It’s all about race

A person on an internet bulletin board on which I post once mocked me saying that for me, it’s always all about race. As I pay attention to everyday life in the LB household, I think that actually she is right to some extent. Race is an undercurrent of so much of what we do and say that that it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that it’s “all about race” for us.

 

Topics brought up by LB lately included her musing about whether or not there were black cowboys and where they actually worked. That led to a discussion of a famous former football player who became a black movie cowboy, which led to a discussion about the first black professional football player, along with notice of the first black basketball player and the discussion about whether the Harlem Globe Trotters were really professional basketball players or not.

 

A few days later, LB wanted to let me know that the book the teacher is reading out loud in class involves a black character being called “colored”, and that she was offended by this. The book, a Newberry Winner called “The Great Gilly Hopkins”, is about a foster child with a lot of baggage, including racism, and her learning to trust people. From what I can tell the teacher hasn’t even gotten to the worst example of racism in the book, so I will need to talk it over with LB so she’s prepared. At her age, LB takes things like this personally, so I guess this is another example of how for us, it’s all about race.

 

Then the other day, LB announced that Barack Obama simply HAS to win, because “too many white people get elected.” She went on to list our mayor, the governor and “all the other presidents” as being white and that in addition to Obama standing for causes LB supports, he isn’t just another white person. She paused. “And you’re white too, Mom.”

I assured her that I couldn’t really do anything about that!

 

All kids of color-black, biracial, Asian, Native and Latino want is to see themselves reflected in the world around them. For most, everyday life doesn’t do this, unless you happen to live somewhere with a diverse population in many aspects of society. With talk of the election on every station and channel and on the front page of every newspaper and even the TV Guide, it’s perhaps the most prominent illustration of how white the world can seem. And I guess I am to.

 

This morning, before I was really awake, LB had a new topic to discuss. There was a report in yesterday’s paper about hate crimes being on the rise in the greater Seattle area. A simple chart broke it down by racial motives, religious motives, sexual identification and so on, and then by town. LB may have forgotten her science assignment, but she could recite the figures on this report as discussed in class, by heart. The location with the most hate crimes, not surprisingly, was Seattle, the others being much smaller towns. The most prevalent motivation for these crimes was race.

 

And again, it IS all about race. This report is about people like HER, and she knows it.

 

There are other less serious issues too. LB does not believe, AT ALL, that I can learn how to make proper fried chicken or ribs like her aunties. She also makes me promise that I will NEVER sign up for an adult hip hop class, even if it’s to lose weight and not perform. “Old” white mothers simply can’t dance. And I’d have to agree with her about that based on my attempts at home.

 

Lest you think otherwise, our everyday life really does include other topics, in fact, most of the time we discuss the weather, how our days were at work and school, and what we should have for dinner. We might have as spirited a discussion about the latest loss by whichever sports team is on deck at time as we would about politics. But our lives have a layer of racial undercurrent that I don’t believe most Caucasian families contain. As much as I rounded my older kids’ education to include the study of other populations, it’s not the same unless you live it. And I’m only part of the discussion by default.

 

Would I REALLY take a second look at the book LB is having read in class if my child was a privileged white girl? Would I even know who Woody Strode (the famous ex-football player/Hollywood cowboy) was?  I know I wouldn’t feel the pain of a brown child complaining that too many elected officials are white.

 

Whatever the racially related topic, having LB, living with Lee and having the extended family that I do has been an education in itself. It’s more valuable than anything I could have studied in school at any level. It helps me “get it”-the big picture about race. And yet, I’m only beginning to learn.

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October Craziness

Well. This time of year is usually busy, but not so busy that we barely have time to sit down! Lately by the time dinner is over with, it’s all Lee and I can do to drag ourselves from the table.

 

LB’s school adventures continue. For the first time since she started preschool, I don’t get  almost daily teacher comments about her talking too much. I don’t have LB complaining about the easy work and I don’t have her whining about having to go to school. She jumps out of bed happy to go, homework is never a fight and she talks often about finally being where she belongs.

 

Of course, this wouldn’t be completely drama-free or it wouldn’t be real life. The drama has been in the form of asthma attacks that still come from out of nowhere and are still happening often enough that they get in the way of our days going smoothly too many in a row.  The doctor warned us that this might be the case after such a bad run that we ended up in the ER not once but twice. It’s getting better, really. I would prefer that the asthma just go on hiatus for another 6 months or so, for all of our sakes.

