Last school year, my seven-year-old son’s childhood ended. He was in grade two, and we had to explain to him the intricacies of being a Black boy in the school system.
My son had a great grade two teacher. But he did have a challenging year as the only Black child in his class—he was beginning to question his identity. He wasn’t always happy going to school, and his teacher, as lovely as she seemed, was consistently calling me to report on what I considered trivial concerns. She said he didn’t express excitement enough, and the next time she called it was to tell me he was expressing his emotions too much. We tried a collaborative approach: talking to her, talking to him each time, but the calls continued.
Finally, we sat him down and had “the talk.” We had to tell him that his behavior had to be twice as good as his classmates’. That he had to stand extra still when it was time to line up to go out for recess and to be sure not to get too excited in class. When other kids bothered him, he should always just ignore them and never engage. Essentially, to never defend himself or raise his voice, because his teacher may misinterpret his behavior as threatening. We had to teach him to police his behavior first, before others had the opportunity to do so. We had to teach him the realities of being Black.
The very next day, after we asked our seven-year-old son to dim his light, we received a glowing report from his teacher.
Prior to this, in an attempt to address my son feeling uncomfortable in the classroom, and an overarching issue around equity in the school system, I tried to have a conversation with the school principal. I tried to talk to her about the fact that for Black children, punishments are often harsher and their behavior is watched much more closely than that of white children. We wanted to ensure that we disrupted any narrative being formed about our son—he’s a sweet, sensitive child who stops to give money to every homeless person he sees, who asks the big questions about the universe, who philosophizes about the existence of God, Santa and an alternate universe where we are all superheroes in the same breath. The principal shifted in her seat, looked at her watch over and over, alluding to the fact that she had another meeting to get to.
She denied our experience by saying that “things are better now,” and then, in what I consider typical of the heavy-handed approach applied to Black kids and parents, she decided to escalate the conversation to the superintendent without our consent or (at the very least) a courtesy call telling us what she intended to do.
When I share these experiences with white friends, they respond with shock, sympathy and sometimes anger on our behalf. There’s also guilt. Guilt that they do not have these experiences, that they love their child’s school, that their kids get to be naughty and grow freely with few consequences. Sometimes there is silence. But these are not the reactions I’m looking for. Instead of sympathy or guilt, I want action.
Here’s the truth of the matter. A white voice advocating carries more weight than a Black one. My Black voice is heard as bitter. It’s seen as stirring up trouble, as scary and threatening. It’s why people get panicked when groups of Black people hold meetings.
So please, use your voice this school year to speak up for my kids and all the kids who look like mine, because, frankly, I’m tired.
If you want to be an ally, here are seven practical things you can do to help:
1. Educate yourself on equity vs. equality
Equality means treating everyone the same, but anti-Black racism means that kids are not all on an even playing field at school. Equity is realizing that factors like race, gender and income put people in unique situations, and that we need to give them different things to make them successful. And you can help. Do some research to find out why Black experiences are different from those of other racialized groups. The world has set expectations of my son that are hugely problematic and often result in Black children disengaging from school. Lobby your school board to hire more Black teachers, which research shows will benefit your child just as much as mine. Don’t accept trite responses like “there are no qualified Black candidates.” This is simply not true and is a lazy and unacceptable response to questions of equity in 2018.
2. Order books with Black characters for your classroom
There’s no question that all kids deserve representation, and the reality is that Black kids see very little of themselves reflected in the books, shows and movies they’re surrounded by. We affirm our son and daughter constantly at home, but they spend more time at school than they do at home with us. I am tired of my daughter drawing herself as white with blond hair. So, when you are ordering from Scholastic and you see a book with Black characters, order it and donate it to your child’s library or class.
3. Ask the tough questions
I’ve already faced off with my child’s principal, who didn’t have time to discuss equity and most likely thinks I have a chip on my shoulder because I spoke the truth about outcomes for Black children and what that means for my son. I need help. I need you to go into the principal’s office and ask him or her if the teachers receive equity training, if they are trained on systemic and anti-Black racism and what that looks like in a school. Ask her if they have any Black teachers, and if they don’t, why not? Do they have a plan in place to address this?
4. Push for more than just Black History Month
While you are in that meeting with the principal, ask about Black History Month. Push to have Black history incorporated throughout the curriculum year-round. Tell them you want your kids to know about the history of people of African descent—not just slaves, but the sculptors and artists who lived thousands of years before slavery. And when it is Black History Month, advocate for it to be about more than drummers coming in for a gym assembly and a few lessons on Martin Luther King.
5. Make art class more diverse
Visit the art teacher or your child’s teacher and ask them to incorporate artists, art styles and crafts from countries other than Western ones. There are enough classes throughout the year to feature African-influenced arts and crafts at some point.
6. Teach your kids that color does matter
You can’t tell your kids to be color-blind because then you are telling them to ignore difference. You want them to celebrate difference. So teach them that Black is beautiful. Buy them Black dolls to play with. Most of all, show them Black excellence beyond sports and music. Talk to them about Black inventors, and while you’re at it, maybe mention that to your child’s teacher as well. Why not make a traffic light craft and spend a little time talking about the man who invented it? His name was Garrett Augustus Morgan and he was African-American. No, kids are not “colorblind”
7. Stay vigilant for us
Pay attention to the Black children in your child’s class and how they are being treated. Our kids are often isolated, literally boxed with tape, as happened in one Peel classroom, made to sit on separate mats or treated more harshly than other students. If you are on a school trip and you see it, let us know. If you don’t know the parents, speak to the principal and tell her you want the parents to know. Our children often can’t speak up for themselves when things happen at school. They may feel something is wrong, but they may not have the words to articulate what is happening to them. If you are there and you see something, speak up for them.