Ask LIE: How do we address microaggressions at our children’s schools?

Dear Love Isn’t Enough.

As the new school year approaches my husband and I are again finding that we need to address race issues within the school system. My stepkids are teenagers in high school and more of these issues are occurring. Sadly, it seems that most of the racial comments are coming from teachers rather than other classmates. I am not sure if this is worse or better than if the comments were coming from classmates.

First,  my husband and I are both white. We have full custody of my stepkids who are biracial Hispanic. We also have two young daughters who we adopted from China.  I grew up in a diverse area and witnessed much racism.  I was taught that many people treat each other differently based on their skin color and that this is wrong and that I should say something in those situations. My husband grew up in a predominately white area and did not really see much racism other than on TV.

In the past couple of years my stepdaughter has come home with accounts from school largely involving inappropriate comments or actions from teachers. Some of which I really felt required intervention by my husband (For instance, contacting the school and asking for a meeting).

Examples:

While in class, a student makes a joke about the kids at school who are mentally challenged. Instead of correcting this child, the teacher laughs at the joke. (Actually administrators were informed of this and the teacher was made to apologize to the class).

While in class, the teacher refers to an Asian student by the name of a different Asian student who is not in that class. When the Asian student corrects the teacher the teacher responds, “Oh, you must be the other one.”

While talking with a teacher about general family stuff, another student mentions she has a younger sibling who was adopted internationally. Stepdaughter mentions her family’s ethnic make-up. The teacher comments to her, “You live in a regular United Nations.”

Another situation: my stepdaughter told a coach that she was not going to make practice because she had two tests to prepare for. The coach responded that there were other girls on the team who were coming to practice and that they are in the top 10 percent of their class. Then she added, “I doubt you fall into that category.”

This was one comment I felt my husband should have called about. My question to this statement is why does this person doubt my stepdaughter can be in the top 10 percent of her class? Because she’s Hispanic?

None of these single incidents happened in close proximity to each other—this is over the past two years, but it definitely seems to be a tone.

Recently, my stepson was cut from a high school soccer tryout. He is an incoming freshman and the school only has JV and Varsity—so while it is disappointing, he is an incoming freshman. Then stepdaughter mentioned that only four kids were cut from the team and that three of the four are Hispanic.

My husband is seriously up in arms. This was another situation where I asked if there were other minority kids being effected and at first ‘Dear Hubby’ dismissed me—until his daughter mentioned most of the kids who were cut are Hispanic. My husband told me he didn’t listen to me because he simply did not believe it would/could happen.

***Sigh***

My husband said he is calling the principal to talk about all this and the tone of the school.  This is not about my stepson getting on the team. I doubt he would accept it after being cut even if offered.  I also doubt he will want his dad talking to someone at the school.

We know our kids need to grow up and learn how to deal with this kind of crap. As parents we have to walk a line between letting them handle situations on their own in their own way and knowing when we need to step in and take action.

What do you suggest in this situation? If he meets with the principal, what are some points, questions, requests he should make?

I think the entire staff needs training on race relations.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Anonymous

Anonymous,

I have certainly endured my share of micro-and macro-aggressions as an African American woman–both as a child and as an adult. Few members of marginalized groups are so naive as to believe that we have reached anything close to equality. Still, it makes me sad to know that children of color, and their parents, are still dealing with this stuff.

A few things come to mind as I read your story:

- Please encourage your husband to educate himself about race, racism and privilege. It is a privilege to be able to believe that racial bias no longer exists. It may be normal that, given your husband’s upbringing, he is less sensitive to incidences of racial prejudice–especially as it plays out today: sometimes subtle and confusing. But as children of color, your kids can ill afford a dad–even a loving one–that “simply does not believe [incidents of bias] could/would happen.”

- If both parents are smart about race, you can provide all of your children with a solid foundation to confront prejudice. And I think that is a key step here. Some of the instances you mention could be outright racism, some could be benign and several appear to be microaggressions:  “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Microaggressions, in particular, are part of life for members of marginalized groups, including people of color, girls and women, etc. Unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate these from your children’s lives. You won’t be able to address every case of microaggression that they face. And so, it is important for you and your husband to understand race, to talk to your children about race and to strengthen them to deal with obstacles.

- Educators should understand race (and gender, and sexuality, etc.), be aware of their own privileges and biases, and trained in sensitivity. How literate are the educators in your school/district about race? In your meeting with the principal, I would find out and would definitely push, along with other parents, for regular diversity education.

- As a parent, you are smart to be concerned about these things. Good job! Keep working to educate yourself, your husband and your children’s teachers. And find ways to support your children and build pride in their race and cultures so that they can deal with the racism that they will surely, sadly, confront as they grow older.

Readers, what do you say?

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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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