Posts Tagged ‘race relations’

Sunday Sitdown #15: Sugarland, and Regrets

May 23, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.


My first teaching job. Sugarland Elementary, Sterling Virginia.

I got the job maybe a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, when the district opened up a new classroom. There was nothing in my classroom. No paper. No paper clips. No chalk. No erasers. No nothing. Luckily my newfound colleagues helped me scrabble together enough to start the school year with my loveys.

Sugarland School served a working-class neighborhood which, in turn, was home to a large population of students of color.

There’s a lot that my liberal education, my lived experiences with folks who were different from me, and my coursework in multicultural studies prepared me for. I knew to value and celebrate our differences, to provide books, resources and activities that reflect a multitude of faces and life stories. I knew that I needed to expect big things out of ALL my students no matter what.

But there are things that I didn’t know, things that I wish I recognized. Maybe it was the oblivion of youth that clouded my vision. Maybe I wasn’t as evolved in my understandings as I am now. Had I had today’s wisdom, I would have done better with the kid who made himself dinner each night because his dad worked four jobs to support him. I would have found better ways to support the child who missed kindergarten in his native El Salvador. I would have made the classroom safer for the kid who drew pictures of himself dying so that he could come back as an American. And somehow, all of these kids managed to turn out OK despite the mistakes I made.

But when I think of the damage that schools do to children of color, particularly Black girls, I cannot help but think of Essence.

Essence, whose mom struggled with addiction.
Essence, whose grandma raised her.
Essence, who came each day brimming with the turbulence of life.
Essence, with whom I engaged in regular power struggles.
Essence, who ended her academic year with me labeled.
Essence, who lost her own difficult struggle in 2016.

And in my young teacher’s mind, I was holding her to high expectations. I was treating her with love and compassion. I was doing for her what I hoped to do for all my students: inspire them to be the best versions of themselves.

But oh. In my moments of clarity and honesty, I know that I did damage. I did not provide this child with the room and space to feel truly safe. I did not support her and her family in a way that was culturally responsive, and I didn’t take into account her immense lived trauma.

I’m not looking to have folks respond with, “but you’re a great teacher! you HAVE made a difference.”

I would say an awkward “thank you” in response. Yes, I will acknowledge my deep connection with many kids. But the purpose of this post – the purpose of this series – is to recount my experiences with race, and to claim those moments and choices I wish I could take back. My time with Essence is one of them.

And Essence, had I been your teacher now, I can only hope that I’ve developed enough wisdom and perspective to give you the support, the validation and the true compassion you so deeply deserved.

Sunday Sit-Down #12: The Floodgates Open

April 4, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Given that April is also poetry month, I’m also stacking that challenge right on top. As I often say when beginning anything tricky or ambitious, “We’ll see what happens.”

Pump primed, slate cleaned
My education could begin:

My first introduction was
CHIEF
That proud symbol of school pride
And heritage
That everyone has to have
On the sweatshirts we buy
And maybe this is weird while I’m asking
But if he’s so dignified
What’s with the war paint
And whooping and hollering

And the Boy Scout Manual dance
And tomahawk chops
And the clapping along to
“This is the Indian’s song?”

Eh. I could take him or leave him.

On campus I learned the other-ness of being a Jew:
I quickly developed a sixth sense for detecting
evangelical swagger.
The “I-care-about-you’s”
and the “Jesus-will-save-you’s”
and the “Do-you-do-any-reading-of-the-Word’s”
all had a certain look to them
(just as they recognized
the curly hair,
the Semitic complexion,
the tell-tale nose).
It’s why Hillel became my place,
where Yiddish was a form of currency,
Jewish geography threading a familiar, comfortable cloth.
I was among people who GOT me
without introduction or explanation or apology.

But just as I needed the like-me,
I needed the not-like-me
Anyone who would allow me to join:

The Zeta house, where my sisters
Were Christian
And Jewish
And Muslim
And Buddhist
And every color
And our national organization called us
“The United Nations Chapter”
except, I think, they didn’t mean it so kindly,
which is partly why I don’t donate to them now,
but I digress

The Asian-American Association
At the house on campus
And their meetings,
Vibrant and inspired and contentious
And wow are there layers
Upon layers

Salongo
At the res hall,
Spades tourneys and movie nights and step shows
And t-shirts emblazoned
“It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand”
but I saw a shirt that read you MUST understand – shouldn’t we say that?
There are things you must understand. And…there are things you can’t.
Let it not stop you from learning or doing.

