She was 5 years old

From the moment I sent my oldest daughter to school, I knew the day would come, when she would come home and tell me that someone said something to her about her skin color. Why did I know? Because it happened to me as a kid growing up in a predominately white school, and even though you don’t want to hear this – things haven’t changed much in the past 50 years. I knew the day would come, but I didn’t think it would happen in her first year of school, when she was five years old.

It was one of the days that I picked her up from school. She got in the back of the van and climbed into her car seat. Then in the two miles from the school to our house she told me about her day, which included one of her classmates telling her that he could be mean to her because of the color of her skin. The goal was the hold my shit together until we got in the house and I could get her teacher on the phone. The teacher called me first.

She said it was the worst day of her teaching career. She tried so hard to build a sense of community in her classroom. They brought in the school social worker to talk to the kids and celebrating how we are different yet all the same. She said she had had other members of this student’s family in her classroom before and never had experienced this type of behavior from the other kids. They are a nice family. It was the worst teaching day of her life.

When racist things happen like this with kids, we want to know where they learned this behavior. We want a reason and the first one we come to is: It had to be in the home. The reason we don’t want to hear, and what we fail to see is: that anti-blackness is all around us. I didn’t have the language for this 10 years ago, but I do now. What I wish I would have said to the teacher is that this student was pointing out the facts of life that he had already figured out at the age of five. This little white boy had already picked up all the signals he needed to know that it is better to be a white male in America than it is to be Black in America. He was taking advantage of an opportunity to say out loud to the one kid in the class that fit the bill. He didn’t learn it at home. He learned it from simply living in America.

We have known this decades. Do a search for “doll study” or Mamie and Kenneth Clark, or the Independent Lens documentary American Denial: An American Dilemma. You will learn about the anti-black messages that are all around us and effect us all. It is in the language we use: black and darkness are bad and scary, while white and lightness are good. It is in coded language of your community. Where I live it is the language of city vs county. The “good” schools are in the county, which are primarily white. Meaning the “bad” schools are in the city where there is a lot more diversity. The message of anti-blackness comes from the norm of beauty being white. Anti-black messages come from the white savior complex, and is reinforced in movies like The Blind Side (see explanation on pages 96-98 in Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility). The impact of these messages are clearly seen in the doll study when both white children and black children prefer the white doll. The impact on my family was that when my daughter was five her classmate told her that he could be mean to her because of the color of her skin.

Some of you who are reading this don’t believe me that we are surrounded by anti-black messages. I’m asking you to take a week and look around. Notice who is usually in the center. Take a week and listen. Listen for the different language used to describe BIPOC, as compared to white people doing the same activities. Take a week and try to understand the messages American culture sends that empowered one five year old to say to another – I can be mean to you because of the color of your skin.

One thought on “She was 5 years old

  1. doctorjoellepretty says:

    It’s important to me to remember that those messages that first grader was picking up on are constantly bombarding me STILL, perhaps moreso now. The cycle of socialization into racism doesn’t stop, so I have to be ever more vigilant about reflection and action for justice and equity.

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