“You’re darker, and you cannot play with us.”
I’m white; I’m really white, like I turn red in the sun rather than tan. Life experiences have left me aware of racism in many forms and given me a deep hunger for what is right and just. The reading and study of Scripture have pushed me to intentionally pursue open, diverse relationships. And I was utterly unprepared for these words. So unprepared that when I heard them, I left an older child in charge of the house and went to the grocery to get eggs, but I really went to cry and to call a friend. How was I going to walk with my precious daughter who had been told this if my own emotions (fury, grief, shock, anger, sadness) raged unchecked.
And the friend I called was what I expected and more. While not as surprised as I was, she was appalled and grieved and gave me the courage to go home and parent in an appropriately engaged way with the one who received the horrific words.
My husband and I had caught wind of unkind treatment and racist undertones a few months before. We had talked with the teacher, tried to act proactively in several ways, and yet these words overwhelmed me. Over the next several months the situation escalated; the school did little. And there lay the even bigger challenge. It’s one thing for a child to ringlead a group into cruelty, but for the adults to let it go and want the child receiving words and then physical violations to toughen up – inconceivable.
Ultimately, I sat in the principal’s office saying your empathy, while kind, changes nothing. The adults not knowing what to do leaves all of the power in a 6 year old’s hands and all of the weight of the situation born by my 6 year old. Racism is against the law; a 6 year old may not understand the magnitude, but the school’s no response is systemic racism. The room was charged.
I left not knowing what either one of us would do next.
My daughter’s situation escalated.
“Black girls don’t do ballet.”
And then grace began to fall.
- A coworker mentioned the school board has a multicultural liaison to help with racial matters; then she found the phone number.
- A counsellor suggested that peer relationships that affirm who she is can counter the pain of the peer rejection. A friend, a really busy friend, brought her daughter to hang out with mine.
- A classmate’s mom asked if my daughter was ok. Her own daughter was having trouble going to bed because of what she was watching happen at school between my daughter and the other child. This child gave more details and that mother went to the principal; she spoke up.
- Friends prayed.
- Friends of African or Caribbean heritage shared what their parents taught them or what they were telling their own children.
- Some friends let themselves be videotaped to speak up and share with teachers what they as an adult wished their teachers had known about race.
Over twenty people acted with purpose and kindness to help our family address the ongoing racism from a child. Looking back, the response of some twenty people to address or counter the impact changed my child’s reality, and hopefully the reality for the other kindergarteners changed. Plain and simply, with all of our best effort, my husband and I could not have addressed the situation effectively on our own. It took other people purposefully entering the awkward, painful space of racism and say, “that’s enough” or “how can I help?”
Traveling recently I watched a little girl freeze at the edge of the moving sidewalk as her father who was a step ahead started moving. He called, coaxed, and she wasn’t budging, so the dad started running against the conveyor belt’s natural direction to get his toddler daughter. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria? offers conveyor walkways as a model of North American cultures’ moving in racist directions. Even people who choose not to personally engage in words or deeds that give advantage to people who are white, continue to go along with the broader culture’s giving advantage to white people. Unless a person runs against the culture’s conveyor walkway of giving advantage in the organizations, leadership, decision, images, opportunities, sounds, smells, etc. to white people, they just go with the flow and racism continues.
When someone actively, purposefully runs opposite to the culture, society can change. Just like the father I watched started running to out pace the conveyor belt because of his love and concern for his daughter, people can choose to change our society with specific, thoughtful, informed words and deeds. My daughter was harmed when adults wanted to minimize the pain of racism, and the situation was greatly improved when more than twenty people gave voice, when they spoke up. She was seen, valued, and re-offered the space to thrive.
Listen to one another.
Choose to not diminish another’s pain.
Reflect on who is advantaged in society and how to extend opportunities to others.
Long for equal weights and consider how to equalize.
Let’s be the twenty people for another. Believing each person is uniquely created in the image of God, I ask myself as a parent, as an educator, as a neighbour, how can I help create an environment for others to thrive, to be who they are created to be?
“As a society, we pay a price for our silence. Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.” Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
Esther used her position and power to defend all Jews; she could have kept quiet and been safe.
Jonathan used his position to speak up for justice for David; he could have just sat back and become king.
Jesus used his life, words, and body to speak up for those who were on the edges of society (beggars, blind, tax collectors) and for us when we were outside His kingdom.
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:18
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
I am so thankful for the people who spoke up in the time of need for my daughter; Lord, give me courage to see and to use my abilities, opportunities, and experiences to speak up for others.