My white kids with their backpacks

Catholic grade school, mid 1990s. We were prepping for a field trip to a metro art museum: stay with your chaperone; be on your best behavior. And “When you see black people,” the teacher said to a sea of thirty white kids, “you just treat them like anyone else. Just say ‘hello’ if they say hello.”

I remember this because it was weird to me then, two years into living in the rural community. Sure, diversity in that rural area meant you might meet a Lutheran or a Baptist; someone whose ancestors disembarked at Ellis Island from England instead of Germany like so many of us with weird consonant-heavy last names painted on the sides of barns.

I want this to be a totally weird story for my kids, too. I want to someday tell my kids this story and have them go, “I can’t believe that happened.” So to do that, we’ve gotta seek to put ourselves in positions where we may or may not be the only white Christians from middle-class backgrounds in the room, right?

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This isn’t an easy thing to write about, talk about, or live out — especially with kids who right now are more concerned about their Christmas lists (already) than their perspectives on diversity.

Hear me: I’m not judging my teacher, the school, the religion, or the kids in the desks all around me that day.

But my mind wanders back there when I think about how we talk about race — with each other, in the media; and how we don’t talk about it when we talk about “bad” schools or “poor” neighborhoods (“that place really went downhill when they opened it up for open enrollment”; “the neighborhood used to be full of middle-class families,” etc.).

(Aren’t we still kinda the same people who either need to be reminded to be civil or who find this conversation baffling, or some combination of both?)

I want a different conversation for my kids. This is messy stuff, right? But it matters — the language they hear, the places they go, the kids they play with — all that evolves into a lifestyle. Just how enriching, how diverse our kids’ lives will be is linked with how diverse their lives are now, right?

Street-level view: Our neighbors got our kids gift cards to Wendy’s for Halloween — you’d’ve thought they won the kid lottery. So much high-pitched squealing.

“I’m not going to the one on Cedar Street. It’s impossible to get out,” Dave said, so we swung up to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Wendy’s is Wendy’s, right? The one on MLK might’ve been a little spartan, a little depressing, but it’s all the same. We waited in line behind a gentleman; we made small talk with a woman we often see walking around the city carrying an American flag.

“Beautiful girls,” she said, over and over, in a voice that was difficult to understand because she didn’t have many teeth. “Going to try for a boy?”

Heck no, Dave and I laughed, as my three-year-old tried to play the edge of the counter like a harmonica and my seven-year-old was saying “PLAIN CHEESEBURGER. Don’t forget it’s PLAIN” in staccato like I was hard of hearing.

(Herding cats, etc.) When we finally grabbed our bags of empty calories, we pushed our way into the quickly darkening night.

“Mom,” one of the kids said on the way out. “We were the only white people here. Are white people even allowed here?” — my child.

I thought of the white privilege backpack essay I read in college — the one that begins a list of privileges we don’t know we have with this: “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” At the time I read that, it was embarrassingly mind-blowing, convicting — this was the same time my friend and I were ridiculed for not participating in a Martin Luther King Jr. kegger (hosted by white people wearing Afro wigs); the same time my roommate and I would leave parties when that word got tossed around, when some rap songs would be shuffling on the iPod while people started statements: “Look, I’m not racist, but –”

The “but,” sir. You see, it’s a problem.

And the other side of the problem: we were two white students, graduated from a class of 80-some other mostly white kids.

Lord, forgive us. Lord, have mercy.

No: no, I want something different for my kids. That’s why we’re in Lansing. That’s why they’re in the school where they are; that’s why, that’s why.

So, back to the Wendy’s parking lot:

I smirked. “How do you think black people feel when they’re in a place with only white people?”

“I don’t know.”

I pushed a bit, kindly. “No, think about the kids in your class who aren’t white. What do you think that’s like for them?”

“I don’t know.”

“How did you feel when we were in there?”

“I felt like we weren’t supposed to be there.”

Yeah, little lady. Yeah. And a million questions bubble up, but none of them can be answered by anything but just going back, and going back again, and going back again to that which made you start asking the questions. May we follow those questions — where will they take us next?

3 thoughts on “My white kids with their backpacks

  • Erin,

    Great blog on a very challenging issue. So interesting to hear how you identify and address it as a mother of those darling little girls. As you know, identifying and addressing racism is such a central concern for me–an on-going process as I live and teach in multi-racial contexts. Always new challenges!

    Thanks for your reflections!

    Roger

    • Thanks, Roger! Thanks for hearing me on this one.

      I can’t wait to bring the girls to see you sometime and let them see and hear what you do. Much love to you.

  • Erin, thanks for pushing me to think about this topic. It’s one that’s too easy to shove into the corner, under the mismatched mittens. I love how you nudged your daughter to consider her classmates’ perspectives. Also, thanks for pushing me to re-read the white privilege backpack essay. I force my students to read it every year, but I skipped reading it myself last year. Gulp.

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