black child’s burden

So a few days ago, I went to pick up Big Boy from preschool. He’s one of four black children of 36 in the classroom. As I was leaving, one of the teachers told me that he and the other black children (she referred to them by name, not as “the other black kids”) had fun all day playing “duck, duck. goose” and other games and told me that they had become great friends since the summer began. I smiled and said something like, oh, that’s nice, and went on my way. Something about it bothered me right then, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it, and besides, I had to go.

After I thought about it that night, I decided I was going to ask her more about it the next day. So the next day, I asked her, “You know, you mentioned yesterday that Big Boy and [the other kids, I also referred to them by name] had become good friends, and it occurred to me that they are all the black kids in the room, and I wondered what you thought of that.” She seemed a bit put off, caught off guard, and then just began nodding her head vigorously, and said, “Yeah, I know, I know. It’s not uncommon for children at this age [ages 3-5] to gravitate towards those who look like them. We often notice that, you know, a Koren child will find out that another Korean child speaks Korean and then they become friends.” I thought it best not to point out that Black people speak English just like everyone else so I wasn’t quite sure how her example provided any elucidation on the situation, but then she paused and said, “But it’s not like they are self-segregating themselves, I mean, they play with the other children too.”

That caused me to pause. Really? The first thing you think to say to reassure me is to make sure I know that the black kids aren’t self-segregating? What about the white children who are also playing in same-race groups? Would it be a question as to whether they are self-segregating? So of course I had to say something to that effect. “Oh, that wasn’t my concern. It was really whether the other children weren’t playing with them so that they felt compelled to play together.” Then she got really flustered. “Well, no, I mean, while they can see that they are different colors, they don’t really ascribe any values to that. I mean, we might, cause we know what that means, color and all, but they don’t.”

I know it’s the sociologist in me, but I know this is a bullshit answer. And I was dissapointed that she gave this answer. This is a research-based preschool, run by Stanford’s psychology department, where people are doing work on race and race relations. Therefore they should know what Van Ausdale and Feagin noted in their 2001 book “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” a book that does an ethnographic study of preschoolers:

The children we observed in the day care center are actually doing life. They are not going through some waiting period during which their main goals are to mirror quietly or aggressively the ways of adults, delaying actual socialization, understanding, and performance until they are older. The children we observed take various bits of racial and ethnic information from the surrounding world and then experiment with and use that information in their everyday interactions with other children and with adults. …Most of the young white children in our study are helping to build, or rebuild, a racialized society with their own hands with the materials learned from the racial order of the adult world surrounding them.

This is crucial to understand. If she understood the adult world that most of these children come from, she would be much less likely to assume that the black children were segregating themselves from the white children, rather than the other way around. Big Boy and Baby Girl are the only black children in our “courtyard,” the area of student housing where we live. His friends here are of all colors – his “best” friend is a white/Asian child whose white mother is a friend of mine. Now some of the white children, on the other hand, I would bet see only white people for the majority of their day as they go along with their parents. They learn, unlike Big Boy, that having exclusively white friends, or friends that look just like you, is the norm. Ahmir learns that mommy and daddy have black friends that look like them, but also Asian friends and white friends and Latino friends – there is really no majority that they are surrounded with every day. So to suggest that my black child is the one that may be self-segregating, instead of looking at the actions of the white children simply flies in the face of the well-established racial research.

But where I am struggling in this is balancing being a parent with being a social scientist. Sometimes I think that being immersed in issues of race and justice all the time may make me too sensitive (ohh, i hate that word) in that I will never find this racial utopia that I so want for my kids and that choosing my battles on the racial front is going to be very important if I want my kids to have a normal life. Doing research on the black middle class has shown me that the racial utopia that perhaps black folk thought they would find with increased education and money does not exist and perhaps the racial issues become even more complex and difficult to identify and manage. I desperately want to recommend that the teachers at this school read The First R, but as a parent, I also do not want to alienate them out of concern for my child. If it was just about me, I would do it – I’ve already had to tell one professor that his lack of showing women and people of color photographers was sexist and racist – but when it comes to my kids, I’m on uncharted territory and I don’t know what to do.

