I’ve been a parent at the same elementary school for seven years now, and I thought I knew it inside and out. Heard the parent gossip, volunteered in the classrooms, watched the kids on the playground, gotten to know the teachers. And then I heard from a parent about race-based bullying their child had experienced. Hair-pulling, name-calling, threats of physical violence, sexual assault. And the lack of appropriate response by the adults. And I thought, “Not at my school!”
See, my kids’ school, although it is mostly white, is less white than most of the schools in my neighborhood. We picked it for that reason. And the adults at the school are doing a whole lot of things to make sure everyone is included and treated fairly.
But the reality isn’t matching the intent. Once I started asking my friends the question, “Has your child experienced racism at the school?” it opened a floodgate of stories. How come I didn’t hear them, in all my seven years at the school?
One reason is that I didn’t ask. I just assumed things were mostly working. I’m not alone in that. White people like me, who grew up in segregated communities and were socialized not to talk about race, don’t ask the questions and don’t hear the answers.
Hearing the answers can be hard. There are truths we don’t want to accept, about racism in our communities and of course in ourselves. It’s easy to be defensive. “Not at my kids school! It’s a good school!” But defensiveness and avoidance just makes problems that much harder to solve. They build a wall between whites and people of color, reinforcing racial divisions.
On the other hand, learning to be honest about the reality around us gives us the power to change it.
So, white adults: if race-based bullying is happening at my kids’ school, it’s happening at yours too. And, most likely, despite best intentions, the other white adults in the community are mishandling the situation through avoidance and defensiveness. But this isn’t an always and forever thing. Everyone can change. Institutions can change.
It starts with us.