African American children today are living in a nation that preaches equal opportunity for all, while practicing a policy of white privilege and black suppression. In every aspect of American life, children are programmed to see white people as the norm and to see black people as less than this norm. All around us are negative messages about African Americans. Rarely do newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and television programs present the millions of African Americans who go to work everyday and make great contributions to themselves and to this country. Very seldom do the media outlets discuss white privilege and racial pro ling that assume innocence on the part of Europeans and guilt on the part of African Americans. Nor do we hear about “white privilege” that propels European Americans to the top regardless of their background and qualifications.
Whether in the poor house or the White House, African Americans are treated as outsiders. They are appreciated when the majority society wants someone to entertain, play basketball, clean, cook, take care of children, or do hard and dangerous work. They are under-appreciated when they are equipped with stellar qualifications, when they use their brains, and when they have positions of leadership.
None of this is lost on our children. In segregated neighborhoods they see limited options. In desegregated neighborhoods, they are often among so few black people that they are prone to think about African Americans, and even the color black, in the same way that their white schoolmates think. As a result, we hear them make self- negating statements that shock us; statements that make us stop and think about how they reached certain conclusions.
I have noticed these statements and conclusions among my own children, even as my husband and I worked tirelessly to give them a deep understanding of African American history and exposed them to outstanding African American role models. Unfortunately, this exposure did not seem to shield my children from moments of negative self-identification.
I recall my first-born at four years old watching a telephone repairman as he restored a phone line outside our house. I was shocked when my child declared, “When I grow up, I will turn white and be a telephone man, too.”
My second-born made similar statements. One day we were driving to another city behind a car that was moving much slower than the minimum highway speed limit. When my husband started to pass the car, our son said, “Stop, Daddy, don’t do that. You’ll get in trouble for passing a white person.”
Over the years, I have heard these statements from African American children in my neighborhood, at my church, and in my high school classes. I recall a good friend’s son who was the only African American in his middle school. In one year, three pairs of sticks for his snare drum, two pairs of gym shoes, and one calculator were stolen from his locker. He never verbally assigned a color to the face of the person(s) who stole them. One day when he and his mother were driving through a neighborhood that is predominantly African American, he said, “Let’s lock the doors. These people steal.”
I am reminded of my young friend Karen, a chemistry professor at a local university, who dropped her daughter o at a highly ranked daycare center every day. One cold morning as she kissed Sarah “Good bye,” Karen said, “Sweet Heart, I miss you everyday. One of these days I’m going to stay here and be your teacher.” Her daughter’s response was, “Mommy, you can’t do that. You have to be white to be the teacher.”
With video recordings of police officers killing unarmed African American males in the past few years, many Children of Color are afraid. Some have nightmares about these killings and others verbalize their fears when awake. A colleague was driving her 11-year-old son to the library when she noticed him slumped over in the back seat of the car. He had slumped down when he saw a police car on the side of the road. “If the police don’t see me,” the child said, “they won’t shoot me.”
While African American children are feeling left out and inadequate, most European American children are feeling privileged because of their white skin. A European American friend recently told me she was aware of white privilege as early as the first grade when she watched it work to her advantage. Several white boys had been disrupting the class by passing gas, and they all sat on the far side of the room. Rebecca was at a table with two other white girls, two white boys, and an African American boy named Charles. One day Rebecca passed gas and the noise caused the class to laugh. The teacher looked at her table and said, “Who did that?” Rebecca knew that if she just sat quietly, Mrs. Schultz would blame Charles. A few seconds later, Mrs. Schultz said, “Charles, go to the office.” Ashamed that she let Charles get blamed for what she did, Rebecca did not tell this story until she was in college.
In the next post, I’ll discuss a similar story that took place with my grandson and shook me to my core, in this so called “post-racial” era.