Any thoughts?

6 thoughts on “black child’s burden

  1. This is an intense issue. From the White parents’ side, we just had an exchange over on NewSocProf

    As I noted there, there is playground research* that young children enact the racial hierarchies of their society even if the adults try to keep them from doing it, and classroom research shows that kids do self-segregate by race. Of course, the White kids are doing it too, not just the kids of color. Absolutely. I agree that it is really important to keep saying that over and over, it isn’t just the kids of color who self-segregate. They segregate sharply by gender, too, by the way, but in our culture we tend to see this as “normal” instead of as something to worry about, unless we are feminists, and not always even then.

    I told the story over at NSP of my own son’s shift from literally not seeing the skin color of two brothers (one Black, one White) to assuming conflict between races in the space of a year as he aged a year in the same preschool. I also told about my own son wanting to invite only the White boys and not the boys of color to his birthday party and my struggling with him over that.

    My summary: It is, indeed, something to worry about but I don’t think it is easy for a classroom to insulate itself from the messages of the larger society. I am pretty sure that the research is that in-group out-group preferences arise very quickly and easily even around the most trivial distinctions (i.e. what color T-shirt you wear). I think there is also a research literature on how to push back against these “natural” tendencies — you don’t have to just accept it, but you have to do affirmative things to mitigate it. And I guess I’d say that you can never make it go completely away as long as there is a larger society that has social divisions. What I’d hope is that classroom teachers (and all of the rest of us) could develop strategies for helping us to play and work together across social barriers, and not reinforce our “natural” tendency to self-segregate.

    * which it sounds like The First R talks about; I have not read that book but now plan to.


  2. I’m obviously not a parent, so my intuition might not count for much, but I’ll give it anyway: I think it’s good for your kids to have a mom who stirs a little just shit (as opposed to all the unjust shit that the demanding helicopter-parent types stir) — it’ll educate your kids at the same time as it educates the teacher.


  3. This is a tough one — my problems on the race thing with my daughter haven’t translated to the playground, as far as I can see. Her friends are very diverse and I haven’t seen her selecting on race, even now that she is so fascinated by it. I’m certainly watching for it.

    FWIW, my White parent perspective is… I think it is worth saying something and I’ve had to do a lot of this with teachers in the last year on different issues (though with similar concerns about my kid’s health and happiness and balancing wanting to give the teacher knowledge that I considered vital to my child’s well-being without sounding like a person who doesn’t respect her experience or coming off like a know-it-all academic or risking her not feeling as good about my kid after the conversation).

    My experience has been that the best way to approach it is: i have concern x, my knowledge base is y (e.g., the first r), i wonder if you could tell me what you see (highlighting her experience in the classroom, which you don’t have — you might even frame this as “the research says this, your comment made me think that was happening in this class, what do you think and what can we do about it?”), and do you have any advice about how WE can handle this? Typically, the teacher will appreciate having her experience valued and will fully admit that she did not know about your piece of knowledge (the first r) and talk with you about how to handle it collaboratively. Perhaps this strategy is less applicable (palatable?) with a discussion about race (we could argue about that I guess), but, with other issues, I have found that by first making the teacher understand that I recognize her knowledge base is different than mine and that I privilege neither, the conversation is always better (and I always end up getting what I wanted in the first place). In the case of my kid, I always err on the side of what is best for her and try to drown out the social scientist a bit.

    I think it is also good to realize that we are all uncomfortable talking about race and some of her fluster may be that. I spend most of my days writing, talking, and thinking about the influence of race in society — still, one ‘off’ comment from Junior (described on my blog last week) and my face flushed, my mind went numb, and I could come up with no reasonable thing to say (I still can’t remember WHAT I said). I spent the next week figuring out what I would say to the child’s mother next time I saw her, talking to friends about it. (As a side point, my white friends largely differed from my non-white friends on 1) how bad the comment was, 2) whether or not I should follow-up the next week, and 3) what I should say, assuming I decided to say anything.) The next week, I had to work up to bringing it up (I think it took me 20 minutes), and I am SURE my face was red when I did it. We had a great talk, she never thought it was any big deal, but it was a very difficult conversation for me to have.