 

We’ve also been rather shocked at the amount of homework. How does this tire US out, you ask? Well, because LB went from doing 3rd grade math to 6th grade math and there are gaps, even though I spent the summer tutoring her on the things she’d need to know like her times tables, long division and fractions. Now, it’s not entirely 6th grade math and the teacher does realize that new kids like LB are coming into the game at a disadvantage, but it’s not basic addition and subtraction either. So we’re standing or sitting right next to LB as she winds her way through factor trees, Happy Numbers (a real mathematical term-look it up), exponents and the like.

 

I last did some of this stuff about 15 years ago when I homeschooled Mac. Starting with what would have been 3rd grade, he was doing algebra by the end of the year. I attribute none of this to my own help-Mac sees numbers differently than most people. He was forever getting into trouble in school, both before and after homeschooling, for not showing his work. He just SAW the equations in his head and KNEW the answers. All I pretty much needed to do was give him the student-led textbooks I found and he ran with it. LB isn’t that type of math student.

 

What works for LB is seeing a problem done out in careful detail. And I’m far enough removed from this kind of math that I end up having to look things up online to show her exactly what it is I’m trying to say. It’s not pretty. Lee tries to help, but he’s got his own set of problems with work being the most soul-sucking it can get as he works in politics, and well, all you have to do is pick up the nearest newspaper to know why.

 

That should be enough to run anyone ragged-asthma and crazy-making math, but no, there’s more. Friday is LB’s birthday. LB has theme parties-something she started on her own initiative when she was about 3. I’m not talking about say, making a cake with whoever the hot character of the day might be, but decorating themes, favor themes, sometimes even clothing themes (the dress-up tea party, for example). This year it’s a Hollywood theme.

If you have any sense of what makes LB tick by now, a Hollywood theme for a diva child like her should sound most appropriate. Did you know there are clapboard piñatas? I do now. And there are square plates, also clapboard-like. Napkins too. And “Hollywood & Vine” street signs. Not all at the same store, mind you, but they’re out there. How about star-shaped cake pans? Yet another store. Edible gold glitter for said star cake? That too.

 

The irony is that I’ve never held those kids’ parties that go so over the top it’s just silly. No limo to the pancake house, no ponies, no bounce house, no hotel sleepovers. We just invite family and a few friends and decorate in a theme. But somehow this year things did not fall into place well and I had to drive all over the place to just find what I needed, and it kind of got out of control.

 

At least the gift shopping was easy. LB is at the age where gift cards and specific requests are the in thing, and I don’t mind a bit. She wants new clothes for her American Girl? Done. Go online, click a few buttons and it’s on the way.

 

So with just a few days left I should be able to relax, right? Noooooo. You see, Two things happen on Friday, that precede the birthday party on Saturday. One is that the teacher made the mistake of deciding, after all, to allow cupcakes on birthdays. So since I decorate cakes as a hobby, LB volunteered me to make 24 cupcakes. And decorate them. From scratch. I compromised with her and announced that all I will do is ice them with a fancy decorating tube and sprinkle on some pretty sprinkles. There will be no personally decorated cupcakes for each of the classmates. I am not an uber-mom.

 

But wait! There’s more! Friday is the opening of a movie that LB has been waiting for with baited breath. If you have a child between 6 and 12 you HAVE to know, of course, that I’m talking about High School Musical 3! The kids graduate and go off to college! They fall in love! They burst into song and dance every 10 minutes! And Lee promised LB that her mother would take her to see it. Sighhhhh.

 

Saturday after the party I’m putting my feet up and letting the streamers fall where they may. Except for the sleepover (in the den!). And Halloween right around the corner. But-it’s a whole month until Thanksgiving-PLENTY of time to rest until THEN, right?  

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Latest from Latteland

In the end, the LB’s class used some McCain supporter vs. Obama supporter name-calling as an example of bullying. LB got to be an Obama supporter, no one played either candidate. LB was quite pleased that she a) got to support Obama and b) didn’t mess up her lines.

 

We’ve been dealing with a serious round of asthma attacks-LB will be fine for a day or two, then end up sprawled on the couch hacking her lungs out. Usually a bad episode sets her back for a week or so, but we’re into week two, with three daily medicines and still having problems. Having her regular doc on sabbatical isn’t helping-we’ve seen three different doctors (if you count the nurse-practitioner), more nurses than I can count,  plus three pharmacists in the last 9 days.

 

A long phone consultation with the fill-in doc for our regular guy this morning gave me some really helpful information. Apparently LB’s minor cold has caused some serious lung inflammation and the cold is lingering as well. So some days LB can manage, others the slightest thing such as extra activity (yesterday it was dancing to “George Washington’s favorite song” in music class) will set her off. School work has taken a backseat to her asthma-I feel like I should apologize to her poor teacher!

