written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Alissa McElreath, columnist, Family Education Network
When my son was four (he’s now nine), and home from preschool because of a cold, I took him to work with me. I teach English at a private, historically black college, and my son was always an easy kid to take to work. He pretended to “take notes” while he sat in the back of the class, and liked to doodle with the dry erase markers. When we walked the hallways some of my students slapped hands with him, and called him “little man”, making his eyes shine with pride. I’d only brought him to campus a small number of times before, when he was two and three; this was his first campus visit as a four-year-old.
On our way to pick up his sister from the babysitter, I asked him if he had enjoyed his morning with me at school.
He was silent for a few moments, staring thoughtfully out the minivan’s side window.
“Yes,” he finally answered. “But Mama,” he asked, “why do all the students at your school have brown skin?”
I was taken aback for only a few seconds. We often talked about the concept of “different” in our house. My husband and I have always believed it important not to hide differences behind uncomfortable silences and redirected conversation. Yes, people are different. But diversity isn’t some bad, ugly, shadowy thing we need to turn away from; it’s beautiful and complex and deep, and we need to face it head on. Only by confronting superficial differences are we able to truly understand that we are really all the same—the core of who we are, of our humanity is there in all of us, under the brightly-colored yarns that make up the tapestry of so many cultures, and races, ethnicities, and ranges of abilities. Yet as a parent I had to train myself to leave behind my own discomfort with speaking about differences—especially racial difference. I grew up feeling a need to compensate for the acts of racial ignorance and stereotyping I saw around me. This compensation took the form of a steadfast and misguided refusal to acknowledge differences in any way, shape, or form. I equated the act of noticing difference and talking about difference with a type of racism.
No, of course we are not different.
Of course differences don’t exist.
Then I became a parent.
And then I became a white female English teacher at a private, southern, historically black college.
Difference was around me day in and day out. It rode the elevator with me to and from class. It came into my office, it leaned on me for support. It poured out of my students’ mouths in a flood of words, stories about struggles I couldn’t even begin to understand, and stories that were like the stories any college freshman would share on any campus. But during my first two years of teaching, I avoided topics of race. Sure, I assigned essays and readings that had to do with race, but I shied away from ones that could create discomfort in the classroom. I was worried about my own students’ comfort levels and, I can now admit it, my own. Would they even want a white teacher talking to them about race? Would they want to see my discomfort with my own whiteness, with its legacy? Did I even have the right to talk about race?
Then, almost two years after I started teaching, I showed up early one day to my freshman composition class. There were already quite a few students there, and it was a Friday. The students were happy, and chatty, and the early spring sun was shining in the classroom windows. My students asked me about the upcoming weekend, and what my plans were. We talked for a little back and forth and then one of my students asked,
“Professor M., do you like teaching here?”
The rest of the students fell instantly silent.
I think I really knew what he was asking, but instead I deflected. I gushed on about how I liked the campus, and the students, and the teaching load.
When I was done he looked at me with a polite, by curious stare.
“No,” he insisted. “Do you like teaching here?” And then the whammy: “Do you like teaching black students?”
All the years of the accumulated weight of my discomfort with talking about race landed on me like a load of bricks, right then and there, in the classroom. A female student jumped in and scolded the young man for asking me the question; several students laughed in a mixture of horror and embarrassment.
“I don’t think of you as black students,” I told the class. “I think of you as students. And yes, I do like teaching here.”
There. I’d said it: the word black.
If I had thought the discussion would end there, I was wrong. What followed were a flood of questions, unleashed in the way pent-up emotions are unleashed when given the chance. Were white students different from black students? Was it hard to be a white professor on a black campus? What did I think about historically black colleges? Was there still a place for them in our more integrated world? Wait, was our world more integrated?
Once we had talked these questions through, something changed in the classroom. A strange divide had been crossed, a bridge erected over the divide—a divide I hadn’t even known existed–or maybe I had. I realized that my students too had skirted around race all these semesters—my race. But not because they had trained themselves to ignore differences out of fear that in acknowledging my whiteness they would somehow acknowledge some imbalance in the world—that luxury is something that belongs to members of the white race. My students had grown up all too conscious of difference and in return, they demanded that the differences be accounted for, out there, front and center. They wanted difference acknowledged, dissected, spoken about, held up for scrutiny. They wanted to understand it, to give it shape and form. For in order to truly overcome our aversion to acknowledging difference and, in doing so, acknowledge our failings to navigate racial and cultural differences, we have to talk to our children about it, openly and without fear. We have to stare race down, lock eyes over it, hold it up to the light.
In the days before I became a parent I might have hemmed and hawed over a question like the one my son posed to me the afternoon we drove away from work, away from the historically black college that has become a second home to me. In the days before I became a teacher I might have only gazed across the divide, and felt helpless. I might have found myself paralyzed by the fear that in answering the question I would be planting some seed in my young son’s head, a seed that would take root in his mind and pull nourishment from that dark and nebulous place where difference poisons and divides—if we let it, that is.