  4. Your sensitivity is justified, and more importantly valuable. We lose too much sensitivity to our own feelings and reactions. It’s good for us to allow ourselves to feel, and significantly to let our children see us feeling things. Now, feeling and acting are two not one. As far as intervening, say to request that teachers read The First R, you’re right to weigh it against the consequences. It does nothing to ask them to read something if the result will merely be hostility. Only you can make that choice under the circumstances.

    It’s odd for me to read the comments here “from a white parent’s perspective”. I confess my skin is somewhat on the lighter shade of brown… but, being Jewish in a Christian society has an impact, a different one from the obvious physical traits of darker skin or epithelial folds. It’s not so much that I’ve felt outright prejudice (though I have at times), but more that I’ve experienced the assumptions of others that we’re all just alike, when in very real ways, we’re not.

    I know this is a different issue from the racism you observe on the surface, but I think it informs a great deal of my parenting. When our oldest was in public kindergarten in California, I was appalled at how everything around the holidays was based on the presumption of assimiliation to the norms and expectations of a Christian society: the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. I spoke with his teacher then to say that these impositions were no less imposing than school books of a generation or two ago, with pictures of white children and all male gender pronouns. But I quickly learned that it wasn’t her I was going to convince (“but you are a minority!”)… and even if I did, there were many more to come.

    My decision then was to realize the most important role I can play in my children’s lives is to wear these things on my shirt-sleeves, to let my children know where I stand, and why. As you cite, “They are not going through some waiting period,” waiting on the sidelines of life, but living it. It behooves us as parents to let our children know we know that, we respect them, we love them, and we’ve lived it too. In the end, the world will throw at our children what it does. Our job is to give them the strength and the courage to make it their world, to take the hand that’s dealt to them, and transform it to their liking.


  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Sorry to have not joined the convo on newsocprof’s site – I’ve been out of it lately, focused more on facebook than on the blogosphere lately, but knew I would get some great feedback here too.

    Having kids is a trip, isn’t it? It feels even so much stranger, I think, being a student and a parent at the same time, in many ways addressing the same issues from very different vantage points.

    I think that I also need to address with my son that it’s okay for him to play with other children besides the black ones; perhaps there is something that I have said or done to make him think that the black children are preferable. Another parent at the school has told me to speak to the head teacher and address all these concerns and has let me know that this particular teacher is not new to these concerns so I can feel comfortable talking to her about them.

    I am heartened to know that other parents, especially white ones, are thinking about these issues.


  6. My oldest is now in 7th grade and it has been a complete mindf@#k to watch this happen over the years. And, it has been really hard for my kid and his best friend who are not the same race. (I also ended up pointing out that his friend was African-American to him in a conversation once in about 1st or 2nd grade, I think).

    Anyway, it changes over time and in about 3rd grade the lunch room had become EXTREMELY segregated by table and this was exacerbated by the lunch ladies bringing homemade goodies for “the kids who sat at the back table”. That was also the African-American table and this led to some big problems (which were eventually solved by telling the lunch ladies they could not bring in treats for some kids and not others).

    But I decided to raise the issue with the social worker and the principal with whom I have worked closely for many years in programs for mostly kids of color at the school from the perspective of “can;t we work on the lunch table segregation?” I said, they are still young enough — you could have tables (and I will organize it) by birthday month, color of shirt, favorite cookie, favorite sport, or ANYTHING!! So everyone wearing a red shirt sits at this table today, blue shirts here, yellow here — it could be a little game (and conversation starter re sports, cookies, etc). Let’s keep them (because at that point this was just starting) socializing across race lines. The very progressive school was not interested. I was very sad.


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