by guest contributor Natasha Sky
My oldest two children are eligible to attend public kindergarten next fall. They have been home full-time since birth, with their dad or me, pretty much living the play-centered life. I began making phone calls to the school in January–we knew this was going to be a complicated process. Our town only offers a full-day kindergarten program, and the school district is known for its focus on test scores. My oldest daughter (age 5) is reading HOP ON POP and GREEN EGGS AND HAM outloud. Her brother (age 4) is not far behind. We’re not worried about academics (the opposite of many parents, I imagine). We are considering school so our kids can hang out with other kids, make friends outside the children of our parent-friends.
I made that first phone call with a bit of optimism (Why? I don’t know . . .) thinking maybe there were a bunch of families of color (okay, not a bunch, maybe just a couple) that we hadn’t met in town yet. The principal returned my phone calls in mid-February. I asked about the flexibility in the schedule (not much), the amount of free-play during the day (not much), and the racial and ethnic make-up of the elementary school. For that third questions, this is the answer she gave me:
According to the principal, the school has about 10 minority students. (Over dinner, my husband and I counted them off–we know them all.)The princial went on to say that the school has “students with white skin, students with brown skin” and “students with different eye structure” who are a sub-set of the white-skinned students. Oh boy. When she later said “students with different eye shape,” I realized she meant Asian students. She’s trying to be uber-PC, I thought. So I prompted her, “Our family is multiracial and has Native American, African American, and European American heritage. Multiracial and multicultural knowledge has been a big part of our children’s education at home.”
“We treat all children the same here,” she told me. And then in the next breath, she informed me that my brown-skinned children would not encounter any racism at school, if anything, they would be treated “better”.
I asked if her school had received any cultural competency training. The principal said they do not have enough minority students for such a training to be needed. Clearly this was going nowhere. I thanked her and said goodbye.
I called the Supervisory Union and asked if they had a diversity coordinator. The woman didn’t know what a diversity coordinator was, or what one would do. She tried to transfer me to the ESL coordinator. My children are American, I told her, and they all speak English. Well, she said, then they couldn’t help me.
I called the high school, and was told by the front desk that no one in the school had diversity/multicultural/cultural competency training–but maybe someone in guidance could help me. The woman who answered the phone in the guidance office said that she had cultural competency training a couple years ago, and she believed she was the only one in the school with this kind of training. If a student of color had a race-related issue, they would be sent to her. Okay, so I had found the right person. Maybe.
She said that she didn’t see a school-wide training happening, because (and I quote) “We don’t have enough minority students for there to be a race problem.” As in–the non-White students are the “race problem”. And then she blew me out of the water. She warned me that the people I needed to be most concerned about were the “old-school” families. She could just hear what her father still calls (and I quote again) “colored people”.
I was silent. I was shocked. After a minute, she covered. “You know what I mean, Black people.”
I was done. I got off the phone shaking. I hadn’t heard that term in 15 years. My kids have never heard that term. Here it was coming out of the mouth of the one woman in the school district that had completed cultural competency training. We were in bigger trouble than I had thought.
I put in a call to the district superintendent. And then a second call. And a third. In April, he called me back. Right away he told me he had lived most of his life in the South, and had just moved up here three or four years ago. He said that the school district treats all children the same, “whether they are green, blue, purple, or polka-dotted.” (I relayed this part of the conversation to my husband over dinner. Our two oldest kids said, “People aren’t green or blue or purple or polka-dotted!” My point exactly. We’re not talking about Muppets here.)
I told the superintendent about the “colored” comment. I said the district needs training. He said he did not see a need for training, and unless I felt my children had been discriminated against, and I wanted to file a formal complaint, there was nothing more he could do for me. He suggested that the principal was the right person for me to be talking to. I sent the principal an email outlining my specific concerns:
We feel strongly that the teachers, administrators, and staff of the school district need cultural competency training. This is not a concern just for me as a parent of children of color, but a need for all the students served by the district. The state standards talk about diversity, and we would like to know how the elementary school is addressing this portion of the standards.
From our first conversations, I still have some concerns. First is your description of the student body as “children with brown skin,” “children with white skin,” and “children with different eye structure or eye shape”. It is important for adults and children both to be comfortable with racial and ethnic descriptive words such as African American, Native American, Asian, Latino, Black, or White. Nobody really has white-colored skin, and mixing color descriptions (brown or tan skin) with racial terms (White or Black) is confusing for children. Asian people have a wide variety of both skin color and eye shape. Describing someone as having “different” eye shape or eye structure implies a “normal” eye shape.
My second concern was your response to my question about whether you or your staff had taken part in cultural competency, multicultural, or diversity training. You said no, that because the school has so few minority students there was little need for such training. This statement concerns me for two reasons: first because it implies that the need for multicultural training is directly related to how many perceived-to-be-non-White students the school has; secondly because it completely disregards our children’s basic needs.
She never replied.
When I first got the principal on the phone (back in February) I wanted to talk about the unique issues of multiracial families and multiracial people, how the racial identity my children carry is not outwardly apparent, how my son appears to be monoracially White, but in fact has Cherokee heritage. But we never made it that far. Instead, I am still trying to get this administrator to use terms such as African American or Black (instead of brown-skinned) to describe my family, and Asian (instead of different eye structure) to describe someone such as my daughter’s Korean god-mother.
I want my children to go to school somewhere they can be friends with (and eventually date) people of a variety of races and ethnicities. I want a school where the head administrator has a basic knowledge of racial descriptors. Where she or he can say Black and Asian without stammering. Where the administrator may be Black or Asian–or both.
I am leaning towards homeschooling.
Natasha Sky is a writer, an artist, an activist, and a multiracial woman, as well as the mother of four multiracial children under the age of six. Two of her children joined her family through domestic open adoption and two of her children joined her family through homebirth. She writes about multiracial family life at My Sky ~ Multiracial Family Life.