Representation matters: Race, education and a mother’s love

A mother reflects on privilege and the assumptions of worth that accompany skin colour in the US education system.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

My daughter was standing in front of the baby dolls in the toy aisle at our Pittsburgh Target. Although we go there regularly, falling prey to all the usual impulse buys – mega-packs of magic markers on sale for $2.99, leftover Reese’s peanut butter eggs – I make it a point never to buy toys. I do not want her to accumulate and then throw away box upon box of coloured plastic.

But that day was different. That day she pointed to a black baby doll, dressed for a bath with accompanying accessories. “I want that one,” she said.

I was delighted. I was also shocked. And then ashamed at being shocked.

The mix of emotions that overtook me was completely unexpected and disarming. I did not want any of it to show.

Very casually, I told her she could have it. Then I asked, trying to sound as detached as possible: “What do you like about that one?”

“She looks like Noey,” Elena told me, naming her best friend from school.

In the weeks that followed, as my five-year-old incorporated her new doll into the routine of baby play – elaborate pretend diaper changings, endless feedings of pretend mashed peas – I returned often to that initial moment. I had just finished writing a long magazine feature about race, and one of the central characters, an older African American woman in Cincinnati, had talked about always preferring white dolls to black ones growing up. Several of the other characters, older white women, had not even known black dolls existed. Now, in 2019, my Mexican-American daughter wanted a black doll.

We talk a lot about race at home. We talk about how her papi’s skin is brown, and her skin is brown, and my skin is white. We talk about how immigrants can be treated badly because of the colour of their skin. We are careful to choose books with protagonists – particularly girl protagonists – of colour. But still, something deeply ingrained in me was surprised that she expressed this preference so naturally, when it often seems our culture and society are constantly sending the message that white is both the norm and the ideal. When maybe it would still feel unnatural for me – based on how I lived the first 18 years of my life in essentially all-white rural and suburban environments – to choose the black doll.

I have come to believe that what made the difference for my daughter was not necessarily our teaching, conversations, or books, but something much simpler: Recognition of her own life, her community. Some of her closest friends are African American. They are her world at school.

Although our neighbourhood public school is very diverse, it is also notorious for a particular kind of contemporary racism: Most middle-class white kids end up in the gifted programme, bused out of school to study a different curriculum.

We were intentional in choosing a diverse school for Elena. It is a private school, a fact about which we have felt endlessly ambivalent. This year, kindergarten, was the first year we could have transitioned to the public school system. Although our neighbourhood public school is very diverse, it is also notorious for a particular kind of contemporary racism: Most middle-class white kids end up in the gifted programme, bused out of school to study a different curriculum, then transferring on to the gifted programme in the local magnet high school, so they have a school life utterly different from that of the “general population”, which is majority African American.

Several white parents who send their kids to this school have told me that “certain” students – some parents are explicit in mentioning race, others not – tend to have most of the discipline problems. I have heard more than one child who attends this school refer to “those kids” as “sticking to themselves”. I have heard a father say his daughter likes her class because she is “one of the good kids”. Despite this, I still wanted to send our daughter there. I thought it was the right thing to do.

‘She looks Mexican’

My husband Jorge, a dark-skinned, newly minted American citizen, stopped me.

“Don’t be so ignorant,” he told me. “Do you realise how she reads? How people see her?” He meant that our girl, with her twin black braids stretching down her back, with her beautiful brown eyes and thick black eyebrows, looks Latina.

I was forced then to recognise that I assume she seems white. Not because I want her to look this way, but because her skin is much lighter than Jorge’s and, in Mexico, she would be considered “guera” – or light-skinned.

To test my own biases I asked a group of friends how they see Elena, what they would think if they had just met her. There was an awkward pause that shocked me and said everything.

“She looks Mexican,” one explained, and of course, clearly, I knew this, I love and celebrate this about her. I have been asked before: “Where did you get your daughter?” as if she were a handicraft I had brought back from vacation. But I had somehow assumed that this was not an essentialising characteristic – it was like a folkloric Oaxacan blouse she might put on or take off.

I thought of Elena as both mine – blonde, white, Ohioan – and my husband’s – dark, brown, Indigenous. I gave birth to her, I made her body – I see myself in her. But many other people see mainly brown.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The weight of a rigged system

Before Elena started school, I had the same conversation on an endless loop with many parents in my neighbourhood: Where we would send our children, what we had heard about different institutions, the benefits and downsides to each.

Squirrel Hill is urban and diverse, a mix of high-end mansions in the north and humbler single-family homes, duplexes and apartments in the south, where we live. In the surrounding area, there are several private schools, a charter school so much in demand that the waiting list stretches into the hundreds, and a “good” public elementary, middle, and high school. I put “good” in scare quotes because its interpretation very much depends on the individual. The handful of white families I know who send their kids there shrug, “it’s good”, in an offhand way that suggests the closest synonym is adequate. All my friends of colour send their children to private school.

For a long time, I thought we were more or less in the same boat as these white families. Maybe not quite as well off financially – several of the parents worked for big tech companies – but more or less part of the same social-cultural-political ilk. If it was good enough for them, why would it not be good enough for us? Why would I not also make the choice to support public schools, to take on this particular issue of social justice? I thought of my daughter like I thought of their children – she comes from a stable home, we read a lot, we support her, she will be fine. I did not realise that different rules apply.

The law of whiteness is the law of perpetual motion - it is a constantly reinforced assumption with real results: The white boy in a mediocre third grade is presumed to be gifted and presumed to be better behaved and then presumed to be worthy of more pay, responsibility, home loans, car loans, credit.

