’t fair, but sometimes teachers look harder at what the black kids do, and don’t let you get away with stuff that the white kids do get away with. Not always, but sometimes. It happens with grown-ups, too. Sometimes we’re judged more harshly because we’re African American. What you have to do is watch out for your own behavior. Make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, and don’t give anyone a reason they can use to be unfair.”

I’d heard a similar speech from my father when I was a kid. I called it the “You have to be twice as good as the white kids” speech. My father’s version was much harsher than what I was telling my son. From my father, I not only heard that a black kid had to be smarter than a white kid to get the same grade, but that “they (white people) will get you if you give them a chance. Don’t give them any excuse.”

Now, to tell you the truth, I don’t really know whether my father truly believed that all of his life, or if that’s just what he said to me in his darkest moments. He was a very ambitious African American man working in a white man’s world, and he struggled against overt racism. But the lessons my father passed on to me, and what I was trying to pass on to my son in a different version that day have to do with figuring out how to calibrate our internal racism radar. It was part of what Oliver was grappling with when he said that Mr. Smith treated Hannah differently because she was white, then questioned his own assessment of what had happened. He had the distinct feeling that something was going on beneath the surface of how Mr. Smith handled the incident that day, and that that “something” had to do with race. But he wasn’t 100% sure. He’s still figuring out whether and when to rely on his radar.

I wish the racism radar could be as technically sure and accurate as the real thing. But it is a very subjective, subtle instrument. Something in the context of an incident, something in a person’s voice or attitude when they make a remark, the way that a co-worker off-handedly tosses a report onto a desk, or passes over a comment made by a person of color in a meeting – something — starts an internal “ping, ping, ping” and we are on guard, alert and watching. “What is going on here? Did he really just do that? Am I seeing right?” And because the kind of ordinary, every day racism that people of color face is usually not as clear cut as the comments Don Imus hurled at the Rutgers Women’s basketball team (although, incredibly, because he was “joking” there were those who argued he was not being racist at all), we are often left to figure out whether we’re getting an accurate reading. We look at the context of the incident, what we know about the people involved, whether there have been similar incidents in the past, look to the reactions of others in the room. Often, the radar will result in the only two African Americans in the room exchanging knowing glances while the white folks move obliviously along.

The racism radar is something that people of color must learn how to use if we are to remain sane. Figuring out how racism infects a particular office environment, for example, and understanding that what’s going on is not the result of our own ineptitude can give us a realistic grounding in how to deal with a problem at work. And a black boy understanding that the distinctly uneven-handed discipline he’s been receiving is based on racial attitudes, and not just his mistakes, will help keep him from internalizing the self-image of “incorrigible child”.

But this is where people begin to stand up and shout things like “But you’re being too sensitive.” And “You can’t blame racism for everything.” And “What about personal responsibility?” And “Everyone isn’t racist.” And “You’re stuck in a victim mentality.” And “You’re playing the race card!” And “Why do you want to teach kids that white people are bad?” And “He was only joking.” And fill in with your own version of “Please ignore that pinging in your head.”

Yes, it’s true, there are some black people whose radars are set to the sensitive side – they see racist conspiracy everywhere. And there are some black people who stay at the opposite side of the dial, refusing to see racism, and brushing away all but the most undeniable incidents. And then there are the rest of us who make our conclusions incident by incident, based on a combination of what’s in front of us and past experience. In fact, I’m sure that most people of color have been in all three places at different times in their lives. It’s likely that my father’s more extreme diatribes came after particularly harsh struggles in his life. I know that as he got to retirement age, he was more sanguine about white folks.

But it is also my experience that for many white folks who don’t deal with everyday racism the radar is either dialed way down or just flat doesn’t work at all. Most white people who aren’t forced to confront racists acts and attitudes are more comfortable with the idea that racism no longer exists, and believe that those of us who see it are boxing shadows of the past. And since white culture is the majority culture here in the US, the prevailing attitude leans towards dismissing as innocent all but the most egregious acts of racism. To do otherwise is being “too sensitive” or “avoiding responsibility”.

Which brings me back to Oliver. There are those who believe that what I should have said to Oliver in response to his comment about race is something like the following: “Now, Oliver, you don’t mean that. Mr. Smith is a nice man! He wouldn’t treat you differently because of your race. How do you know he wasn’t angrier with you because you’re a boy and she’s a girl? And you did kick her harder. Just mind your behavior and you won’t get in trouble.”

It is true that Mr. Smith is a nice man. It’s also true that that has nothing to do with whether he’s absorbed and is acting out – consciously or unconsciously — the prevailing cultural assumption that black boys are more prone to misbehavior and need harsher discipline. Throughout his life, Oliver will run into “nice” people who do racist things. He will need to figure out for himself how to judge what is happening. I can’t tell him that such things will never happen to him. If I’m being honest with him, I have to say, “Yes, Oliver, there is racism in the world, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.”

When I acknowledged during my talk with him that he could well be seeing something real when he complained that he was being treated unfairly because of his race, I was not saying to him, “You know, you’re right, Mr. Smith is a racist, and you should just ignore him. You did the right thing.”

Instead, the message under the words I used was “It’s OK to listen to your gut. There may be racism there. If there is, here is a way you can handle it.” Then I gave him a strategy that many African American parents have passed on to their kids: “Do your best to follow the rules, and keep yourself out of trouble.” It’s a pretty good strategy, even though it doesn’t always work. And there are many others. That one seemed appropriate to the situation, and since he’s only nine, I’m sticking with the basics. But I cannot – in fact, I won’t – tell him that the only strategy open to him is to ignore the “ping, ping, ping” of his radar.

Vera L is a former attorney and social worker who is now a stay at home mom. She, her partner and their two school-aged are an interracial, two-mom, adoptive family living in Berkeley, California. They are intimately familiar with conversation about race, family difference and fitting in.

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