Dear white parents touring the public schools,
I believe that you don’t mean it to be as bad as it sounds. But when you say, “that school has too many Latin families for me,” or “I’m not ready for my child to experience so much diversity,” it does offend me. Think of the message it sends to your child about what is acceptable for him to say in front of my child. Think about how it makes me feel, makes my child feel.
I think if you knew those ‘diverse’ children personally you might choose different words. You know intellectually that some public schools are failing, not because there are children of color in them, but because of The School System. Maybe you know that under-funding and other education policies have created failing schools, and the legacy of our country’s racist and colonial history places children of color in those schools. As a result, the few successful and mostly-white public schools, with lots of fundraising done by mostly-white parents, are at the top of your list to apply to. But this history is intellectual and removed from your daily life.
The circles of your daily life lack personal connection to young people of color. You see young people of color on the street or in sensational news stories and you picture these kids, not as smart and good at school, but as the cause of urban crime and violence. You think of them as children you wouldn’t want your child to be around. Without realizing it, you begin to think of them as ‘bad kids,’ or kids who are bad at school, rather than as individuals. Children who laugh and smile, who throw tantrums sometimes, and who need support and love, just like your children. Soon you think of public schools as being bad because these children are in them, rather than because of an under-funded and racist educational system that still fails to serve children of color as well as white children.
And what makes these children different than yours? Their race, their economic class. Soon you, who are so well-meaning and who would never want to be racist, you are saying that you wouldn’t want your family to associate with families of color or families of a different class background than you.
But would you ever dream of saying that to these children, right to their faces? “Sweetheart, my child is too good for your school and your friendship.” I know that is not what you meant.
But that is exactly what you are saying to me and to my child.
Let’s be careful that our thoughts and our speech reflect empathy for the real children and real families in our community. It’s not personal that these schools are bad, but a cold hard fact of our bad policies and our failing system. When we’re not careful, our thoughts and our speech instead spread stereotypes and labels about who is good or bad, or at-fault or deserving. All children are good, lovable, and deserving. We want our children to grow up believing this and acting with empathy, too.
Please, think about this before you choose your words.
. . . Is what I wish I could say in the moment when these prejudicial comments are said in front of me.
Instead, my heart races and I start to sweat. I feel anger and humiliation as I remember my own feelings when these things are said about my background or my ethnicity. That I will never be understood, always be seen as not good enough, never be believed that my version of reality is also true. Ashamed that they might be right, or embarrassed that my fellow white people still get a feeling of power from saying things like this.
So usually I try to avoid conflict, change the subject, or keep quiet. And later I make some sort of passive aggressive remark about white people. Or I get mad and loud and offend people. Or later I write a long, angry, and outspoken letter that just makes people uncomfortable and gets no response.
Which is not what I want my daughter to see! I don’t want her to see my fear and humiliation. I want her to see a strong woman with self-respect who stands up for what’s right. Who points out prejudicial remarks with just the right calm, matter of fact, and non-judgmental tone that allows the speaker in question to change her approach, maybe even her views, without herself becoming ashamed or aggressive.
I’m so so far from getting there yet. I’m still dealing with my own feelings about difference and privilege. And with my mama lioness instinct that wants to jump all over anyone who speaks negatively about my children, my husband, my nephews . . . you know, I even feel a protective loyalty to my in-laws.
Sigh. I just hope that sometimes I’m helping my daughter to feel safe in the world in some ways, even if I’m still working on the rest.
And by the way, Latinos will the soon be the largest ethnic group here in California and people of color already make up the majority of our state’s population. So your children will just have to learn to get along with my children one way or another.