Categorically, Culturally Blind?

Feb 3, 2010 by

I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and this is a tough thing to say but I’m going to be really honest. The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better.

The word bitch jumped out at me from the floor of my son’s classroom, and I did a double take as I went to the teacher’s desk.

It wasn’t graffiti but an exercise in classification of males and females of different species of animals (i.e., male ducks are drakes, female ducks are ducks) that a child was still in the process of doing and would have to complete tomorrow. It wasn’t just that the bitch on the floor was the only one of all the classification cards that was handwritten; it just seemed strange to see a term that has, in my mind and in the minds of many others I know, “bad word” connotations in my son’s first grade learning environment.

I recognized the exercise for what it was and moved on…but I still wondered what the reaction would be from parents who asked their kids how school went that day and got an answer telling them that their young ‘un just learned the term for a female dog. Do you go into your child’s understanding of the term and the context in which it was learned, or do you go with a possible gut reaction of you learned a bad word in school and your brain and mouth need to be scrubbed clean!

That sort of internal war is not all that farfetched. I had to battle this recently when my son bounded into our car after school and proudly informed me that he’d found the anus of a leaf insect, aka, a walking leaf, in school that day. The still-living juvenile inside of me hears the word anus and giggles, bursting with the need to crack endless jokes or just to say the word anus over and over again and laugh uncontrollably. The parent in me that knew what was going on in the classroom complimented the kid on his discovery – but the juvenile still smiled while the parent said it.

I explained this to my husband that night after the little guy went to bed, and he said he wouldn’t have been able to hold back on the anus jokes himself. I’m glad I was the one in the car.

However, I’m still bothered by something that the little guy said when we went to pick up a friend’s daughter from another school last Friday.

“Mom, are you sure she’s here?” the kid asked me as we walked past all the students headed for their buses to find the little girl we knew from the synagogue.

“Yes, she’s here, honey,” I said absent-mindedly, preoccupied with trying to find a kindergarten-aged child in all the hubbub.

“But all the brown people go here!” he said.

I asked him to repeat what he’d said, then chose not to address his observation right away. “She’s definitely here, kiddo, we just have to ask where she is.” I told him, striding into the school building with him in tow, then, after asking many questions of teachers throughout the halls, finally connecting with the girl’s teacher and getting the child into the car with us.

The school had a majority black student body. The little girl was white. Ignorant white supremacists still raging all over this country would be horrified, sure. I was horrified – and I still am – at my own internal dialogue when I walked into the school…and at my reluctance to try to discuss my son’s observation with him and discover his internal dialogue on entering the school.

My first thought on pulling up to the school: well, this girl probably won’t be staying here for all her school years.

My relief at my son not bringing up the “brown people” comment after we found the girl: oh, he was just making an observation, I guess. If it comes up again, I can talk to him about it then.

Much as I don’t want to admit it, I have to take a cold, hard look at myself at times like these and realize I’m not as enlightened and free of prejudice as I want to be. The double standard still screams quite loudly within when it has the chance: a black child in a majority white school is somehow a mark of diversity and indicates how the child is somehow moving up in the world, but a white child in a majority black school is somehow being cut down a notch, or it speaks to a possible lack of money or just plain laziness on the part of the parent whose child is in that school.

These are the stereotypes that I must fight with all my strength.

The hypocrisy of it all is complete and utter bullshit that I wish I could erase from my brain. The mother of the child we picked up that day is single and is starting a new job. In all the time I have known her, she has been applying to the “academically better” schools within the current “system of schools” and hasn’t been able to get her child in. All the teachers I spoke to within the walls of that school were a helpful, friendly bunch who cared about the children entrusted to their care; the learning environment within seems to be doing right by all the kids there.  Including my friend’s little girl.

And the fact that I didn’t bring this up with my son immediately afterwards says that I am also a damn coward. Fact of the matter is, he saw that traditional public school and made the judgment that a white girl couldn’t possibly be going where all the “brown people” were going. This kind of thing is starting to sit in his psyche, too, despite the numbers in his current school’s population showing that over half the student body is black. As a family, we need to counter this, as this is how prejudice starts.

To be sure, the schools here do have a long way to go and we cannot go back to the way things were before 8/29/05 – but we cannot make the mistake of saying that just because we got the old wood out, we can rest on the new and be confident that it is doing right by us.  It is still valid to question what is being done in the name of reform and how it is affecting our kids and those who work closely with them.

But we need to do our homework and dig even deeper.  The Federal Flood did not wash away prejudice.  It didn’t eliminate racial or class differences.  The decentralization and privatization of the public schools is the same old story in a new guise.  To quote the Big Man here (even though he speaks of something not directly related):

There is no racial Messiah. All we have are us and God. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can start improving things.

I need to sit down with my son and face my fears and his budding cultural, categorical prejudice.  And this probably won’t be the last time I attempt to effect some change within us and trigger some actions born of that change.  This has to be ongoing if we are all to strive for the equality and the change that must be.  And it’s going to be hard.  But I find it is even harder to have these terrible, irrational, prejudicial thoughts burning within.


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