Sunday Sit-Down #10: Detour

March 21, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

This week, I was all set to reflect on my mindset after high school as I prepared to go to college.

This week, I was drafting in my head ways to recount how determination and idealism became my core ideals.

This week, a man killed eight people, six of them of Asian descent.

This week, the world broke open for many people I love and care about.

This week doesn’t mark some new low or new beginning or discovery. We’ve been here for generations. It’s the mark of a chronic and critical disease.

I’ve been carrying these ideas around for a few days, not really doing anything with them. I’m not quite sure where to put them or what to do with them. But I do know this:

I need to be a better set of eyes and ears for my friends, my colleagues, my students and my families.

I need to redouble my efforts to un-“other” others.

Especially my students and their families.

I need to keep reminding them that Diwali and Eid and Lunar New Year bear as much consideration as Easter,

that speaking English with an accent is a badge of honor, of persistence, of sacrifice,

that everyone deserves to have people pronounce their names correctly, and not just their English ones,

that they can write story characters beyond a white default,

that a bitmoji version of themselves doesn’t need to be blond and white to be beautiful,

that they are seen, and valued, and acknowledged, and important.

I’ve got work to do. We’ve got work to do.

Sunday Sitdown #7: Taking a Look Around

February 28, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

High school.

There is something about it.

Everyone, it seems, is on a quest for identity, for selfhood. It’s what makes everyone both unique and identical. There’s drama. There’s melodrama. There’s angst. There’s a coming of age.

There’s also inner conflict as the self-involvement of youth gives way to the more empathetic views of adulthood. I keenly remember this push-pull and the tension it created.

Translation? High school was the first time I looked around at what was happening with other folks.

I noticed Black kids often sat together in the cafeteria or student lounge.*
I noticed that when they were together, they acted differently than when they were with white peers.

You’d think I would feel uncomfortable with that, or feel left out. But something else was happening for me around the same time. I was also starting to see and understand how others perceived me as a Jew.

High school marked the first time…
…someone directly told me I needed Jesus to save me.
…I received the first probing “ethnic” questions. (“So…what ARE you?)
…Sunday school was canceled because of bomb threats.
…I’d be given a derogatory nickname. (“Oh, look. Lainie the Jew.”)

It became clear to me – more than it ever had – that I was an “other.” There were places I belonged, and places I didn’t. I found that it was comfortable to hang out with other kids who were Jewish. It wasn’t exclusionary. It wasn’t an attempt to be rude.

It was a means of emotional survival. We didn’t even really talk about Jewish stuff, but it just felt good to be with people who had shared experiences. Going to youth group events created a space where we could all just…exhale.

So.
Did I mind that folks separated themselves out?
That they had different, more familiar ways of relating among folks in their own groups without me?

No.
I didn’t mind.
And I still don’t mind.
Yes, we need to integrate.
And yes, we need safety and comfort and support.
And we need it wherever we find it, from whomever it might come.

*All Black kids? nope. Nothing is never “all” or “nothing” (see what I did there?). Of course there was integration among students. But there was also enough separation for a kid to notice.

Sunday Sit-Down #6: Duped

February 21, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about today’s post, and I haven’t been looking forward to it. There are several stops on my journey that I know are difficult for one reason or another. Perhaps I carry guilt, embarrassment or shame.

Today, it’s anger.

You see, I – and way too many in my generation – were sold a bill of goods. We were duped. Fooled. Scammed.

We were led to believe that civil rights was “done,” that MLK and Rosa Parks had swept in and now we were done with racism. Everything is equal! Everyone is equal! Everyone now has equal opportunities and now everyone can be happy!

Yet I grew up at a time where sundown towns were still a thing. Where there was still a need to bus city students to the suburbs rather than focus on improving the educational system as a whole. Where black lives and black bodies were being criminalized at an alarming rate. Where kids around me were either victims or perpetrators of racist behaviors and comments. (And, being real, these things are STIL a thing.)

I would learn these things in high school. Coming to this awareness left me furious with a grown-up world that would shield me from this knowledge in the name of protection or false unity. I remember feeling – and still feel – a visceral sense of injustice, of betrayal, of anger that the world as it stood was hidden from me.

