What kids are hearing when no one is talking

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula, crossposted from Heart, Mind and Seoul

During my first real job as an adult, I worked for a woman who had a theory about the people in our company who (for whatever reason) didn’t pull their own weight.  She hypothesized that when it came right down to it, there are only ever two real reasons why someone won’t do something.  She believed it was either because they didn’t know how, or because they didn’t want to know how.

I’m thinking this conjecture of hers could very well apply to many of the kids that I’ve encountered in the past five months while working as a substitute teacher when it comes to talking – really talking - about race.

I have taught in 10 different schools within one particular school district.  I have met approximately 1,000 students ranging in age from six years old to 18.   According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, the city in which most of these students reside is 97% white. 

At some of the elementary schools where I have taught, I have been able to count the number of children of color on one hand. . .not in just one class, but in the entire school.  And of the hundreds of teachers I have met or seen in the various hallways of these schools, I remember meeting only two who are of color.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not suggesting that this is a “bad” school district simply because of its lack of diversity.  I am not asserting that all the students, staff and families that comprise the communities of these schools are all racist or that the majority of my substitute teaching experiences have been marred by racist acts or undertones.

What I am saying is, that based on my experiences with the hundreds of kids that I have encountered, I don’t know how well equipped many of these students are with the appropriate language, skills and other necessary tools in order to have a relevant, meaningful and respectful dialogue about race.

I say that because there have been numerous racist incidents which I’ve had to address with several students, including incidents where I have been the target of the racist slur or insult.  I absolutely believe that a woeful lack of education and exposure – both at home at and at school - about how to talk about race and race consciousness manifests itself into the kinds of actions, words and behaviors that I have witnessed.

As I was explaining to my husband the other night, my motivation to raise an awareness about my experiences in these schools in no way stems from a desire to seek any kind of personal vindication.  I am a big girl.  I can, and have – to the best of my ability – fully addressed each and every incident that has taken place as well as reported it and documented it in full detail.  It’s not about my feelings being affected when students have “ching-chonged” me or told me that I have funny looking eyes or pretending to eat with chopsticks with accompanying racist language when I walk by their desks.  It’s about the kids – all of them - but especially the few ones of color, who are being told “You’re not in Africa anymore, get over it – things are different here!” And it’s about the young, first-grader who came up to me just two weeks ago in tears saying, “He doesn’t want to be my partner because he says I’m black and that I don’t match.”  It’s about the feelings of the many other kids of color who have been teased, put down, bullied or harassed.

My fear is not that so many of these incidents have taken place in my presence; instead my fear is reserved for the countless other acts that children are being subjected when no adult is around.  Because my gut tells me that if a student feels comfortable enough ching-chonging methe adult teacher who happens to be a person of color – that they sure as heck are doing it to other kids, kids who are far more vulnerable and in a weaker position to defend themselves compared to myself.

Upon sharing a few of these experiences, I’ve had a couple people tell me “Get out then.  Just go to another district where you don’t have to deal with that stuff.  It’s not worth your time.” 

And yet, for some inexplicable reason, this is where I feel like I need to be.  Perhaps it’s because I see part of myself in the young Asian girl who represents almost her entire school’s demographic of “racial diversity”.  Perhaps it’s because I know that I will thoroughly address and confront any racist act or comment that takes place in my presence; an occurrence (the acknowledgment of the act) that I’m not too confident takes place nearly often enough.  And most importantly, perhaps it’s because I know in my heart that leaving this particular area won’t make the ignorance or the intolerance go away simply because I’m not there to witness it.  I have taught and volunteered in more racially and ethnically diverse schools and I can tell you, racism and ignorance still very much exists in those classrooms as well.

I’m under no illusion that I am the one lone hope who needs to “save” any of these kids, or that I’m the only voice of reason who feels that she needs to “set this district straight”.  This isn’t about seeking revenge from the acts committed against me as a child when I was in school.  It’s about raising an awareness and confronting the very real and all too frequent acts of racism, prejudice and discrimination that still take place in our children’s schools today. 

Generally speaking as both a parent and a teacher, I believe that in order for real learning to occur, there needs to be a solid, working foundation as well as an existing, cohesive understanding of a single concept before you can successfully add another one.  We don’t expect our children to run before they even know how to crawl or for our kids to attempt double digit multiplication before they even know how to add.  I think the same is true about conversations regarding race and race consciousness. 

Based on my life experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom, I have observed that too often people don’t talk about race either because a) They have never really learned how and don’t even know where or how to begin or b) It’s just too uncomfortable and so they avoid it, tune our, feign disinterest or change the subject at all costs.  The former, in my opinion, needs to be addressed at it’s most fundamental level in the early years when many kids are more apt to engage in a conversation and in many instances are more likely to be less inhibited about asking questions and expressing their own opinions.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that as an adult, some of the most enlightening, honest and authentic conversations that I’ve ever had about race and race consciousness have been with people under the age of 12 years old.  Many kids have an innate way of putting themselves out there that is uncensored, raw and completely devoid of consideration for what other people might say or how they might react.  Moreover, I believe that their defenses aren’t built up nearly as much as I’ve observed in adults. 

Young people are absolutely capable about talking about race and race consciousness.  They just need to be given the tools and a genuine opportunity to do so and the adults in their lives need to provide a safe and respectful setting for this to occur.  Talking about Rosa Parks and MLK, Jr. for one week in February is not enough.  Giving a kid one-hour detention for racial harassment without an honest conversation with both the student and his/her parent(s)/guardian(s) is not enough.  Telling our sons and daughters that “Kids are mean and that’s just the way kids are, so rise above it” is not enough

But of course, the million dollar question is, how can we expect our kids to have honest, meaningful, respectful and relevant conversations about race when so many of us cannot or will not?

Regardless if it’s because we don’t know how to talk about race or because we don’t want to know how to talk about race, the outcome is the same: kids, especially children of color, absorb the impact of what each person chooses to do.  The fallout from adults not talking about race landed squarely in my hands when I was a child some 30-years ago and I assure you that it’s still happening to many kids today.  Heck, it’s still happening to me today, as well as to many other friends of color in my life.  Not talking about race and not teaching kids how to talk about race doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist.  And contrary to what many people believe, encouraging honest and open discussions about race is not promoting racism or keeping it alive.  

Talking about race and race consciousness doesn’t need to dominate or become the sole focus in every school’s curriculum.  I’m just asking that it be given the serious consideration it deserves to simply be on the agenda.  Not for my sake or the benefit of just my kids, but for all of our kids.

Paula was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as an infant into her family in 1971. She and her husband,  have two children; a five year-old daughter and a son who is almost three. Paula currently is a full-time mom, part-time volunteer for various social justice organizations and is also a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher. She blogs about her experiences as a transracial adoptee and adoptive parent at Heart, Mind and Seoul.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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