 

We have new asthma management plan in place and I think that will help a lot, in addition to the fact that soon the long-acting meds should begin to take hold. It’s almost noon and so far the school hasn’t called with an asthma report, so I am cautiously optimistic.

 

Asthma is a huge problem among African Americans. Not only do they have a nearly 40% higher rate of asthma than whites, they have higher rates of hospitalization and death from it.  That is something always lurking in the back of my mind every time we  go through another bout with this horrible affliction.

 

Luckily, we have a very good insurance plan and have caregivers who seem well-educated in the treatment of asthma, in addition to being culturally sensitive. But having spent $200 on hospital and doctor visits and medications in the last week, and that’s ONLY co-pays, it’s easy to see why those in poverty have a hard time getting this illness under control.

 

We can afford it, though not if we had to hand over that kind of money every week. But what about those not quite at the government-subsidized level of health care, but who can’t fork over $100 for the ER and $30 for yet another medicine that may or may not work?

 

And we’re lucky regarding work too. Lee has a very flexible and forgiving job where he can often just leave at the drop of a hat, and I work only part-time. But what about those who can get docked or fired for missing work to pick up a sick child for the third time in three days? In the end, it’s no surprise that white, affluent people have better rates of asthma management and fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

 

Other than several partially missed days of school and consternation over the class play, LB continues to like school-enough that she recommended it to a white parent of a biracial child we met in the store yesterday. She did sigh and wish out loud that there were at least one other black or black/white biracial kid in her class, though. Sometimes you just want to see a familiar looking face, you know?

 

The school’s diversity committee met with the district’s head of the advanced learning programs last week, and we found time to attend in between asthma crisis. We got some hard facts on the number of black children identified for testing into the programs last year-some 30% higher than the previous year, although only a handful ended up qualifying and moving into those programs. LB is one of only two black children on her entire floor at school!

 

But the district is making and even greater outreach this year, along with making a more direct effort to open the programs up for review to all families of color. As the director said, it can be hard to even want to take a school tour when all the parents giving those tours is white and blond.  Our committee will be helping by being tour guides, even if it means setting up special tours. We’re also linking to the parent group that works on the entire spectrum of highly advanced learning from 1st through 12th grade.  Maybe by the time she’s in middle school, LB will have more brown faces in her classes.

 

On another subject, LB mentioned something over the weekend that I’d noticed as well. She had her third week of her beloved hip hop class on Saturday-we finally have a teacher almost as good as her original, beloved Coach T (it helps that she’s one of Coach T’s teen group members and the new group leader). Every session has started with a wide range of kids, from age 5 or so up to young teens, boys and girls, black and white and other ethnicities as well. BUT, by the third class or so, all the white kids have dropped out.

 

The area is changing, with more whites moving in every day, so it’s no surprise to see more well-off white parents and their kids turn up for this and other classes each season. But although the instructors have always been welcoming to kids of any ability and background, the Caucasian families never stick around. It’s not the music, it’s always kid-friendly. It’s not the parents-we welcome any chance to chat up our kids’ interest in dance.

 

What makes it even more baffling is that I’m rarely the only white mother there, but those of us who stay have the kids of color-it’s the all-white families who never stick it out. I wonder why-I’m not sure what the drop-out mothers and kids are expecting when they come-or why they leave.

 

All in all, this has been a week of reminders that life in a family with a child of color sees some things through a different lens. I suspect it will always be so.

“You Should be Obama”

LB’s class is writing a play as part of the school’s anti-bullying program. They’re doing it like a newscast, where there will be interviews with kids about bullying and a mock expert on what to do about it. And the end of the “broadcast” they want to say something like, “and coming up, the debate between Barak Obama and John McCain”

 

Two of LB’s classmates decided that she should be Obama, since after all, she is the only one in the class who is a mix of black and white like he is. Interestingly, one of the girls making this proposal is also biracial, but she doesn’t have any black heritage. LB thinks it’s just ludicrous.

 

“I suppose,” she said, yanking her hair back as tight as it would go, “that if I do THIS, then I MIGHT look like a boy.” Though she’s a fierce Obama supporter (she’s waiting with baited breath the next debate), she doesn’t want to BE him!

 

It reminds me of the time Lee was in high school and asked to be in the class play because the play had a black male character and he was, well, black. He’d never expressed an interest in drama, ever, and therefore, declined. A white student played that character. They also asked the sole black girl in the class to play the black female role, she also declined.

 

It’s a scenario that has simply never come up in LB’s schooling. In her previous schools, chances are that ANY play would have by definition been cast with primarily children of color. In her preschool through first grade classes, it wouldn’t have even been an option to have white kids in any roles, because there were none.

