Friday, March 8, 2013

A Place of Privilege

This afternoon I read this essay: "The Good, Racist People" whose author believes that racism is endemic to all white Americans. It is hitting me particularly hard right now.

I try to have as "progressive" a heart as possible, in the ideal sense of gender/race/class/size/sexual orientation not mattering. Not that I don't see it, but I try to not let those factors affect my relations with any one individual or group. I acknowledge that this is made easier by the fact that I am particularly privileged: white, heterosexual, middle-class, well-educated. The only "strike" against me is the fact that I am a woman, and in my circles that can be as much an advantage as a liability. 

But still... 

And yet...

I recently learned to which middle school my son has been admitted. Both the first- and second-choice schools have the same curriculum, the same intended outcome, the same discipline ladder, the same high academic standards. They are in different neighborhoods and have quite different demographics. Therefore, despite my intent to be open minded, after learning that he got into his second-choice school I find myself confronting my own racial prejudices. My white son will be a minority in a school with a large population of hispanic and African-American students. I am nervous. I have good, logical, reasons, but when I look in my personal mirror I face the fact that my fear is tied to my internalized understanding of color and violence and education and culture and academics and class and race.

This is not a new issue in our family. My children attend an academically, socially, and racially diverse urban elementary school in a "good" neighborhood. They have always had classmates from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, my son has had a number of run-ins with African-American students. It started with one little boy in kindergarten who poked and pinched and kicked everyone in his class. By first grade my son had learned to equate dark skin with bad behavior. When I figured this out I immediately enlisted the help of his teacher -- an African-American woman we both loved -- to try and combat his prejudice, but the damage was done.  He told me that "brown-skins" were bad; ironically, he did not recognize that his teacher, the paraprofessional, and five of his classmates were people of color.

This year he's been having further conflicts, again with an African-American boy in his class. As far as I can determine this is both an extension of the bullying my son has faced for the past two years and normative fifth-grade-boy power plays. Regardless, my son loses and his racism is reinforced. I have been as open as possible with the (male, African American) Assistant Principal in hopes that when he deals with both boys he can address these notions in ways that I cannot. I don't know if that is making a difference.

I have done my best to educate The Boy. We have extensively discussed racism and prejudice. We have studied MLK and Rosa Parks. We have pointed out all the positive role models and examples in his daily life, from my husband's latino employees to the educators in our school to the President of our country. Intellectually The Boy understands. Emotionally, he can't get past his experiences so far. He's still too young to understand how destructive racism is for everyone it touches, including himself.

All of which is background for why I am alarmed at the idea of the second-choice middle school. I fear that The Boy -- with his brutal honesty and complete lack of filters -- will not only say something hurtful to another person, but endanger himself by sparking a confrontation. I cannot gauge how others will react to his quirks and undiplomatic remarks. And I don't want him riding his bicycle alone through a neighborhood I find significantly scarier than the upper-class enclave of the first-choice school.

Race in this country is such an awfully charged topic that people shy away from open discussions. Privileged people like myself can tut-tut about how other people are racist, but we rarely admit our own faults. We claim to be "post-racial" or "color blind", when really we are just stifling our reactions. I hope, I pray, that my son's experience at this school is enlightening, and helps him break through his prejudices. Even more, I hope it helps me with mine.

1 comment:

  1. Yanna -
    Well said. Thanks for the post!
    Everybody needs to look within and acknowledge even (especially) what we don't want to.