It wasn’t right.

Sad thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. When racial issues at my high school shattered this illusion, I was fortunate enough to learn from others with different perspectives. And, luckily, I was able to gain this understanding while I was still in my formative years.

But there are other white folks who never came to that realization, who never had the opportunity to see and recognize that our work is far from done. I think of the folks who saw the light after George Floyd’s death. Their coming of age happened ages after they needed it. I saw their confusion and shock unfold around me. They had bought into the lie, just like I had, and they realized how very long they had been living that lie. After this summer, there was no turning away.

At least for grown-ups.

For children – for white children – there is still space to draw the blinds, to lower the volume, to shield from difficult truths.

But to allow another generation to be deceived?

No. I can’t, and I won’t.

I still hold my anger, still nurse it when the time is right. Because as a teacher, I have the ability to help raise humans who can be optimistic and idealistic, AND still be aware that we have work to do in our communities and society and world.

It’s not political to want this for our future generation. Rather, equipping our kids with the tools and knowledge to follow their moral compass is compassionate. It’s what’s right and fair.

There’s more – so much more! – I could express. But that’s for another day

Thanks for joining me. I’ll be right here, same time next week.

Sunday Sitdown #5: First Lesson

February 14, 2021

Mrs. Williams was a great first-grade teacher.

She was kind, cheerful and honest.
She always encouraged us with phrases like, “You’re cookin’ with gas!”
She regaled us with stories of her little girl.
She used Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as prizes when she REALLY wanted to motivate us.
Heck, she put up with ME as a first grader. That’s no easy task.

She was also the first Black teacher I had ever had.* And she was willing to talk about race.

One day, Mrs. Williams decided that she was going to teach us about skin color. Looking back as a teacher, I might guess that wasn’t just a random choice. I might guess that Mrs. Williams was responding to a comment or situation that came up in class. Or maybe there was something going on in the world that my first-grade brain wasn’t quite aware of. Whatever it boiled down to, Mrs. Williams decided that it was time for us to talk.

I’m going to guess that the lesson was longer than I remember, but what captures my memory most is when she held up two crayons: one white, one black.

Mrs. Williams held up the white crayon and said, “When people say they’re white, does their skin look like this color?”
A crowd of giggling first-graders yelled back, “Nooooooo!”
She held up the black crayon and said, “When people say they’re Black, does their skin look like this color?”
We again yelled, “Noooooo!”

And that was at the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever engaged, on-purpose, in a conversation about what being Black or being white really means. About what race means, and what it DOESN’T mean. It was a way to tell a group of six- and seven-year olds that race is complicated. It’s not just what we see. It’s more complex than a label we might wrap around someone.

Thank you, Mrs. Williams. You were cookin’ with gas.

*I’m also beyond grateful to be able to say that Mrs. Williams was just my first Black teacher, and not my only. For all of the shortcomings that may have accompanied my schooling, I am glad that my school district made an effort to hire a diverse range of teaching and instructional staff. It was important for children of color in my community, but I’d say it was also important for me.

Sunday Sit-Down #4: On the Bus

February 7, 2021

At Old Bonhomme School there was always a range of faces different from mine. I took for granted the mix of kids in my classes. As far as I knew, I went to a neighborhood school with neighborhood kids, and we all learned and played and together as one community.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students wasn’t a natural part of living in Olivette. Yes, there was racial diversity within school attendance lines. But.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students was largely due to the fact that I went to elementary school in Saint Louis at the height of school desegregation. That my classmates and I were a part of a grand social experiment.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that many Black children spent long mornings and long afternoons on the bus to and from the city. That they left behind their own neighborhoods, their own neighbors, their own neighborhood schools to attend school in my district.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, were the direct and open ways in which our communities were segregated in the first place.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that we were all part of a system that, in the name of “quality education,” would separate kids from their communities to send them to other schools, rather than giving them what they needed where they needed it.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that school desegregation allowed a number of kids to get an education in affluent districts while overlooking city communities. That if we really meant to desegregate schools, we’d improve all schools and bus children in both directions. Or we’d take away racial and economic barriers to housing equality. But we didn’t, and we didn’t. And we didn’t.

Those realizations would come.