Renters or owners in our school?: Questions and reflections from a parent of color
“He takes a circuitous route to hang up his coat to avoid them,” I told the head of the lower school.
“That’s a good strategy,” he replied.
And I sat there dumbfounded. Why should my child need a long term “strategy” to approach his cubby? And I wondered—does this school belong to all the students or are some of us only renters?
Precipitating this conversation, my seven-year-old son hit a girl after she pushed him during after-school. On the next school-day, the girl’s mother went to the head of the lower school and shortly thereafter, my son was given a consequence. He had to sit on a bench in front of his peers during recess for two days. I learned of this from my son—not from the school.
“What happened to the other child (who pushed you)?”
“Nothing.” my son replied.
At this point, many alarms were going off for me, but I try not to insert my racial constructs and perceptions onto my son or into his experiences so I asked him some questions to learn more. I know I am sensitive to how his race impacts how he is viewed.
Alongside data that children of color are more likely to be disciplined for infractions than their peers, and that boys of color are more likely to be labeled as “problems” by teachers and school administrators, I was worried. An infraction, like hitting a peer, can shift an entire academic career.
Now I should be clear: I do not condone hitting and I do not excuse his choice to use his body instead of words. But I also believe all children make mistakes—and they should be allowed to recover from them. The day of the incident, prior to the school’s intervention, my son had apologized to his classmate and he had received a consequence at home for making a poor choice.
I wanted to gauge if he saw race or gender in the other mother’s reaction or in his consequence. As we talked more, I learned he thought he had been the only one to receive a consequence not because of his race, but because of his gender.
“Well, I don’t think it’s fair, but I think Ruby’s mother (names have been changed) thinks boys are too rough and that I am not a good kid.”
If he had been older I would have shared more about my perception that it was both his race and his gender that drove the parent’s and the school’s reaction to the incident. I would start with the same question I asked him now: “Why do you think that Ruby’s mom went to see the head of the lower school?”
And I would have followed up with:
“You know sometimes we form hypotheses about people based on their race or their gender and I think that Ruby’s mom might have been making an assumption about you both because you are a boy and because you are brown—what do you think?”
For now, at age seven, he is worried.
“I’m afraid I’ll be blamed when things go wrong.” he told me. So I am glad that I did not challenge his thinking; he would’ve carried himself too carefully—and been afraid to be himself. I did not want to ask him to curtail his childhood for the comfort of others.
When I called the head of the lower school, it was not a hostile conversation—I explained that the consequence of missing recess itself seemed fair, but I was left with questions:
Why had the school not called me? Why was the other child able to have her parent advocate present while my child was by himself? And why did the consequence have to be so public?
I wish I could say that I left the conversation with my questions answered, but I did not; I left with doubts about the school and what this mistake would mean for my son’s future at this school.
My fears were further heightened when I learned that the same parent called several administrators, their classroom teacher, and the school social worker to discuss—not her daughter—but my son. I was happy to learn that the staff did not entertain her narrative of him as a “bad kid,” but these actions, as well as the continued dirty looks the girl’s parent gave me and my son, caused me to reach out once again to the head of the lower school; the result was unsatisfactory –as we moved away from the actions of children to the perceptions of adults.
We may all struggle to successfully navigate these moments, but all we can do is to keep trying by engaging in honest conversations and calling out bias when we see it.
Lori Taliaferro Riddick facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children with Raising Race Conscious Children. Lori also consults with public school districts to develop effective leaders. She formerly served as the Executive Director of Policy and Practice Services at New Leaders. Lori identifies as Black/Bi-racial/Multi-racial and is a mother to her seven-year-old son and newborn son.