Choosing a school that will help my child dismantle systemic racism and White supremacy
by guest blogger Cathy Rion Starr
This post is part of a week-long series highlighting supporters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), both in their parenting of race-conscious children and their activist work for racial justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. For more resources and information check out SURJ’s website.
“For a system that’s set up to deal with race, they sure don’t want to talk about race,“ said my partner as we left the school choice fair that existed to deal with long history of separate and unequal schools in and around Hartford, Connecticut.
We are lucky enough to live in an area where there are public (sliding scale) pre-school options through an inter-district regional magnet system triggered by the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit when I was a child in the 80s. This means that there are 26 schools for which we can enter the lottery for our three-year-old to attend next year—all super racially diverse with a mix of urban and suburban children.
We’re excited about this, because right now we pay a chunk of change and drive a half hour each way to get our child to a school that she loves, and we do, too, for the most part. It is also almost entirely White.
We chose to live in our neighborhood in suburban West Hartford because it is diverse regarding both race and class. Thanks in part to the tools that Raising Race Conscious Children has put out into the world, we talk explicitly with our White child about race and racism, and she has been known to walk around the house chanting “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s important to us that our child’s school matches these values and is a good fit for her. Among other things, I want my child—and all children—to be equipped with tools to deal with the racism they encounter in our society. So among our many questions at the school fair were:
“How many teachers of color do you have? How do you teach about diversity and racism?”
I was sobered by the first response to these questions:
“We are really diverse. Our children all get along. We talk about respect and sharing.”
I followed up with: “What about talking and teaching about racism?”
“Oh, we don’t need to do that here. It’s not an issue. We don’t want to bring it up because the children all get along.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’m certain that some of the children at that school are experiencing racism, even if that White administrator only sees the awesome multi-racial friendships.
I was dismayed, and the responses improved only a little bit at other tables:
“We teach preschoolers to talk about skin tone and find colors to match their specific skin tone and celebrate it.”
“We talk about different kinds of families.”
“We use the Teaching Tolerance curriculum. We focus mostly on how we’re alike and sharing and such, and then we do some on differences.”
After several of these conversations with White educators, we searched for a person of color staffing a table to see how they might answer the question—and we got the same answer: “We are very diverse. We work to get along.”
So basically, the best answer to our race questions was to acknowledge race and race differences (which, as I understand it, is age appropriate for preschool). That’s good—I want that! I want my daughter to be comfortable with a vocabulary about race and skin tone.
But I want more than that.
I want for my child, and for ALL children in the Hartford region, to be taught tools to understand and dismantle the systemic racism and White supremacy that impacts them and shapes our society. I want my child’s educators to understand that celebrating diversity is not enough. I want them to be able to talk about racism and how it impacts children of color in the classroom. I want them to create spaces at school to help children to process the intensity of some of our country’s problems in a safe and supportive emotional container. I want educators to see race and racism.
I am glad that I asked the question: How do you teach about diversity and racism?
It would have been easy to not ask it. But once I asked, I was so disappointed. Then, I thought to myself, “Surely somebody must have a good answer to this!” We kept asking until we were too tired to talk to another person, and the best we found was a couple people willing to name race at all.
I learned a lot at the school fair. I learned that, even in this system that is explicitly designed with race and desegregation at the core, our educators do not know how to talk about racism, let alone give their students tools to cope with it. I will keep looking for educators who can support my child to think critically about race and racism, and hope that when she’s a teenager, she’ll be able to think and act like these young women have learned to do.
Rev. Cathy Rion Starr is a queer White minister, organizer, and parent to an amazing three-year-old. Cathy serves as Co-Minister at the Unitarian Society of Hartford with her partner in life and ministry, the Rev. Heather Rion Starr, and is a co-founder of the Hartford chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice. Cathy brings a passion for relationship-building, strives to hold complexity and contradictions honestly, and seeks more spiritually grounded justice work. Cathy also loves making music, cooking, gardening, and laughing with her family.