A few months back, when I was still working in direct contact with the public as a banker, I had a woman come sit down at my desk. She was wearing a shirt with the logo of my elementary-aged son’s school district on it, and she told me proudly that she worked for one of his neighboring elementary schools.
I like talking to people who enjoy their jobs, so I started asking questions, and she was happy to answer. Pretty soon, she was happily telling me how awful it was to have to work with a school full of minorities. She went from how weird and bad the children smelled, to how weird and unwieldy their names were. And I stared.
In my mind’s eye, I could see all these little children, lined up in her care, while she sniffed at them, and curled her lip at their names–sweet boys and girls, who had done nothing to her, other than show up to school. I imagined my son among them.
My son has a very normal, blase name, and he generally smells like soap, but sometimes like wet dog. I pictured his kindergarten face, all eager nerves, worried and excited, scared, but hopeful because I had promised him school was a place where he would learn all kinds of exciting new things. He would learn math, which would help him build robots. He would learn to read, which would mean he could study for a driver’s test and learn to drive a car. He would learn science, which would mean he could learn chemical compounds that would make explosions. And he would make friends, and even though some days he might rather stay home, school was going to be a good place, and he could trust the grown-ups there.
I worried about him, of course, but I never worried that anyone would look at him and discriminate against him based on his appearance. That never even occurred to me. That’s White Privilege. It never even crossed my mind that a member of his school’s staff would look at him and wrinkle her nose because he’s a little white boy. Of course he belongs.
The woman at my desk took my silence for approval, and she got animated about how disturbed she was by these minorities who were taking over the school and our city, and started ticking off fingers about how horrible immigrants were, and how these weird immigrant religions meant weird immigrant accommodations, and I felt the heat rising in my body, and knew that my chest, neck and cheeks were turning red.
She was talking about children aged five- to eleven-years-old. Children. Babies. And she was talking about them like they were dogs.
Those children have just as much right to an education, to THAT education as my son does. Their parents pay the same taxes I do. Their parents moved to this city for the schools just like I did. Those mothers and fathers probably had the exact same conversations my husband and I did as we considered our finances, and decided what changes, and cuts we could make in order for this school district to be a possibility for our son. That woman wouldn’t have said boo to our child for the sole fact that he is white.
I said as much as I could and still remain professional, ended our conversation, and bid the woman a nice day. I was firm, and clear that I did not agree with her, but still had to shake her hand before she left because that was my job. Then I sat there, stewing in the filth she’d carried into my office. I was one part livid, one part mortified, and two parts Alabama Ugly. So, when I got home, after I’d had a few more hours to think about it and cool down, and consult with my wiser Lady Friends (and get all het up again), I wrote the school district.
You know I’m not perfect. I make a lot of mistakes on a daily basis. I don’t pretend I’m a saint. I’m not. If I’ve learned anything about my own privilege and about my own accidental racism and bigotry, it’s been through making mistakes, and being fortunate enough to be called out on them. It is a blessing to be told when your dress is caught in the waistband of your pantyhose, and it is a blessing to be told when you are showing your ass as a human being.
I had my metaphorical dress caught in my pantyhose for a lot of my life. I am thankful to the people who took me aside and told me. And keep telling me.
I was incredibly relieved when the school district responded to me, and–is proud the right word? Proud that they took swift, and appropriate action? Should I be proud that they did the right thing? I’m not proud of the restaurant manager, when he comps my meal after I find a bug in my soup because that’s just the right thing to do. Still, I was proud of the administrators who took me seriously, and moved to right the wrong.
Honestly, I’d been afraid they wouldn’t care. I was elated that they had.
It breaks my heart to think that any child might go home from school, that eager nervousness turned to confused shame because of something an authority figure has said to make them feel less-than. My heart breaks for the mothers who have to dry those tears, and watch their children try to contort themselves into the shapes these ignorant grown-ups have told them are the right ones.
A friend of mine put another school situation so eloquently, so I give you her words: I so despair of bright copper penny girls who are pummeled into thinking they are stupid by systems that just. don’t. work. It’s like those penny squish-ers at tourist places. For 26 cents you can ruin a penny, when a penny was perfectly fine in the first place.
Guard your bright copper pennies, Parents. And help guard their peers. All the children are our children. All of them.