Friday, September 25, 2009

Race Lessons

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a Dream” speech, March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Last night, my eleven-year-old son told us that he’d had an altercation with another boy during gym. He was running during a game of Capture the Flag, and tagged a student with a little too much force (Due to his momentum). Though my son immediately apologized, this new student from the other class called him a, “White son of a b*tch.” The boy may have just been talking trash that he previously witnessed or maybe said it for a more sinister reason. Either way, my son took it badly. He doesn’t like name-calling or misbehaving, in general. He prides himself on being a good kid, and doesn’t like when other kids don’t follow the rules.

But more than that, the fact that someone would point out my son’s “race” was most troubling to him. It reminded me of when he was three-years-old, playing with a group of kids on the playground. When we left, he recalled the good time he had with a particular child. I asked which one, and he replied, “The one with the red sweater.” The boy was black, and it struck me that it wasn’t the first thing my son noticed, when color/ethnicity is the first attribute most adults use to describe someone who is different from them.

At that time my family lived in a mostly white suburb, but we’ve lived in a diverse city since my son was three, and he attends a diverse public school. I recall that when my son was in kindergarten, I had commented that my son’s ears turned red when he was tired. His Ethiopian friend responded that he couldn’t tell if that happened to him, since his skin was so dark. They continued to discuss their skin colors as if they were discussing the weather. It was another time that I appreciated how the history of our nation’s treatment of different races had not yet reached my son.

I’m not naïve to think that my son doesn’t see differences, perhaps many based on ethnicity. I know when I taught fifth-grade the idea of color had already corrupted the ten-year-olds’ minds. Darker-skinned students often commented on one another’s skin color - usually to be disparaging. If someone was too dark, he or she was made fun of, but if a person was too light, they were chastised for not being white enough. Each year that I taught, I had to have at least one conversation about how we shouldn’t comment or judge someone by the color that person’s skin. It reminds me of the debate during Barack Obama’s fun for presidency. Was he too black for white people, yet not white enough for black people?

Each time I’ve taught, I’ve impressed on the students that the idea of “white” is not static, and explain that for a time, Irish, Southern, and Eastern Europeans were not considered white in America. In the South, there were laws that prevented “interracial” marriage between these groups and groups of Western and Northern European ancestry.*

Another lesson I’ve done, is to write down the ethnicity of each child in the class, plus my own on the board. Last year, with twenty-one people, we had forty-two groups represented. Most interestingly, two other children were a mix of Irish and Italian, like me, though one looked completely Irish and the other appeared African-American. I joked that we were triplets, because our insides were so similar but our outsides were so different. It was the ideal lesson that you don’t know whom someone is just by looking at him or her and that there really is no “black” and “white” no matter how much we clutch to the idea.

As for my son, he told his teacher, which I hope generates a fruitful discussion.

* From, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev and Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson.

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