Something I’ve become aware of in my journey to understanding my own white privilege, is how many ways we talk about race without actually mentioning race so that we all feel righteous in our stance as: NOT A RACIST. When, the truth is, we are talking about race without even realizing it on a conscious level. Lately I hear racism hidden in discussions of “disciplinary problems” in our school system. And I say this as a upper middle white woman with a white child who has been called a “discipline problem” in the past. AND YET – I still know that “discipline problems” is a phrasing we use in “polite company” so we can really talk about all of the black and brown kids we now have in our school.
The fact that people are complaining about them because of their behavior and not their skin color gives them absolution.
I went to a meeting earlier this week put on by our Desegregation Action Committee. Our school system is trying to get out from under a desegregation order from the 60s and while we’ve made big progress the last three years, we’re still not quite there. We’ve balance our equity in facilities and most programs but we have not found the balance in disciplinary issues which are complex and much harder to address than old buildings. We are still seeing disciplinary reports that indicate a huge disparity in the way we treat our white students and our students of color. Two of the women on the committee responded to comments about discipline and behavior with discussions about a lack of coping skills in a lot of the students, and a lack of empathy in everyone else. And it all really hit home for me.
There are students who have suddenly been either A) pulled into new districts with new boundary lines to try to balance out the self-segregation that had only gotten worse in the city or B) bussed into new schools in the Majority to Minority transfer program. Now those kids are in school surrounded by privileged white kids whose parents can be heard either A) complaining about the change or B) complaining how people left the schools because of the change.
Many of these kids come from homes where their parents are absent or working 3 jobs to pay the bills. Then we dump them into our neighborhood school that has a range from people like us (solidly upper middle class) to people like politicians and large business owners that make us look almost poor by comparison.
(SIDENOTE: We moved into an older neighborhood with no HOA so rich people buy small homes like mine and tear them down and use the ENTIRE LOT to build huge homes and it makes my neighborhood look SO WEIRD. It’s fascinating.)
This neighborhood immediately surrounds Wes’s school and it is filled with SO MUCH visual wealth. But this district also includes the housing projects 3 miles away. Imagine living in some sort of government housing project, or even just in a complex adjacent to one where you might actually be able to use a Section 8 Voucher, (here’s a good article about the limitations of the Section 8 system) but spending 8 hours a day surrounded by kids talking about trips to Disney, carrying iPhones, and wearing the coolest and newest shoes. (Wes talks about shoes a lot. Shoes are evidently a big deal.)
That’s where one of the committee members talked about how discomfort is a source of behavior issues. IN CHILDREN AND ADULTS. If we are put in uncomfortable situations, our hormones are raging in a type of fight-or-flight response because the discomfort causes us such anxiety. So kids are either trying to protect ourselves by hiding (staying in their peer groups from the neighborhood) or by fighting (being disciplinary problems) and because they are CHILDREN, they don’t necessarily have the right coping skills needed.
Which is why our funding now needs to shift to staffing instead of buildings.
But the point is, what parents in these schools (I know this because we moved into a district that saw a LOT of flight when they changed the lines a few years ago) refer to as “disciplinary problems” are really children tossed in a scary situation without proper coping skills. And THE VAST MAJORITY of them are black and brown children. And while we think we clear ourselves from racism by discussing them based on where they live and their poverty level and their disciplinary challenges – we are actually supporting the racist systems that were built to put all of those without white skin in those situations. By not discussing race when we discuss poverty or crime/discipline we allow these systems to continue being innocuous and therefore we can discuss them without actually saying: THE BROWN KIDS IN THE SCHOOL ARE CAUSING A PROBLEM.
But the truth is: If you watch the bus bring the kids over from the housing projects and the neighborhoods around them: They are all black and brown children. So to pretend like we are just discussing the “poor kids” and not acknowledging how race places into their situations, then we will never get to the root of the problem solving. If someone says, “It’s not because they are BLACK, it’s because they are POOR,” then the implication is that the two are not related.
Why, then, are there a higher poverty rates among people of color?
And while poverty rates have improved across the board over time, we are still looking at disparities between white poverty and black/brown poverty of a consistent difference over the last 20 years. We are not bringing the rates close together. And if you can’t explain that with racial injustice and systemic racism, how do you explain it?
If we don’t acknowledge there are racist systems at play here, we will never be forced to look at a criminal justice system that punishes black men more severely than white men of the same crime and background, creating a positive feedback loop that takes black men out of homes at a higher rate than white men, and taking fathers out of homes leaves overworked moms and/or grandparents which then begets children without dependable adults at home which creates children with discipline problems which means children get suspended and are left to figure out how to survive without school and therefore turn to crime which means they are now imprisoned adults leaving behind children in a home without dependable adult presence.
If we don’t discuss race in the midst of the discussions of these “discipline problems” then we are not actually going to get to the root of the problem which are the racist constructs meant to oppress people of color and allow white people to excel with less effort.
And the discussion from the committee is that we try to use empathy when discussing some of the challenges with our kids and our friends. They also asked that we look at the greater positive effects on the COMMUNITY which is what I’ve been proud of, even though we still have quite a far way to go. So if our kids come home and talk about how “those kids from those neighborhoods are always in trouble” we take a moment to ask our child to put themselves in the shoes of that kids. Which is what we do in our home. Do you know anything about him/her? If they’re in that neighborhood they’re probably poor which means they have to go to school with you and your iphone and be sad they don’t have one too. Or they have to hear your friend talk about his THIRD TRIP TO DISNEY THIS YEAR. Or they have to see that other kid’s new fancy shoes. And imagine how hard that would be and how left out you would feel. And maybe it’s worse. Maybe this kids has parental problems like one with drug or alcohol problems or maybe they’re home alone a lot because their Mom works three jobs.
And if we use empathy and acknowledge race, we can see our own privilege and be drawn to being part of the solution instead of just talking from the outside magnifying the discomfort these kids are facing every day.