These families all take it for granted that their kids will end up in the gifted programme, although they wring their hands about whether it is fair or not. They take it for granted that while their kids might not get the most competitive academic education possible, they will still come out on top.

The realisation that this is not necessarily true for my daughter was the first time I felt the full weight of the rigged system.

The law of whiteness is the law of perpetual motion – it is a constantly reinforced assumption with real results: The white boy in a mediocre third grade is presumed to be gifted and presumed to be better behaved and then presumed to be worthy of more pay, responsibility, home loans, car loans, credit. Brownness is more of a constant friction, a different kind of assumption of unworthiness, of inferiority. To be married to my husband, raising my daughter, is to be caught between the two, to demand of myself a constant awareness of opposing systems while trying not to oversimplify towards one end or the other.

I could not assume my daughter would be shepherded through a potentially discriminatory and academically uneven school unaffected; the diversity everyone raved about as a perk might not be a career asset for her but a method of tracking. How would our daughter be interpreted in the racial narratives of this school? Where would she fit? Would she, like most of the white kids, be “profiled in” to the gifted programme – that is, admitted by way of a teacher recommendation – if she did not have the requisite genius IQ? Would she be shunted to one part of the classroom or the other? What sort of racial narratives would she pick up?

I understood that I had been thinking, of course, like a white person. Like a progressive white urban parent, caught between a question of selfish benefit for my own family or a greater social good.

But Jorge was thinking like someone who has been told over the phone: “You’ll never get a home loan,” even though his income made our homeownership possible. Jorge was thinking like someone who grew up in a rural Mexican school where he was hit with a ruler. Jorge was thinking like someone who constantly, mostly calmly and quietly, battles the assumption that he is ignorant, poor, uneducated, undocumented, or undeserving. When I brought up my ethical dilemma about public school he scoffed: “White people have been hoarding opportunities forever! I didn’t have any opportunities! If I can give one to my daughter, I’m going to give it to her!”

At the intersection of identities

We are privileged to have a choice, unlike many Americans, about where to send our daughter to school, although as a freelance writer and photographer we likely will not be able to afford private school much longer, and definitely not without aid. Previously, I framed our privilege in terms of ethics: Would I check it by sending my daughter to a diverse public school with poor test scores and stats but a very active and committed PTA? Would I use it to take advantage of more competitive private schools?

But now I understand it differently.

Elena does not have the same privilege. She exists at the intersection of many conflicting backgrounds and categories – white, brown, middle-class, Mexican, American, rural, suburban, poor. How can we make decisions that take those many categories into account?

There are so many ways I have been blinded and still am by my own background – I have taken it for granted that my daughter will do fine in not-so-great rural public schools, like I did, or run-down urban schools, like I did, or small and high-quality suburban schools, like I did, even though she has a different heritage and skin colour. Even though we live in a very different historical moment in which millennials are worse off financially than their parents and our social safety net is increasingly thin and precarious. Even though white nationalism is at an all-time high and more mainstream than ever.

Over time I have seen just how much representation matters - and not simply as a badge of honour for white kids ... but as a very real affirmation for my child of her worth and belonging.

In the end, we stuck for one more year with the school she had attended, which is 40 percent students of colour, and where race does not seem as divisive an issue. One major impetus behind our decision was the fact that her teacher this year is African American and committed to running a classroom that values diversity. Their bookshelves feature kids of many races and backgrounds. They talk openly about race in ways appropriate for their educational level.

This school, like any school, is not perfect, and there are elements we like more than others. When we chose it at first, diversity was one major incentive, but so was the fact that it offered one of very few full-day preschool programmes and that we received financial aid. Yet over time, I have seen just how much representation matters – and not simply as a badge of honour for white kids, as “diversity” sounds good on a resume, but as a very real affirmation for my child of her worth and belonging.

On a recent visit to her classroom, her teacher was reading the book, Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox. The kids chimed in with their enthusiastic kindergarten non-sequiturs – “I have a dog!” “I like green apples!” – and also with unhesitant observations about who spoke what languages – two kids spoke Spanish, one Hindi, one Greek, one Italian – and the colour of their skin. Elena turned to me and grinned, pinching her arm. “I’m brown!” she said. Later, the kids all made pictures of themselves and wrote a sentence about the colour of their skin, listing colours from “hot chocolate” to “patatoes” (potatoes).

‘A teacher who looks like her’

In an early Democratic presidential debate, Kamala Harris cited a 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University and American University researchers which found that a black child who has one black teacher before the end of third grade is 13 percent more likely to go to college, and a child with two black teachers is 32 percent more likely to go. Black teachers, they discovered, expected black students to do better academically, and for the students, these expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.

My daughter is not black. But she is also, I have learned, not white – this sounds ridiculous and obvious, but until she started school I thought that perhaps she could read either way, as white or Latina. Now I see that the young white suburban women who make up the vast majority of elementary school teachers may unintentionally expect less of her. I also see that going to a school with other kids who look like her, with a teacher who looks like her, means she has the opportunity to internalise her own brownness as natural, unique, and good.

It means that, in spite of the current paroxysms of anti-immigrant vitriol, in spite of the overwhelming predominance of whiteness as a cultural given and norm, my daughter did not see a black baby doll as other.

Even when I had to hide my surprise, even when I had to confront my own background and bias, my daughter put the doll under her arm, carried her home, made her eat her pretend mashed peas, and gave her a sweet kiss goodnight.

Source: Al Jazeera

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