Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why It Matters

The baby dog starts kindergarten in the fall. This makes me want to cry, partly because she is going to love it so and that will be a joy to witness and hear about, but also because it's the natural next step of her venturing out into the world without me. We are zoned to a most impressive, blue ribbon elementary school. The kind of school where students test well and national-teacher-of-the-year awards are given and the second graders make very elegant Japanese Tea Gardens for class projects. The kind of school where on kindergarten round-up day Ava was the only face of color amongst the 100+ kids. We are #2 on a wait list to transfer her out of this school and into a very charming, groovier, still academically rigorous school where the student body happens to be 1/3 black, 1/3 hispanic, and a 1/3 white. These stats at a well-ranked school are astounding for Austin.

I find myself in a tedious loop of conversation these days in which well-meaning folk ask after where my child will go to school in the fall. We're zoned for this school, I say—immediately people start saying how great it is there, how top notch!—but we're trying to transfer out of it. But why? Because we don't want Ava to be the only black child, or a finger of a handful, at her school. But why? Because we think that matters. But why do you think that matters?, a woman whom I like demanded somewhat aggressively at a party at which Ava was the only black child. The woman explained she just has strong opinions on the issue is all and she hoped I wasn't put off by her questions but she just didn't get it. Of course she hoped she wasn't offending me by saying that.

And so I tried, willing my eyes not to turn cold or my voice hard, to break down why it mattered. But I felt stupid doing so, and thought her somewhat stupid for asking me to do so, and the conversation itself confused me. Why treat our choice with skepticism? Why do well-meaning friends want to shoo my anxiety off the topic or dismiss it wholesale? I once worried on the matter of diversity to some friends and one lovely woman said "You know what? Your girl is so beautiful, it's not going to matter. She's not going to have a problem." Well hooray for that, y'all, beauty trumps the indignity of race. And of course this normally intelligent, good woman would die if she could hear those words played back for her, but yet they were said. And I said nothing back to her, because I didn't want her to feel bad or stupid, though a part of me thinks what I should have said is "My daughter's not beautiful despite the fact that she's black, she's beautiful because of it you fucking bitch. Now get out of her house."

I was in a muddy conversation about race with some white friends once during which a woman expressed how deeply embarrassed she'd been when her young son had loudly pointed out the color of a black child in another shopping cart at Costco. She was mortified that her child had singled out his color and that the mother had heard him and it was all so uncomfortable and, she asked me, what should she have done? But I didn't understand what the problem was. Well, another friend said, maybe it'd be like if your child pointed out someone's handicap, you'd just feel uncomfortable? But a) being black isn't a handicap and b) it doesn't sound like the child was speaking with any judgment. Maybe it was my friend who was attaching judgment to the word "black"? My friend could sense my growing impatience with the conversation and she said "You know what, I'm clueless on this. Educate me." I wanted to buy her a drink, I was so grateful for her admission of ignorance and her interest in listening.

So here's what I wish I would've said to the woman at this recent party, who made me feel defensive for trying to transfer my girl out of a great school just so she wouldn't be "the only" in a room:

*I don't think it behooves any child to be as conspicuous as mine looked that morning of kindergarten round-up.

*When my child learns about America's ugly history in its treatment of black people I want there to be other kids in the room, hell, maybe even the the teacher, with skin like hers.

*I don't want sweet, goofy, careless children always petting on my daughter's kinky hair because they've never seen curls like that before. (Poor mother at the all-white gymnastics spring break camp whose daughter pointed at my daughter and said "Look at how fluffy her hair is!" The mother looked like she was going to have a stroke trying to smooth away her kid's words. "But remember how much you said you loved it?!" she hysterically demanded of her daughter. "I didn't say that," said the girl. "Yes you did, of course you did!" "I said it was fluffy and cute." All the while Ava and I just stood there waiting them out until there was a break in the conversation and we could back away slowly.)

*I don't want my daughter to ask me if she can straighten her hair because she wants to look like everyone else she sees around her.

*When people speak of my daughter, they need to be comfortable speaking of her race too. If we're all so evolved and color-blind how come most of my white friends still can't help hushing their voice when they say the word "black"? We are terrified of talking about race, we are desperate not to be thought of as racist that we daily deny our own fear and prejudice. (I include my dumb ass in this as well. I remember back in my 20s I was trying to describe Eriq LaSalle's character on E.R. and I was all "He's the aloof doctor. Pretty serious. Mustache. Um, really tall. Kinda hot but a little too uptight." He was the black guy, you idiot 20 year old self. Say it!)

*I just assume make some more friends with my daughter's friends' parents who are black. I want her to have lots of black adult role models. That matters because she doesn't get that in her immediate family and that's who she's going to grow up to be. That matters also because I like to keep interesting company. That often adds up to getting to hear new stories. I wrote a book about people living in a small town, and had rituals and traditions and daily lives nothing like mine. Getting to be the ignorant, curious person in the room is a good thing.

*Some adult adoptees have written really persuasive testaments as to why this matters. It's probably worth listening to them.

*I have a young black friend who was the only child of color in her high school. When she graduated and moved to the city she admitted that she felt some anxiety, fear even, around large groups of black people. That's tragic to me.

All of this might not matter to your family. I respect that. But this matters to mine. Please afford that some respect as well. If you don't get it, be cool when trying to have a conversation and don't tease me about these efforts, rolling your eyes at me or joking that I don't count Asians or Indians or Hispanics as diversity. That's insulting. Don't lead with skepticism or dismissiveness. I'm okay being anxious about creating diverse spaces for my daughter and you don't need to talk me out of that sense of urgency. I also don't think we're infecting our child with our concern. Be careful with your words, just as I hope to be with mine, and probably fail at often, when encountering people walking different roads than mine. (Vegetarian? Homeschooler? Christian? Republican?) When all else fails, admit ignorance and we can have a drink and talk.


Nora said...


Nora said...
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Julie said...

Yes, it matters so much. You are a fierce, wonderful Mama.

Lori said...

I stand up and cheer here in Oregon. we too transferred our kids out of the "best" school in our half of the city, the one so many want to go to. we have also gotten puzzled reactions when people find out. maybe i'll just print a few copies of this post to hand to them when they ask.

MyTwoLines said...

We will be dealing with this too, all too soon. I agree-it matters so, so very much. Enough that we talk about moving out of Austin...

Love the video!

Meagan Brown said...

I sure do love you and your words Karen.

Luv4thePaws said...

I appreciate this post! We have the opposite problem though. Our daughter goes to a school that is 62% African American and 30% Hispanic students. It now has a 2/10 Great Schools rating. When we moved in to our house, it was 7/10. Unfortunately, our crappy school district thinks it's okay to cut teachers and programs from this school because it's "just" a minority school with low test scores. It's such a shame. Her ESL lessons were reduced to "computer time" since the teacher didn't have time for all the kids they gave her, and they cut the special ed program. We have a daughter with Down syndrome from Ukraine, and we told ourselves she'd have a quality, inclusive, wonderful education here in America. Now she'll be in a room with an EC aide during the day, not even in a class room. It's so shameful what they've done to these schools. My Ethiopian daughter has lots of kids that look like her, but why can't we have that AND a quality education for EVERYONE?

I hope Ava loves school and enjoys her classmates! :)