When Does it Start? How does it End?

Last summer after Mike Brown was shot, I did not write about it. After writing about Trayvon Martin here, here, and here (oh, and here), I felt guilty for not giving Mike Brown’s death words–my form of an offering–but I felt frozen.  I had watched the YouTube video of Eric Garner (which is beyond horrible, but I felt that as a human and as a New Yorker I had to watch it), I had followed the story of Mike Brown, and I was so filled with rage, disappointment, and sadness that I felt muted.

One night in late August it seemed as if I would burst–literally explode all over my two kids, my husband, our apartment. Spontaneous human combustion, which used to joke in high school, suddenly seemed very possible. I told Adam I was going for a walk in Prospect Park. No phone. I was about a mile into my walk before I realized I was unconsciously rubbing my thumb and middle finger together in what yogi’s call Shuni Mudra–an act that’s supposed to make you feel more present. I was also breathing in a set pattern: Inhale, 2, 3, 4, 5, Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5. I had walked for a mile doing those things unconsciously, just as my son rubs his lovies between his fingers to bring himself towards sleep. I needed calming. I needed to be present. I felt out of my body in disbelief that these events–the undue use of force and killing of unarmed Black boys and men–continued to continue. It felt so hopeless.

I had no revelations that walk. No vision in a burning bush, no sky splitting open and light shining down with a symphony of music and a clear idea of what to do next. I have been without words on how to work to stop this, but I started to see where it starts.

My kids go to a 70% White public elementary school in Brooklyn. There is a small amount of racial diversity within our neighborhood from its pre-gentrification days, professionally successful people of color, and adoption. The multitude of reports about New York City’s segregated schools is no exaggeration (for some good infographics, go here). Our school’s slight diversity also comes through bussing: students from other neighborhoods are bussed to our school due to No Child Left Behind Federal legislature. It states if a child’s Title I school fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress by state sanctioned measures of success for three subsequent years, the child has the right to transfer to a better performing school. Our high-performing elementary school receives a few new kids annually, and this year a student with new set of behavioral challenges came to my daughter’s class. His behavioral challenges seem to have triggered other kids’ behavioral challenges and together. . .Whoa. The beginning of this school year was rife with classroom issues we had not previously experienced at our school, and, sadly and awkwardly, those issues circulated around three of the four Black boys in her class.

As an educator, and as a mother, when I say behavioral challenges I don’t mean talking or being antsy on the reading rug. I understand age appropriate typical behaviors, both good and bad. These students were punching, elbowing, wrestling, screaming at other students and the teacher. Once a bookshelf was pushed over. Another time a student was restrained and removed from the classroom. My daughter came home saying she was scared at school. She came home crying twice. She got kicked, elbowed, and hit. These were atypical behaviors. These behaviors needed attention–they screamed for attention.

Now, three months into the school year, for a long list of reasons not relevant to this writing things have quieted down. I went to open school a couple of weeks ago and spent an hour and a half watching my daughter’s class, and I was relieved. On a macro level, things have improved.

But all is not good on a micro level.

My daughter has come home the past few months with the following conclusions. Let me quote her words:

1. “Mommy, boys with brown skin are bad.”

2. “Boys with brown skin like to fight; they’re mean.”

3. “Well…(student name) and (student name) [both boys with brown skin] come late to school everyday so they’re not good students.”

When she comes to me with these conclusions, I have to take a deep, deep breath.

Maybe a second deep breath.

Next, I need to control my facial expressions (which I’m not very good at).

Finally, I carefully begin a conversation with her to deconstruct what she has said. We pick apart what she has seen and what it means to her and what it might mean to someone else. We discuss making generalizations about groups of people. We try to dig deeper into what she thought or said in order to come to a more thoughtful conclusion. I push back against her ideas, calling to mind her cousin, another Black boy we know who isn’t bad, violent, or late. I struggle. I don’t know how to do this eloquently, but I know I have to do something, so I address her words and try to lead her away from the racist seeds that are being planted in her mind.

If you knew me at all, you’d know that she is not getting these racist sentiments from home. I am a social justice educator, and that’s not something I say to sound cool–I mean it. Race is a large part of my research, writing, and teaching. My husband used to lead community conversations on race in Roanoke, Virginia and in Hartford, Connecticut. As a couple, we talk, think, and read about race a lot. We don’t allow our kids to watch syndicated television, so she doesn’t get these messages from the media–yet. She comes to work with me where she sees my students and colleagues of all ethnicities with whom I have a warm rapport. She has biracial cousins. We have friends of many racial and ethnic backgrounds. With all this in mind, she’s still coming home with the ideas that Black boys are bad, violent, irresponsible, and a problem..

I brought my daughter’s conclusions about the “boys with brown skin” to our principal in both an email and verbally, but she flip-flopped her hand in the air at me and dismissed my concern that what’s happening in my daughter’s classroom is planting the seeds of racist ideas against Black boys, that it is the poison in the well of school culture, that it needs addressing as much if not more than the boys’ behaviors. She treated my worries as silly, as hyperbolic, as me making a big deal out of nothing, as if a 7 year old isn’t capable of harboring racist thoughts. But they are. They most certainly are. This is where it begins.

I watched the many protests across the country this past week, and I read all I could read to a point of saturation. I talked with my students about the verdict and how Mike Brown should have been sitting in a technical school classroom stressed out by the end of the semester just like they were, and I created a shrine in our garden apartment window at home for him. And while I will continue to teach courses on race, and while I will continue to write about these issues and to talk to my friends, I know my biggest job lies in how I raise my own children. They are only two little people in a big, wide world, and I struggle with feeling like that’s not a large enough impact, but deep down I know it is. I understand the difference a single person can make–good or bad.

I started this post last Thursday afternoon, but I ran out of time while writing because I had to pick up my kids. As if on cue, at dinner, my son said to me, very casually, out of the blue, “I’m scared of people with brown skin.” He’s five. My daughter said those exact words when she was five as written about here.

Once again, I took a deep breath (maybe more). I turned from the counter where I was making dinner and sat down at the table, faced him, and talked with him about what he just said.

I see how the racial bias so evident in police officer Darren Wilson’s testimony begins. I see it in my own children. I see how it starts, but it ends here. Now. With me. With them.

It has to.