I thought I could somehow shield my child from the ugly truth of racism just a little longer. But as a very public incident at Fenway showed, I was wrong.
Up to now, I’ve almost completely avoided discussing racism — or even race at all — with Nile. I know it’s something that will affect his life, but I also strongly feel that it’s just not his problem, at least not yet. He’s 5 years old. Until a year ago, he described people as “blue” or “gray” or “purple,” depending on the color of the shirt they were wearing. Recently, he’s begun noticing differences in skin color, but his descriptions are childlike and precise, and have nothing to do with the over-simplified labels and complex histories that inform grown-up conversations about race. Nile says that he’s “tannish,” that my wife is “brownish,” and that I am “kind of pinkish.” He notices that his mother has braids, that my hair is straight, and that he and his sister both have curls. It hasn’t occurred to him — because why would it? — that anyone might use these distinctions as an excuse to treat some people differently from others.
It’s impossible right now to know what sort of impact race will have on Nile’s sense of identity, or how it will circumscribe his ability to move through the world as he pleases. It is my whitest, most naive hope that my son will never have to worry about racism at all. I hope that we’ll make progress quickly enough that racism won’t affect him, or that he’ll be light-skinned enough that it won’t affect him, or that he’ll always be well dressed and well spoken enough for it not to affect him. I make up all sorts of reasons — the diversity of our community, the liberal politics of our state — that racism won’t touch my son in the way it’s touched virtually every person of color who’s ever lived in America.
Black knows that her kids are not alone in their struggles at school. She works with the Black Organizing Project nearby in Oakland, where she offers peer-to-peer support to other black parents whose children are going through disciplinary proceedings. Black told me that many parents say their children behave as all children do, but wind up targeted by school officials because educators misinterpret these students’ actions, assuming the worst. Glaring, making noise, and violating the school dress code can all lead to suspension. The consequences are significant: When students are excluded from the classroom, they’re more likely to do worse academically, become truant, drop out, and eventually come into contact with the juvenile-justice system.
I heard similar concerns about the gap between home and school cultures when I interviewed dozens of black mothers for my book, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. Many of us know about the disparities: Black students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended. Less frequently discussed are the strategies black parents use to prepare their children for schools where they might be perceived as threats or expendable misfits who aren’t core members of the community.
The mothers I spoke with were concerned about these disciplinary patterns. They were also worried about subtler ways black students are told they don’t belong in classrooms where the dominant culture, with its emphasis on obedience and hierarchy, is unlike the culture at home. These mothers talked about their efforts to encourage their children to question authority, speak freely, and express opinions—all things they valued—only to then watch as their children were reprimanded or even criminalized for doing so at school. They shared how nonblack peers would unexpectedly touch their children’s hair, making them feel violated and objectified. Some had placed their black children in predominantly white, suburban schools that offered strong academic programs, but that were limited by their own insularity and thus were unable to prepare black kids for the more racially and economically heterogeneous real world. Others felt that teachers had treated their children coldly, and were unable to see them simply as children.
I had many of those conversations around the time that I started taking my toddler—my first child—to a library story circle, a weekly sing-along, and other enrichment programs that were our earliest experiences of school-like environments. We were often the only family of color or one of few, and I began to think about the socialization that comes with schooling for black families of school-age children. The verb socialize means “to make suitable for society.” The word is typically understood as benign, but I wondered: What does it mean to encourage a child to become suitable for a society that isn’t really suitable for her?
Through my research, I learned that helping children survive and have positive experiences at school is another way in which mothering is different in black families. I came across a 1992 book titled Raising Black Children, co-authored by the psychiatrists Alvin Poussaint and James Comer. Poussaint consulted on The Cosby Show and was known as a kind of Dr. Spock within black communities in the 1980s and 1990s. In the book, the authors write, “Many black parents question and have mixed feelings about passing on the values and ways of a society that says in so many ways, ‘We do not value black men and women, boys and girls, as much as we do whites …’ The need to preserve our culture and community springs from a desire to maintain a real and psychological place, where we are accepted, respected and protected. For this reason we are concerned about whether ‘white psychology and child-rearing approaches’ will change us, hurt us, destroy our culture.”
But conversations like those in Roebuck Sakho’s home aren’t happening everywhere. Parents of color are about three times as likely to discuss race with their children as are white parents, according to a 2007 study of kindergartners and their families in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Three out of four white parents in that study avoided talking about race entirely, according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, whose 2009 book, NurtureShock, highlighted the research. White parents often believe that talking about race is itself somehow racist, and so communicate to their children that skin color doesn’t matter and that everyone is equal, Bronson and Merryman found. But even toddlers, with their brief experience of the world, can see that’s not true. When white parents leave kids to make sense of these contradictions on their own, without historical context or guidance on how to think about difference, classrooms are bound to become fraught spaces for black children.
Many parents I spoke with emphasized the role of peers in establishing and maintaining norms at school. When I interviewed Monifa Bandele, a Brooklyn-based community organizer and a senior vice president of the advocacy organization MomsRising.org, in 2018, her daughters were 16 and 19. The girls attended a Quaker school that in many ways aligned with the values the family embraced at home. But her daughters still had to learn to navigate what Bandele described as white-liberal racism, which tends to be practiced by progressives in denial of their own white-supremacist beliefs. Bandele and her husband were raised in families that organized against apartheid and created African-centered schools, so their children’s thinking around issues of race and power is well developed and generations in the making.