 

I suspect that the teacher will rule out the political segue altogether, since it really has nothing to do with bullying and there’s only so much time they have to write and produce this thing. But I wonder what LB will do if it comes down to her still being asked to play Obama, who is a BOY, biracial though she is.

 

On a related note, the teacher has been talking about upcoming subjects and mentioned that history will be starting soon. The class will cover colonial history, something LB isn’t too crazy about. “I think they should do civil rights,” she announced out of the clear blue sky the other day.

 

Luckily we just had a curriculum night with handouts and all, so I had a ready answer to that. According to the paper her teacher gave out, although colonial history will be included, so will civil rights and a bit on how various populations got to this country. I suggested that Ms. G appears to be planning more than just typical colonial history after all. And there’s something more LB can do if she wants to share some black history with her class.

 

The kids will all be doing a unit on family history which they will share with their classmates (I think this will be school-wide) and I told LB that she might take that opportunity to explore how her black ancestors lived as well as her Italian and Polish ones. She’s taking that under advisement.

 

Otherwise, school goes well. After a start that had LB thoroughly intimidated by all the new faces, she’s found some friends and is also enjoying the school work (with the exception of certain math assignments). She has a perfect record on her spelling tests (the teacher uses often misspelled words), and would rather pluck her eyelashes out than do cursive. She loves science and is enjoying the terrarium and aquarium at each set of tables.

 

The parent diversity committee continues its work to diversify the school and to bring cultural awareness to the parents and students. We have an event planned for December, which will focus on various cultures’ holiday customs. Things are good.

 

Now if we could get the buses to run on time…

(Almost) Three Weeks In

LB finishes up her second full week of school today. The highlights so far have been  the field trip to the watershed, complete with “scary bridge over the pipe” and an outdoor science class that involved pretending to be a molecule of water. She loves school. Loves her teacher, loves riding the bus (despite ridiculously long rides with no permanent driver) has lots of friends, and her VERY OWN LOCKER.

 

I must say that for the first time since LB started preschool, we have not once heard that she is 1)bored or 2)talking too much or 3)not paying attention, or any of the other things that have plagued us. Finally, LB is in a program that goes right to the heart of what she needs in school-a challenge.

 

We had a small freakout last week over the first math homework, but it was more because *I* had no idea what she was supposed to do than her not understanding it. Parents hate this new math concept of games and non-traditional methods for a reason, we have NO CLUE what it means! In any case, once we got it figured out, LB got it done and it came back with only one wrong. So I guess this middle school math in fourth grade is working out for now.

 

LB had a little bit more trouble getting settled with her classmates than with the class work. The three girls she already knew also already had friends there, and weren’t instantly ready to take LB on as a buddy. There were several days of friction between one girl and LB in particular, but the teacher saw that and got right on it-introducing LB to another girl eager to be friends. They are best buddies now-at least this week.

 

Although the teacher did help LB, she jumped to a conclusion that had me seeing red. After only 8 days of class, she emailed me suggesting that LB was possibly “too young” for the grade she’s assigned to because she wasn’t and I quote, “instantly settling in”. Well, now, since EVEY SINGLE PERSON we spoke to last year about this school, from the principal on down to the kids said that it takes time to adjust, I thought that deciding so fast that LB was having trouble doing something one of her friends took a year to do was a bit of a reach. And I told her so. She has backed off.

 

LB’s friends now include one of the other new kids, the three she already knew, and another two that seem to click with her. She does admit, though, that she misses having black kids in her class. Interestingly, LB and one of the only black fourth grade boys took and instant liking to each other, even though being in separate classes they see each other only at recess and lunch.

 

It’s a typical fourth grade kind of girl-boy friendship-“M” trying his best to act goofy enough to make LB laugh, and she trying her best not to appear to care. Believe me, that’s an improvement over the last couple of years at the old school, where it seemed like every other kid had a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend” and they “hooked up” or “broke up”. There’s more innocence here, and Lee and I are happy to see that.

 

That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing. LB is facing continued teasing from several kids, one in particular, for being so young, even though the one kid is only 3 months older than she is. However, HE started school on time, SHE began early, which seems to grate on some of them. And she’s scared silly of the lunch lady. She simply refuses to buy lunch.

 

We usually send LB lunch from home-it’s cheaper and we can control what she’s eating (note: unlike the day last year she ate four desserts on a lunch buying day). But on Fridays we used to let her buy and take our chances (see above). It’s a crap shoot since kids are allowed to trade once they’re seated-hence the four desserts. But she just won’t do it this year.

