“I don't know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.” – James Baldwin
From the moment of my son’s birth in North Country Hospital, when nurses did a double take, as if to see if they had taken him from the right mother, I knew people saw his color and the difference in ours. “Is he bi-racial?” one nurse asked. Between tears of joy at meeting my healthy beautiful, brown skinned boy, I think I answered vaguely “He’s Puerto Rican.” Today, with more information on his ancestry, I am raising my son to know he’s Black − alternately Afro-Puerto Rican, or formally African American − and to both embrace his heritage and understand what that means in this country. As a white parent of a Black child starting second grade in OSCU, this can be challenging. (Note: I asked my son for permission to discuss him in this blog. While he can’t simply “opt out” of racism and cultural bias, it’s important for him to know he has some choices.)
I want for my son what most parents want for their kids: the ability to grow, learn, and thrive with a healthy sense of self. My son is an only child and highly social. When he was not yet three, he approached a group of white children, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself by name, a gesture met with quizzical looks. My son has a Latino name not common here and at that age had a voluminous afro. I hear from other Black Vermonters that stares are a frequent occurrence. At 7, my son is adept at connecting with peers. Yet I worry when people fail to recognize his reality as a Black child in a white space.
I can never live my son’s reality for him, but part of my job as a parent is learning more about racism than I knew before and trying to fold this into my parenting and son’s education. I worry about cultural bias not being addressed or necessarily even recognized in school. I have come to learn that frequently in Vermont, classrooms and schools around the state miss the importance of including Black, Native, and multicultural realities on a regular basis. Last year, during Black History Month, I was glad to see some books shared in my son’s 1st grade class about the Civil Rights Movement and iconic Black figures – even a few other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Though not enough by itself to make a meaningful difference, this is a start. Black history month falling in the same month as President’s Day could present a great opportunity to begin teaching truths of U.S. history that are sometimes uncomfortable for those who have been raised to view the nation’s founders only as heroes.
Amid these classroom readings on Civil Rights and achievers, my son brought home a Scholastic News with a lesson on George Washington. The newsletter pictured Washington astride his trusty horse, riding off into the sunset. It discussed Washington’s leadership attributes, followed by questions such as, “What made George Washington a great leader?” There was no mention of George Washington the slaveholder. At six, my son already knew the reality of how his West African ancestors got here (the history of slavery in PR being similar to the mainland U.S.). When he spoke up to state the fact that Washington had been a slaveholder, the substitute working that day told him to follow the directions and write what made Washington great, according to the reading. My son found a way around this in his mind; he wrote that Washington favored presidential term limits, which made it possible for Lincoln to later be President. (Putting aside for the moment that depictions of Lincoln are also often whitewashed, I thought that was an inventive answer.) Yet I was frustrated that my son had to confine his answer to Scholastic News’ biased historical account.
It’s telling that the very first history lessons delivered to kids tend to serve to glorify U.S. history by presenting half-truths. The point here is that a preview of the lesson might have made it possible to choose different or additional materials to fill in missing information, such as incorporating a lesson on a mural painting by Kerry James Marshall, which uses dot-to-dot drawings to create faces of Washington's hidden enslaved people. Sometimes mythology has been passed on as historically accurate content. For example, the link above documents that, rather than having teeth made of wood, Washington likely attained his teeth from the very people he enslaved (for payments perhaps, as documented above, but while forced into a lifetime of backbreaking unpaid labor, payment for one’s teeth sounds like merely salve for GW’s conscience). In Vermont, the frequent claim that the state was the “first to outlaw slavery” had a more complicated and tragic reality than popular mythology tends to recognize.
I spent time discussing with my son the problem with the lesson withholding a central fact about Washington and the founders from children of all backgrounds. The lesson served to erase kids of African descent from classrooms: how so many have come to be here; why so many are left with little direct information on family history than people of European ancestry; and the longstanding legacy of racism that has never been adequately addressed. For white kids, the costs of instilling these biases from an early age is a stilted and protected worldview and an ongoing divide between how many white people and people of color experience and live in the world.
Maybe to some educators here, working to bring a culturally inclusive lens, not only for learning opportunities like Black History Month but on a regular basis, seems unnecessary because of the predominant whiteness of the OCSU population. This leads to a sense that “We don’t have those kinds of problems here.” An incident of racially targeted graffiti in West Glover as the school year gets underway shows this isn’t the case; Vermont has these problems too. Maybe some think of addressing racism and difference as too overtly “political.” To that I simply say: this is far deeper than political affiliation. It’s about attempting to live up to the lofty declarations of the nation’s founders: words by which they themselves didn’t live; words our kids are led in reciting at the start of each day.
Maybe the hesitance is also due to a lack of practice in addressing the racism that’s been embedded in our society from the start. As a parent, I challenge myself to approach this as a lifelong process of learning and growth. Learning about the histories and realities of people of color can often feel overwhelming for white people precisely due to this lack of practice, and painful because we don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people passing on a legacy of injustice. Therefore we avoid, and the legacy that Black people and people of color have no choice but to deal with lives on.
The work of culturally expansive teaching is important not only for my son and kids of color in OCSU. At a critical time in our society, to be educated as if in a bubble does not serve to prepare Vermont students for citizenship. Among my son’s age group, the U.S Census has reported that non-whites (including Hispanics of various backgrounds) are now slightly more than half the national population. Even in Vermont, there are twice as many kids of color as 15 years ago. In light of a backlash against such cultural shifts, it’s important for predominantly white schools to stop ignoring these dynamics and to rise to the challenge to change and grow.
Those interested in exploring ways to frame lessons and engage students in inclusive content and discussions are invited to join the Identity and Education work group, comprised of teachers, parents, and administrators, at monthly meetings starting Monday Sept 25 at 4:30 in the Lake Region Library. In the meantime, please peruse a few resources in preparation.