Thinking about race in Pre-K

crossposted from DadWagon

Last week I went to 112th and Lennox in West Harlem to see the universal pre-K program at P.S. 185.

I’ve been looking at pre-K programs throughout uptown Manhattan ever since we discovered that we were too poor for private school but too rich for Head Start. It’s been a frustrating process; as I’ve written before, underfunding has left just 406 spots in District 3, which covers the Upper West Side and West Harlem. Some schools have ten applicants for every spot. Siblings get first priority; the rest get in (or not) through a lottery.

At least one school wouldn’t even give us a tour because the odds are so long. Our zoned school isn’t doing pre-K at all this year. The next closest school is just three blocks away, but when I visited, I found the classrooms cluttered and chaotic, with a computer video blaring in one corner while kids tried to play/work elsewhere. But even there we would have little chance of winning a spot for our daughter.

P.S. 185 was completely different. Monika Vargas, the parent coordinator, was welcoming, even solicitous. The classrooms were spacious and uncluttered. The kids were wonderfully calm and attentive as their teacher read a book to them. After the tour, Monika said the school always had a few spots open, and she all but guaranteed us a place for Dalia if we filled out an application and ranked them no. 1 right then.

But I hesitated. I left without filling out an application. I still don’t know if we’re going to apply to the school at all. Why? Because every single one of the kids in both pre-K classes is black. And Dalia (as you might know) is not.

I know, I know. Harlem schools have black students: not shocking. But still I wasn’t prepared for Dalia to potentially be the only kid who wasn’t black. And even though America has been magically postracial for 415 days since Inauguration Day, I’m still not sure what to think about the idea.

[Let's break here for my humble rendition of the "Some of my best friends are black" disclaimer that white people like to use before talking about race: Actually, none of my Best Friends are black. I suppose a couple of the next tier—the Very Good Friends—are. It is also true that my aunt is black, as are my (half-white) cousins, although family is family and not really divided by race, especially in this past year, when my uncle was killed on his motorcycle by a fucking scatterbrained soccer mom driving a Honda Odyssey and all of us who survived him ceased being black or white for a while and were just identically useless and heartbroken and angry. Now that shit is postracial.]

Here’s one reason why sending my girl—who is equal parts Mexican, Jewish, Japanese and German (she’s pale, if not exactly white)—into an all-black classroom could be problematic. Four-year-olds are just programmed to be blunt about differences. Dalia has never really asked her mom or me about skin color, but she does ask loudly why that man has no legs, or if the “fat woman” is going into the same store as us. Her school this year is mostly white kids with some Asian and Hispanic kids; she’ll notice the change and she’ll ask loud questions about it. The other kids will ask their own loud questions of her and about her. Children are innocent, but not ignorant (that’s why it’s a bad idea to feign colorblindness).

But will those questions ever go beyond curiosity and become something that keeps Dalia from feeling like she truly belongs with the group? I don’t know. Would a black 4-year-old girl feel like she had more in common with Dalia (another girl) than with a black boy in the class? Seems reasonable.

Another confounding variable is black Harlem’s own diversity. I say that the both classes were all black, but I just saw their faces. I have no idea if those kids were born in Harlem or in Haiti, if they’re from the South or from Senegal. The one other parent I met in my brief time there was from the Ivory Coast. Some of the kids could have been Hispanic, which would again give Dalia something in common with them (the Spanish language) that might trump any difference in skin color. Same goes with socioeconomic status: Harlem is financially diverse, and the school might be as well.

I could be analyzing it too much. After all, I imagine that a lot of black people (not just Michael Steele) often find themselves alone in a roomful of white people. In theory, reversing those roles should be a good thing. But that’s a heavy trip to lay on a 4-year-old. I dream of a world where color doesn’t really matter, but Dalia is going to have to go to school in the real world, and I don’t want her to have to pay for my daydreams.

By the same token, it’s just a year, even if it doesn’t work out perfectly. And it certainly could be a positive thing, getting exposure to kids who are (at least in superficial ways) different from her. And the school’s next group may just naturally be more diverse—I ran into a Filipino-American mom who was also in love with the school, and considering putting her kid there. Maybe Dalia wouldn’t have to break the color barrier alone, though we wouldn’t know until they hand out assignments in the summer.

So, readers, what would you do?

UPDATE: On rereading this post this morning, I realized I made it sound as if this were there perfect school, just the wrong color. Actually, one aspect of the pedagogy didn’t quite agree with me: the curriculum seemed pretty rigid. All the 4- and 5-year-olds wore uniforms. They learned writing through practicing writing, same with numbers. They were assigned homework. It was the least progressive of all the schools I visited, though that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker in and of itself. Oh, and that Filipina mom? She said she might put her kid there if she could get at least one or two other other friends who weren’t black to enroll with her. So that’s unclear still…

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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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