 

The reason seems out of proportion to the alleged offence-the lunch lady told her to sit down when she headed to the share table close to the end of lunch. Since this lady would be the one collecting LB’s money, she’s opting to being lunch. Cheaper for us, I guess, but it seems too bad that she’s that scared.

 

By this time next week, I’ll have a whole lot to say about the people at LB’s school. Sunday is the all-fourth grade picnic (rain or shine), there’s a curriculum night midweek, and a committee meeting for the diversity committee Lee and I joined last year. Since LB takes the bus both ways, I’m not getting the chance to meet parents like I did in the past, nor talk to the teachers. These events will help with that.

 

Stay tuned…

Magazines and Gentrification

Our neighborhood has been changing. When Lee and I moved into our house 7.5 years ago, it was one of the most diverse parts of the city, and even now, the first three houses on our block are home to people of four different ethnicities. But not far down the road as more and more condos-excuse me, townhouses-go up, the population is getting whiter and more affluent.

 

We’ve seen it in the walkers coming from the bus stop near our house. Seven years ago, I was often the only white person on that bus, surrounded by blacks, Chinese, Vietnamese, some Cambodians and Hispanics. Now I see young white families in Birkenstock sandals with slinged babies couched next to the Chinese elders with bags from their favorite Asian market on the seats and on our street.

 

It’s happening all over Seattle and other urban cities as housing gets more and more expensive so that only the formerly less affluent neighborhoods become affordable to starting families or house flippers. There’s an uneasy tension in some areas, as everything from local shops to yard landscaping begins to change. At least one Seattle school ended up closing as newly arrived white families refused to send their children to it, leaving its student body so shrunken that it couldn’t sustain itself. Area residents are now lobbying for it to become a community center.

 

I was struck by the contrast of the pros and cons of gentrification the other day when I ran into the local grocery store for some magazines for LB. Charged with cutting out some pictures that represented her family and interests, I realized that my occasional purchase of “women’s magazines” for the recipes wouldn’t give LB too many of the kinds of pictures she’d need. You don’t see too many black faces in those magazines with the exception of the anti-drug ads and the ADD medication ones (note the irony).

 

So I figured to grab a couple of the black magazine standards-Essence and Ebony, both typically kept at the checkout stands of that store. Except that they weren’t there. Not in the check-out line, not in the large magazine display, not in the store. With the exception of a couple of specialty magazines about hip hop and one featuring black fashion, there were no longer magazines of color.

 

I guess when the store remodeled and added flooring that looks like polished granite, lots of organics and a wine section the size of my living room, it had to also cut out some of the things that it had carried when the shoppers were mostly black and Asian.

 

So I went home empty handed. LB found the dearth of black faces I expected in my magazines, although she did find a rock climbing girl who looked a lot like her sister and a very cute puppy and kitten, not that we OWN either of those. I offered to drive over to one of the large chain stores in a part of town not yet gentrified to the same extent, where I’d be sure to find a black family magazine, but LB decided to go with the teacher’s other option: bring in family photos.

 

LB stood by her father as he scrolled through our (too) many digital photos and chose the ones she wanted. Plenty of black and biracial faces that way!  Luckily they printed out just fine on printer paper, and LB can cut and trim all she wants with no damage to the originals.

 

It was a simple solution, and I’m glad we have a computer, printer and digital camera. But wouldn’t it be great if LB, her Hispanic and Asian classmates could all walk into the nearest store and grab a magazine or two full of faces that actually reflect society? I should note: we did find a magazine with a good variety of ethnicities. It was the American Girl catalog, full of real and toy girls representing the tossed salad that is America. No boys, though. I guess you can’t have everything.

 

In the meantime, I’m a little sad to see our little neighborhood grocery change so much. There was something special about the familiar, raucous Motown music piping over through the sound system, the strange yet wonderful food choices throughout the store, and yes, the magazines in the check-out lanes offering something other than the desert of the month and celebrities in the latest fashions.

 

I’m glad the newer residents have so many more organic choices, and I’m sure they appreciate the wine shop, but I wonder where the shoppers who will still want pig’s feet and ox tails will go now?

First Day of School

It’s the first day of school, and LB alternated between nearly vibrating out of her skin and being on the verge of tears. She settled on being quietly optimistic once we got to school and stood in the assigned room lines with other kids and parents. By the time we began our walk into the building (parents were invited to a coffee hour), she was happily chatting with the two girls in her class she already knows. Whew!

 

Coffee hour was a chance to meet other parents and get the official opening day speech from the principal and the PTA president (she boasts near 100% membership and $150,000 in fundraising revenues). We met up with a couple of parents we know, discovered that we are not alone in being victims of an incredibly screwed-up transportation system (let’s put it this way-LB originally was scheduled for bus pick up 8 blocks away, then not at all, when the closest stop is within sight of our front door).

