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I’ve known I was Black since the beginning…but it was nothing I ever shied away from. I considered myself lucky and set apart in my average, suburban, Chicago town and in my small, small school but I only felt that way because my parents told me I was.
All of my friends at school were “other”. They were Polish, Italian, Czech, Ukrainian, and/or Irish. There was one Chinese boy in my class and one Mexican girl. But I was the only Black girl from Kindergarten to Third Grade. It was just me. My best friend was named Melanie and we hung out with a girl named Ariana and a girl named Gianelle. We even went to the museum downtown together once. We sat together at lunch.
That is not to say that I was treated with inclusion at all. I stuck out like a sore thumb in school and even still when I came home and tried to play with the other kids on my block. I wasn’t allowed to play at some of the houses and the other girls wouldn’t let me ride in their Barbie jeeps (despite everyone else getting a ride). “Why don’t you just buy one of your own?”
Black History Month was always awkward. My teacher had to threaten my fellow classmates with no recess if they didn’t stop turning around and looking at me while we watched short documentaries about Black History and “Our Friend, Martin” a movie my mom with me sent to school to make the conversation easier on everyone. Then when a kid in my class randomly asked if Micheal Jordan was my dad I said yes because, huh? I wondered what these kids talked about at home.
Even when we moved to Texas my first school year was rough because at this even smaller school I had taken the place, in our grade of just 14 students, of a dark-skinned, chubby Black girl that they had bullied into leaving the year before. We didn’t look alike but her name was similar and those similarities were all those kids needed.
I bring all this up because Nickelodeon recently aired a commercial that contained 8 minutes and 46 seconds of breathing with the words I can’t breathe across the screen. The network said the video was “in support of justice, equality and human rights” (which, girl, I mean, I guess?) and it offered a chance for viewers to text the Color of Change organization at the end. Interesting. Innocuous. A single video. I didn’t think that much of it until I scrolled past a post on Twitter and white parents in the thread were LOSING. IT.
To paraphrase their vitriol, most of them were “expressing concern” about how and when race and racism is taught or talked about to their children. They felt that racism being depicted or discussed might affect their young child’s sensibilities. They worried that exposing younger children to this subject matter and these images might make their child uncomfortable or cause them to be afraid. To them racism is something a person shouldn’t have to deal with until they were grown.
To these worried parents I say two things: 1.) Neither my parents nor I had a choice in the matter because your kids we’re already excluding me before I was grown because I “wasn’t pretty and didn’t look like them” amongst other things and 2.) Your actions whether inadvertent or not have been teaching them wrongly about Black folks for years without you even realizing it so you might as well course correct as early as possible. It’s lost on me how an 8min video could be so damaging?
When I was in second grade a new girl started at my school. On the Thursday she started I was surprised that all the other girls seemed to already know who she was. I mean every.other.girl.in.our.class. All of them. I went up to her to say hi and heard her talking with everyone about a party she had over the weekend. I quickly realized that’s how everyone knew her. I asked her how everyone knew she had a party if it was her first day at school. She said, “My mom let me have a party and invited all the girls in the class.” I asked why I wasn’t invited. She narrowed her eyes and said, “She only invited people that I would get along with.” When I asked how she knew we wouldn’t get along she said, “She just knew we wouldn’t,” rolled her eyes and went back to talking to everyone else. I looked at my bestie Melanie. She looked down sadly.
When my little sister was in gymnastics a little girl on her team asked to lick her skin to see if she tasted like chocolate. She was four.
My youngest brother distinctly remembers the day a kid told him he was Black. He was at a soccer game with our family and the kind just walked up and told him. “I know,” my brother said. The kind walked away.
I shared my experiences in the thread of that tweet and I don’t know how much my comment helped but I expressed then, just as I do now, that I hope that commercials like that and Movements like this continue to be shared and talked about to people of all ages because only then can we move forward as a country and continue to grow and progress towards racial equality.
I’m not sure how much what I said helped or hurt but I hope that my comments along with the other people under the tweet helped these particular women to see the error in their ways? Because unfortunately, whether we like it or not their kids will remind us who or what they see us as waaaaayyyyy before we grow up. That’s just they way it is.
A few days after I saw the tweet I had a white friend that I have known for a really long time reach out and ask me how I felt about things going on. She told me she had never talked about race with her family but it hurt her to see that there were people being treated this way. She told me that she had already been working on creating a social and emotional intelligence curriculum for the kids at her elementary school and asked me what she could include about race. I thanked her for her candor. Gave her a little of my story and sent her tens of tens of links to books that she could use and fellow teachers she could follow on social media already doing that kind of work. I told her that if she could get others in her school and maybe even in her district to follow her lead she will make it easier for at least one little girl in her class like me or maybe a whole even a generation of kids. I truly hope she can.
Do you agree with those women on Twitter and their assertions that kids shouldn’t have to worry and learn about race and racism at a young age? Or do you, like me and my bestie since 7th grade, think that this is something that everyone should have to at least begin learning about as soon as possible? Why or why not? What tools have you seen that are good for kids? How do you teach your kids about race now?
One thought on “I’ve Always Known”
Children should be taught about all realities of life. The job of adults is to demystify the world and teach children to one day navigate it independently.
Black parents often discuss race with their children, because without knowledge of racial histories and systems our children would not survive.
Anyone who says “racism is horrible” has a duty to work to end it, and the first step in this information age is educating yourself (notions and perceptions aren’t facts and aren’t valid opinions if not rooted in fact) and then properly educating your children.
Youre an adult: figure it out. For instance, we dont talk to 5 year olds about sex but we do talk to them about their bodies, proper terms for their bodies, and proper boundaries.
Your child may not be ready to learn about Emmet till but they should know broadly the history of enslaving African people, Jim crow, and that racism exists today both within individual hearts and in broad systems.
I am an elementary/intermediate school teacher who has watched third graders articulate these concepts with grace and comprehension.
One of my earliest memories of moving to the states as a preschooler involves an explanation from my parents about the word n*gger and why the person who used it did not want to play with me. And for what it’s worth the child who used the word was a non black person of color. We are all in this together.
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