In her own journey as a parent, de Leon has chosen schools where her daughter can be surrounded by other black and brown children. De Leon was one of several mothers I interviewed who talked about the importance of curating and nurturing friend groups that provide their children with allies and positive reflections of themselves. “Going into the tween years, the beauty stuff is gonna hit hard,” she told me. “And when it does, I just need her to have brown girls around her.” Other families enroll their kids in after-school or community-based youth-development programs that provide lessons on the history of the African diaspora, trips to historically black colleges and universities, and other forms of cultural enrichment that their predominantly white schools do not.
My own daughter has just started preschool. I’m excited and feel I’ve done my due diligence in choosing a place that will value and support her. But I’ve also tucked away tips parents shared with me that may come in handy as she gets older. Maybe one day I, too, will need to tell my child to take pictures of her assignments before she turns them in, a safeguard against some teacher “losing” her work as a provocation or punishment. Maybe I’ll need to remind her that I’m always just a phone call away, and that she should never be the only child in a room of adults asking her questions that make her feel scared, embarrassed, or confused. Like generations of black mothers before me, I’ll think up ways to help my daughter feel safe and confident as she learns about this society and how to survive in it.
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Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.
Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.
The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.
As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.
As a child, though I could never quite name the offenses of white people, I could sense the wounds they had left all over the Black people who surrounded me. The wounds were in the lilt of Black women’s voices, in the stiffened swagger of our men; it was there in the sometimes ragged ways my boy cousins would be disciplined. And I knew this work of forgiving had somehow left bruises on my aunts so deep it made their skin shine. In church, we prayed and forgave white people like our prayers were the only thing between them, heaven, and damnation.It’s left me wondering: Does forgiveness take advantage of my people?***
Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy. So what happens when the performance of Black forgiveness gets repeated through several generations until it becomes ritualized and transformed into tradition?How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?
If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’
Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it.I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding.
How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.***In 1990, I was standing in Aunt Sarah’s basement, her linoleum floor corners peeling beneath the damp, dim light, her basement a ghostly type of cold. Being in Aunt Sarah’s basement often felt like being in a bunker. It always smelled wet like old snow resisting thaw, the ceiling low enough to give a tall man a backache. Thin layers of dust glimmered beneath the Morse code of flickering fluorescent lights, gripping the wood lacquer of the entertainment console.Aunt Sarah’s basement was filled with board games and decks of cards that neighborhood children would often come by to play with. Monopoly? Too vast in its pieces. The tiny colored discs of Connect Four? Too loud in their dropping clinks. Being 6, I trusted myself enough to accurately consider risk, weigh all options. It was simple, though. These games were not for me. Aunt Sarah and I both knew it. The contract between Aunt Sarah and me consisted of only two agreements: I would remain silent and invisible in her house.I knew the danger of the wrong game.I don’t know how cruelty finds us, but cruelty I incited in my Aunt. It seemed that every little thing I did set her off. I the flint, she the firecracker. If I spoke, her eyes would beat me like a switch pulled from a backyard tree. If Aunt Sarah wanted to teach me anything in this world, it would be my place.Easter breaks, when we were released from our Catholic school uniforms into the ether of our lives for two weeks, my parents would load my sister and me in the car and drive to Dayton to drop us off at my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rodge’s.
On those trips, I’d sit in the back, the synthetic velvet curtains of our Dodge Caravan windows splayed open as I considered escape routes, what it would take to disappear, anxiously rubbing my fingers against the curtain’s grain.Throughout our childhood, these drives from Akron to Dayton were a regular occurrence. My father’s mother and both his sisters lived there. Strife and the years my grandmother spent trying to get her children out of Alabama had banded the four of them together like cement. During my father’s and aunts’ youths, the extended family and community around them had been filled with men who found relief in the bruises they left on women, who . . .
Source: Theater of Forgiveness
Hafizah Geter | Longreads | November 2018
This is a mother who has made it by most standards, yet she cannot guarantee the safety of her offspring because of the color of their skin. She stands guard at a crossroads where past is present, the political is personal and the abstract or purely hypothetical is all too real. Like any parent, she wants her children, two boys, to be able to create a decent and happy life for themselves. Yet the “terrifying specter” of the white imagination means they are often not seen as individuals but instead are judged for being black — “subject to the larger white world’s constant evaluation as to whether or not you are worthy.” (She compiles a running list of criticisms and put-downs to which her kids are subjected: “Too mobile, too slow, too fast, inattentive. Why are you still in the bathroom? It takes you too long to pee. It takes you too long to remember this algorithm, this table. You hold the pencil too tight, you do not hold it tightly enough.”)
We hear echoes of Hansberry’s fictional family in “A Raisin in the Sun” debating the merits of moving to a white community versus allowing those would-be white neighbors to buy them off in exchange for staying put. Perry chose the former for her sons, along with its consequences. “You live in some worlds that are more white than black,” she tells them. “And so, you learn, early on, that the aversion to blackness can turn perfectly lovely people grotesque.”
A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry NYT Book Review
“The purpose of slave breeding was to produce new slaves without incurring the cost of purchase, to fill labor shortages caused by the termination of the Atlantic slave trade, and to attempt to improve the health and productivity of slaves. Slave breeding was condoned in the South because slaves were considered to be subhuman chattel, and were not entitled to the same rights accorded to free persons.”
“In many cases, CSP awarded grants to schools that never even opened, or closed soon after opening. In 2015, Innovative Schools Development Corporation pulled in a three-year federal grant for $609,000 to open a STEM school. The school promised to enroll 250 students, but it wanted to open in a county that already had twenty charter schools, and enrollment never topped thirty students, nor did it secure the rest of its needed funding. Its charter was revoked before it even opened.”