 

Lee looked around at the 300 or so parents and said, “I am the only black male here”. He was joined later by another parent, who looked so relived to see Lee that I thought they knew each other. “No,” Lee, assured me, “I’m just another black face.” The man and his wife, like us, is a first-year parent at the school, and similarly concerned with the lack of color there. He’s already signed up with the diversity committee as we did.

 

Like us, “S” wants his son to have an experience in which race doesn’t overshadow education, in which he’ll feel as welcome as the dozens of blond and blue-eyed kids. S was relieved to see two other black boys in  his son’s class-which may be a record with only about 15 black students in the entire student body of 500+.

 

It’s hard to explain, I’ve found, because it’s not JUST about seeing kids who look like you. It’s about culture, history and even commonalities like clothes and hair styles.

 

LB got her hair braided yesterday. She’s thrilled, after having to start last year with a “lice haircut” to have it long enough to BE braided, even if it’s only the top of her head.  So we went down to the little shop near our house and she sat for an hour getting it cornrowed so tight to her head that she needed Tylenol afterward. Although I’m biased, I must say it’s lovely. But it’s also hair that many of the kids, and parents, haven’t seen up close.

 

All morning, both parents and kids were commenting on LB’s hair. Although I didn’t see it happen, she mentioned that people were touching it. This is one of the things LB will be dealing with-being so different to some people at this school that people will want to touch her hair.

 

 It’s a small thing and not racist, but it’s hard to stand out, and LB does stand out. In her old school and our corner of the world, seeing braids like hers would more likely invite questions on who did it, how long it took and how much it cost, because many of the girls get their hair braided, and everyone is looking for the best deal. At this school, she’d get less notice if she showed up with purple hair.

 

Before we left for school, Lee and I sat down to talk to LB. In a nutshell, we reminded her that this is a whole different ballgame. The pace is faster, the school more traditional, the homework more plentiful, the faces more white. Whether she wants it this way or not, LB will be the focus of attention in several ways-she’s a new student, one of just three in her class, while many others have been there since first grade. She’s from a middle class family in a part of town where some people still won’t drive at night, and she’s biracial, in a school with an overwhelmingly Caucasian population.

 

We told LB that no matter what, we’re here to support her and go to bat for her, but that her end of the deal is to, as Lee put it, “represent” and prove to everyone that she belongs there. As she walked down the hall, chatting with her friends without so much as a backward glance at us, she was acting like she did. Time will tell if that lasts.

The Prodigal Returns

I didn’t mean to take the summer off-somehow a few days turned into a few weeks, which has turned into almost two months of silence on my part. But with school around the corner and a break in my strangely busy summer, it’s time to get back on the bike and start riding.

 

It’s no coincidence that I’m starting up again as LB wraps up a summer of vacation camps and visits with friends and relatives. These activities have given me plenty of notice that yes, still, bringing up a biracial child is on a different plane than bringing up a single-race child.

 

Last week, LB attended Vacation Bible School at her church. Like many activities there, it was a mix of religion, social justice education and community bonding. Before the Bible passage of the week and the home-cooked fried chicken dinner, LB’s class heard about school in the Deep South about 50 years ago.

 

“Sister Mary”, a woman in her 60’s, talked about taking the city bus to school at a time when blacks sat in the back. She learned quickly to hold her books tight to her chest so that white kids could not grab them out of her hands and to watch her feet so that the white kids could not trip her. Naturally, her school was segregated. She had friends in school; it was just a matter of getting there in once piece.

 

Mary was still in school when desegregation came along, which brought its own set of challenges. Instead of being harassed only on the buses to and from school, she was harassed AT school as well. But she recalled being glad of the change-at least the school allowed her and other black students through the door. The religion lesson was about forgiveness. It sounds to me as thought Mary had a lot to forgive.

 

The first thing out of LB’s mouth when we picked her up was to retell Sister Mary’s story and to grill each of us about our own schooling experience. “Was YOUR school segregated, Mommy?” I told her that my state was so white I didn’t share a classroom with a child of color until high school. In a school of 2500, there were about 10 black students, a handful of Chinese, and another handful of Hispanics. College was different-for the first time I was around kids from all over, of many races, languages and incomes. It was a breath of fresh air.

 

Next was Lee’s turn. He told LB that his school wasn’t segregated either, that in fact, his best friend until 3rd grade was a white boy who lived nearby. His high school actually had fewer black students than his elementary/middle school, though, because he paid his own way through a private school in a part of town that was overwhelmingly white. While it wasn’t segregated and he enjoyed most of his experience there, even in the late 1970’s there were a few signs that there was still progress needed.

