Seeing “the only one”: Students of color in majority White schools
When my oldest daughter, Kaila, was two, she came home from pre-school with her class picture firmly in hand. She wanted to put it up by the other pictures on the piano in our living room and she liked to walk over to the picture, remove it from its spot and quietly look at it. She would talk to herself, sometimes saying the names of her classmates. I noticed that she kept repeating one girl’s name, Mia, over and over again.
“Mia is the only one,” Kaila said.
I stopped what I was doing to see what she meant. Looking at the photo, I went into adult mode of explaining something without really understanding what she was questioning. I pointed to all the other kids in the picture and said,
“Mia is not alone. There are lots of other kids standing all around her.”
“Mia is the only one, Mommy.” Kaila repeated. “See.”
I continued explaining that Mia was a part of the class and had lots of friends in it who were with her all day, along with teachers who were there with Mia as well. Kaila got more insistent and seemed slightly annoyed. I clearly wasn’t getting something she was trying to say.
Kaila raised her voice slightly, “Mia is the only one,” she said while pointing to Mia in the picture. She pointed to other children standing around Mia, one at a time, landing on Mia last, and something finally clicked for me.
I remember almost shouting because I had figured it out, and because I recognized in that moment how my tiny child was seeing and trying to understand about people and skin color and race.
“Oh!” I said, “Mia is the only girl who looks like her, Kaila, you are totally right! With straight, dark hair, and eyes shaped like hers and skin like hers. Mia is Chinese. She is the only Chinese girl in your class, and you noticed that.” Kaila smiled with her tiny protruding teeth, made that way by her beloved sucking thumb.
I remember beaming at Kaila like a proud momma, so happy that she saw Mia’s difference because it meant that she actually saw Mia…all of her…in the same way that I hoped people saw Kaila, my bi-racial, curious and wonderful child, without assigning value….without devaluing…just seeing her….a pure acknowledgement.
Martha Haakmat is a Black woman, who blissfully just turned 50 and is celebrating 28 years of teaching and leading in New York City independent schools. Currently the Head of School at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School serving children from twos through 8th grade, Martha has been a lower, middle, and upper school educator and has held administrative positions such as Diversity Director and Middle School Head. Martha has served as an independent school trustee and has been a member of various committees for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS). She was also the founder and director of Educators for Growth and Empowerment (EDGE), a diversity consulting team that presented in schools and conferences nationwide. Martha is married to Steve, a White man and has three, bi-racial daughters who are now 20, 17, and 13 years old.