I pick up my son from school every day. He attends kindergarten in the Upper East Side. Because it’s the Upper East Side, the majority of the students are white. There are a smattering of Asian kids and maybe a half dozen black and brown children. I have seen one black child so I’m only guessing at the actual number. It is extremely segregated. The only black and brown people you see in this part of the world can be found in the playground working as nannies, taking care of white children. You also find them in the custodial staff of your apartment building, opening doors or manning the front desks as concierges. They take your order in the bagel shops, taco restaurants, or Duane Reade. What you will rarely see is a black or brown family walking down 1st Avenue or rushing to catch the F train at the 63rd and Lexington stop to get to work. There are a lot of dogs in this part of Manhattan. There are many more dogs that live in the overpriced UES neighborhood than there are people of color.
I picked up my son from school one day when a classmate of his, walking ahead of us by a few feet, turned around and pulled the outer corners of his eyes away from his face. I blinked a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I didn’t say anything to my son. I didn’t stop the father who hadn’t seen what his son had done. I didn’t do anything for a while.
Despite all my bluster about calling out racists, talking about the hard topics, and taking responsibility for my first amendment rights, I still fell back on my old habit of not making waves, not kicking up a fuss, keeping the “wrong” attention from falling on me. Being a good little Asian. I didn’t want to be the person to call out a kid for acting like a racist, to make the teacher uncomfortable by insisting she do something about it. This young, white woman in her first year of kindergarten teaching who seems sweet and so terribly green.
But I decided to tell my son’s teacher about what happened. She didn’t ask for the identity of the kid. She didn’t want to know and I obliged her. She didn’t offer to call the parents and I didn’t think to suggest it. She thanked me for telling her. I said thank you for listening. She didn’t offer a followup to update me on how she was planning to address the racist targeting of my child and potentially every other child of color in her classroom and beyond. I expected nothing from her. And she was fine with that.
But then I changed my mind. I have sharp, woke, supportive friends, who reminded me of my rights and responsibilities.
After discussing the incident with friends, who also happen to be teachers in the public school system in NYC, I realized I have every right to expect an action plan from the teacher to address the racial targeting my kid experienced. They were not surprised, but appalled, that this shit went down in kindergarten. They also insisted that I should have pointed out the child to the teacher so that she could, not only keep an eye on him, but also contact his parents and tell them what’s up so they could talk to him about racism and tell their kid racist gestures is not okay.
They reminded me that this was the one time that I saw it. Did I really believe that the one time this kid made this gesture was the only time?
So I emailed my son’s teacher asking her what she planned to do about the racial targeting. I told her who the kid was. I asked her to tell his parents about what their kid did.
She responded with a request for a phone call meeting. She was confused as to why we were pursuing this line of inquiry. She thought the matter was closed since I told her about it. She was right to assume that. I had given her that impression. Had Henry had another incident? No. But that’s beside the point. She was suggesting that the issue was only worth pursuing if the racial targeting happened more than once. I found this ridiculous. If parents are getting emails about kids punching each other in line or spitting on each other, I told her, this incident more than warranted an email, too. What did we want her to do? Call the kid’s parents and explain what he did. Were we okay with her telling them who the targeted child was? Yes.
The takeaway from that conversation was that she didn’t think it was a big deal. She thought I was making a fuss, being a pain. A helicopter mom. Maybe even a tiger mom. She didn’t want to do anything about what happened. She felt uncomfortable having to tell another family that their kid acted like a racist. She resented my emailing her and asking her to make herself uncomfortable.
Truth is, it made me uncomfortable, too. But I’m glad I did it. Because you know what is worse than her discomfort? Worse than the mortification the parents of that kid will feel at the news of their son’s behavior? Worse than the awkwardness those white parents will feel for three minutes while they talk to their son? The alarm, the offense, the rage I felt when I had to witness a five year old white boy make slanty eyes at my Asian son, right in front of me. My son didn’t even know what was happening. I had to experience a microagression from a kindergartner through my five year old, who I hadn’t yet had the talk with about how, in what ways, and why he will be racially targeted as he moves through the world. I was ambushed with this racist gesture on a beautiful weekday afternoon in Manhattan while walking home with my son.
To all white parents out there, wakey wakey. Your kids are internalizing the racism that is inherent in our culture. They see that most of the kids at their school are white. They see that almost all of their teachers are white. They see that most of the people walking down the street in the UES are white. They see that the people who get on the elevators with them to go home are white while the men in the blue uniforms who vacuum the carpets and take out the trash are black or brown. They see that all the nannies and grounds keepers and restaurant workers, cashiers, delivery people, bus drivers are brown or black. They see that the people who service their moms and dads are black or brown. They see that the dry cleaners are all East Asians. They are learning about the racial order of the world. They are learning about racial hierarchy. They are learning the offensive gestures and words that express those racist ideas. They probably don’t understand what they see and certainly it will be years before they understand the full significance of the ideas they are gulping down daily from the cultural river we all drink from. These racist ideas are in plain view for them to take in, and they are gulping it down because our culture pours it out for everyone. They are subconsciously constructing the world view provided by white supremacy. You think your kids are sponges? They are sucking up this poison every day. That’s what their little brains do. And it’s incumbent upon you to administer the antidote every chance you get.
If it makes you uncomfortable, if you tell yourself that your kids are too young to have the race talk, you’re probably white and privileged and you think it’s not relevant. Not yet. And believe me when I tell you it’s because you don’t have to deal with racism every single day. I understand your hesitation to bring up this unsavory and uncomfortable topic with your kids. I don’t like doing it with my kids. It makes me, not only uncomfortable, but deeply sad. They look so innocent. They are innocent. But pretending that they don’t see what’s up is a delusion. If you are truly an ally to people of color, start talking to your kids, kids as young as five. Being an ally means you actively work to dismantle racism and reject white privilege whenever you can. Use your judgement about how much and to what depth you should talk about race and racism with your kids, but start talking. Otherwise, you make people like me have to do all the heavy lifting while you sit on the sidelines with your popcorn, shaking your head, but keeping your hands clean.
Ask yourselves: Why should you and your kids be comfortable while me and my kids are being racially targeted? Why do you think your kids are more innocent and sensitive and delicate than mine? Why should your kids be allowed to move through the world as if everything is safe and wonderful while my son’s has already been made less so? What makes your kid so special?
They’re not. Just like your comfort isn’t more important than mine.
UPDATE: We asked for an update on what actions have been taken since our phone meeting with the teacher. She has called the parents and we will also be meeting with her and the principal next week. Update from that meeting will be forthcoming.