 

I only recently heard one story about this: when the drama club chose a play that included in the cast a black couple as household servants, Lee was asked to take on the role of the husband because, well, he was black, and a black female student was asked about the wife’s role. Never mind that neither had shown an interest in drama. They both declined. The play was held with white students in those roles.

 

And Lee was discouraged from running for class president his senior year because the powers that be didn’t consider him electable. Just another sign that prejudice is NOT ancient history! Lee’s best friend made school history just three years later when HE was elected senior class president as the first black to do so.

 

LB absorbs these stories along with stories about the mundane things her father and I did growing up. The total picture helps her with perspective when she sees on the news, as we did a couple of days ago, that a biracial family in a town nearby woke to find racist graffiti on their fence. This happened in the same area where not long ago, another family of color found a cross burning on their lawn.

 

Do we talk about and deal with race every day? No, not really, other than the obviousness of the color difference right in our own home. But is it there as an under-the-surface “thing” that can’t ever really go away. People who lived segregation are still around, still telling their stories, still remembering what the pain was like. People in families just like ours are still waking up-far from the Deep South-to KKK and foul language in full view of their children.

 

School starts in three weeks. LB will begin her journey in a school not unlike her father’s high school. The difference is that we’ll be right alongside her as part of a parent committee committed to bringing in more children like LB. It’s something that Sister Mary could only have dreamed about when she was LB’s age. There’s been a lot of progress. But that fence to the north of here in need of repainting, is a reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet.

Three Things

LB is the kind of kid who will just come out with a topic of discussion in the middle of dinner, or in the car, in a way that makes you wonder, “What did I miss? Where did THIS come from?” Yesterday at dinner she announced that she was irritated with “K” from her class because he had been insisting that the black kids in the class HAD to call themselves African American, since they were most decidedly NOT black.

A black girl took offense to this and apparently there was a long, loud discussion about who should be allowed to call themselves what and who should not be allowed to dictate this. Eventually the two took it to the teacher, who explained with only moderate success, that K didn’t have the right to insist that anyone call themselves anything.

LB has identified herself as black for some time now. She included herself when she said with some emphasis, “If we want to call ourselves black then we should be able to! It’s not up to K to decide.”

We took the opportunity to make sure LB understood that SOME people DO call themselves African American, and prefer NOT to use “black” as the identifier. She’s ok with that, but for now, she is black and she’s proud. Perhaps it’s been her listening to James Brown from her daddy’s CD collection that’s behind this.

Whatever she calls herself, there are some people, sadly, who will never see anything but a nigger. It’s such a hateful word I don’t even like to type it, but I have a reason to do so-Lee found himself stopping in a convenience store outside of city limits the other night, where a toddler still in diapers pointed to him and shouted, “Look Mommy, a nigger!”

I’d like to be able to say that this was so startling that we’re stunned and shocked, but the reality is that there have been racial incidents enough here in the city that we wouldn’t expect that in the country it would be any better. Though I have to say, I’ve never known of one so young being groomed to hate, not up close and personally, anyway.

Lee told the mother on the way out of the store, “Nice word you’ve taught your kid.” She had no reply.  I would guess that if some foolish relative was responsible, she’s have apologized and tried correcting the kid. That she didn’t says quite a lot.

But at least, where we live, work and play, such overt prejudice isn’t common. And tomorrow LB and I will be going to a community event where she and other blacks, along with anyone else who cares to attend, will celebrate their history. It’s called Juneteenth,  which originated in Texas to mark the date (June 19, 1865) when that state finally freed the slaves, more than two years after Emancipation. It’s a day of celebration that’s moved to other states as people migrate, and in Seattle, assorted Texas natives have grown celebrations here.

This event, held at the nearby community center, will include dancing by the dance crew founded by Lb’s former dance teacher. He’s gone to LA to seek his fortune as a dancer and chorerographer, but he was recently back for a visit and the crew lives on. It should be quite something-we saw them practice the other day, and even at about 75% full-out dancing, they were very impressive. In costume and at 100% full force, they should knock the socks off of everyone.

Watching these teens gets me every time. While I read comments in the paper and on certain blogs about “teens today” and how we need to fear for our future, I watch these kids rehearse for two and a half hours without pausing, doing the same impossible move again and again and again until they get it right. I watch them quiet down and meekly get in line when their mentor and coach tells them that they can either do it right or sit down.  Knowing that Coach T, even from a distance, still expects them to stay in school, go to class and do their work, I’m comforted to know that for every little kid being taught to call people like them hateful names, there are 10 more moving up into adulthood as good people.

