My oldest son, JJ, is a 1st grader at an elementary school in Bellevue, Nebraska. For the past year, I have served as the school’s PTA President. I am the only person of color on the PTA board, and in an attempt to increase parent engagement for families of color, I offered free PTA membership and allocated funds specifically for diversity and inclusion activities. Still, courageous conversations about race have yet to be had. We almost pretend that the issues surrounding race do not exist. I admit, I bought into that idea for some time.
Until last month.
Last month, I received an email from the school principal informing me of an incident involving JJ. A student was passing his glasses around the classroom to let kids look at them and try them on. When the glasses reached JJ’s hand, the little boy snatched them and added: “I don’t want any brown people seeing my glasses.” As I was reading this I was upset. Moreover, I was worried about JJ. And I admit, I automatically assumed the boy was white.
“I don’t want any brown people seeing my glasses.”
Until I kept reading.
In the email, the principal mentioned that the situation was unique because the student was not white. She did not go any further except to say JJ seemed fine. When JJ came home that night, he told me the student was “tan.” That description lead to a deeper conversation where JJ revealed that white students are identified as white; Latino students are identified as tan; and black students are brown. This information was especially interesting because it is easy for us to believe that only white people, kids included, need to discuss race and the issues surrounding race. But this incident formed a truth I already believed; we all need to discuss race. The issues that exist are not just black and white.
My father spent about 15 years in prisons in Texas, and he always told me the biggest fights and issues were between the black and Latino inmates. They were almost always race related, my father added. Even though I knew that, I had forgotten. For historical and cultural reasons, we live in a society where race is normally discussed in black and white. Additionally, we live in a society where discussions about race are normally not part of an elementary school curriculum. So when I asked the principal about the school’s reaction, she said the teacher tried to use it as a “teachable moment and moved on.”
But what does that mean? And how do you move on? The principal said JJ didn’t seem to be bothered. However, when he came home that night he told me he cried. I didn’t expect the other student to be disciplined. However, I think teachable moments need to be more than moments in cases like these. The student who said that didn’t invent those words.
He learned them.
For historical and cultural reasons, we live in a society where race is normally discussed in black and white. Additionally, we live in a society where discussions about race are normally not part of an elementary school curriculum.
The feelings he expressed could have been learned at home, through TV programming and similar mediums. They could have also been learned through interactions with other students. Because of this, when issues like this arise, we must do everything we can to counter it with love and learning. But how do we do that? What’s a safe, effective way to have these conversations with youth? Should parents be involved? What is the role of an educator to facilitate these discussions? I’d love to hear from educators, parents, and education advocates.