We stayed late at that practice, and we’ll stay late at the Juneteenth event. The next day, Lee will be taking LB to the African American Legislative Day being held in town, where she’ll get to meet elected officials of color. We want LB to continue to be proud of her heritage and skin color, and to see that from dancers to politicians, she has many role models.

Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 11:17 am  Comments (1)  
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Teach Your Children Well…

Teach your children well…

 

LB is a teaching assistant today. That’s right-even though she is only in third grade, she is helping her former kindergarten teacher with his class. This all came about because LB’s “Auntie” who’s a substitute teacher, often takes long-term jobs at the school where LB’s former first grade teacher now has a kindergarten class. They got to talking and one thing led to another, resulting in this plan for LB to go in occasionally to help out. The first time was last week. I don’t think it’s something we could do when school is in full gear, but with the final day of school less than a week away, there isn’t much going on.

 

Last week, LB ran her own reading group-for the beginning readers, she said, the ones who still need help sounding out words. She also, to her delight, got to teach some math using the classroom microphone. “Auntie” peeked in on this part of LB’s day and was just blown away seeing her “baby” acting like a grown up.

 

Although LB had the chance to sit with the teachers and eat lunch with them, she chose instead to sit with “her kids” and help them (don’t you know those little kindergarteners need watching?). But the highlight of her day came at dismissal, when she got to call out bus numbers in the microphone. What little kid wouldn’t want to do that?!

 

It wasn’t all work and no play-LB got to go out to recess, and more importantly, make the rounds of the school with Auntie to meet the teachers and administrators of color. Auntie feels, and I agree, that it’s important to see successful people who look like her doing their jobs. She made a point of telling me this morning that they’d so the same again today. “We want it to rub off, you know,” she said as I go ready to leave.

 

This isn’t LB’s only foray into the working world. A few weeks ago, Lee’s office had “Take Our Children to Work Day”, an all-encompassing multi-department function with activities galore. LB got to play CSI, spend a little time at the front desk, and pretend she was a councilwoman.  The kids got a script to follow and the person directing the event hand-picked LB to read the part of the person who reads the actual proclamation that it was “Take Our Children to Work Day”. Then the kids did a mock hearing on allowing cell phones on public transportation, in which they were allowed to offer their own, real opinions. It seems that LB, who couldn’t be more desperate for a phone of her own, thinks talking on them on a bus shouldn’t be allowed.

 

They repeated the meeting in the afternoon, allowing the kids to change roles, and in this one, LB played an analyst, reading some data to the council. All of this was caught on the county’s TV cameras-one of these days we’ll be getting a disc of the kids in their glory. Fortunately, the public was spared this-only REAL meetings are televised, and they can seem long enough!

 

Right now, LB wants to be a doctor, although that changes often. She DOES love pretending to teach, and certainly had a good time in a real classroom. I’m not sure she’s ever expressed a desire to go into public service. If it means getting on camera though, she might get behind the idea.

When I was a kid, they had no such thing as “Take Our Children to Work”, although my siblings and I all worked for my father at his drugstore at some point. Lee and his siblings got to see their father at work sometimes when they brought him lunch during the summers, but in most cases, you sure didn’t skip school to play at working.

 

As long as LB isn’t missing something epic, I’m all for the occasional skip to see snippets of how the real world works. I think it’s important for her too, to meet blacks and other people of color doing jobs where there’s a certain amount of prestige.

 

When LB was in kindergarten, as part of the school’s Martin Luther King celebration, some of the classes had each child stand up and talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The school LB was attending then was almost 90% minority.

The little kids-the kindergartens, the first graders, talked about becoming doctors and lawyers and business owners. One girl wanted to be a microbiologist.

 

Unfortunately, statistically, the minority kids aren’t the ones becoming doctors and lawyers and dot-com millionaires, not in numbers, anyway. Those kindergarten dreams give way over the years to more muted dreams, and as I watch some of Blondie’s minority friends struggle with high school, sometimes, to no dreams at all.

 

But when adults rally around them, kids can do amazing things. Blondie has friends who have faced incredible adversity and haven’t just made it, they’ve thrived. Some have scholarships, some are going to make their own way without parental support, some, even with parental interference, have succeeded.

 

But it can only help when we are there for our kids, when we support them and help them find their place and their dreams. It’s nine long years before LB walks down the aisle to get her high school diploma. We have no idea whether she’ll be headed to medical school, a major in government and political science, a teaching degree, or something she hasn’t even though of yet. But we’ll be there every step of the way.