By Megan Seifert and Ambrose Tuscano
Editor’s note: Megan and Ambrose’s story is also featured in direct interview format in an episode of Moonshine Minutes, our radio show in partnership with Tahoe Truckee Radio on 101.5. Find all episodes at the ‘multimedia’ tab on our site.
Given our history, it’s no surprise that issues surrounding race continue to negatively affect America, especially non-white Americans. Recent protests about glaring inequalities in our nation’s society and a pandemic disproportionately affecting those with black and brown skin, not to mention an unearned prominence of white supremacist groups and ideas in recent years, make it clear that racism is still far too common. While a nationwide dialogue might help open more white Americans’ eyes to the evils of racism, the most effective way to reduce and eventually end racism in the country is by properly educating school-aged children on the history of slavery, segregation, and oppression in our country.
However, currently (and this feels strange to write in the 21st century) American schools do not have a mandate to educate their students about racism. That’s not to say that some teachers don’t do an excellent job incorporating positive messages about racial equality into their classroom and that some courses don’t touch on inequities of the past, but it’s not nearly enough. At a statewide level, our schools are not expected to address racism specifically. They are, in effect, silent about race. And into that vacuum — a vacuum in which our children spend a significant number of their waking hours — so many uneducated ideas about racial stereotypes and racial superiority appear and are passed around as fact. How are young children who have not even started to study history (or those who have) supposed to understand the toxic, violent baggage that racist ideas carry? And most importantly, if we want to live in a country without racism, do we dare continue, as we’ve done since the beginning of public education, to assume that educating children about race is solely the job of parents and guardians? Only if we want to continue to fail on racial equality as a country.
Why do we believe we’re failing on race in this country? Well, there are the obvious signs that have led to protests and riots in recent weeks, there are the statistics about pay, incarceration, career advancement, etc., there are anecdotes that most people of color could tell about being targeted by racist behavior. But for us, what really made the failure crystal clear was when, seemingly out of the blue, our 6-year-old son used race to demean another student in his class.
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We all saw the news during, and in the months following, the 2016 presidential election; racism was more openly expressed and more tolerated by those in power. As troubling as it was, we really thought that it didn’t apply to our liberal little California mountain town bubble; we certainly didn’t think it would touch our family.
Then it did.
In first grade, our son Griffin had a good friend Chloe Jaborski in his class. Chloe is biracial; her mother Avril is black and her father Matt is white. She was the only black student in the school at that time.
One day, Griffin and another boy were working at a table with Chloe. As we later learned, the other boy said to her that she should go back to Mexico where she belonged. He then encouraged Griffin to tease her also. Griffin thought that the boy was cool and that Chloe would never tell on him because they were friends and she was so nice. Griffin ended up telling her that he didn’t like the color of her skin.
Thankfully, Chloe’s family had taught her to stand up for herself. She was afraid of the other boy, but was not afraid of Griffin. She went to the teacher and told her what Griffin had said to her. When prompted, Griffin reluctantly told the teacher everything that happened. Another teacher brought the three kids into the office and told them that no one had the exact same skin and that skin color doesn’t matter.
And that was it. From the school’s perspective, the issue was essentially a closed case. Unfortunately for us, but especially for Chloe and her family, it was anything but, and we found ourselves asking for a more thorough response to the incident, not to mention some new ideas about prevention. Wouldn’t the best possible outcome be turning the sad episode into a learning opportunity for the kids involved, certainly, but also for the whole school or community?
After Griffin’s teacher told us (and Avril) a general version of what had happened, including the phrase, “kids being kids” to assure us that it wasn’t a big deal, we were appalled and devastated. First, we turned to our son with some very hard questions. After an hour-long conversation, with Griffin crying the entire time for himself and eventually, for Chloe too, we had heard all the details. It was clear and plausible that Griffin had no idea of the weight of what he had said. He had zero notion of the baggage of racist language, but he learned at least some of it that night. What we realized with crystal clarity then was that any kid can use racist language, especially if they haven’t been properly educated about the awful history (and present) of systemic racism in this country. Clear too was the fact that we had failed to provide our child with such an education. Had you asked us the day before, we both would have said that we were raising our kids to be good, tolerant people. If you’d asked whether our child would ever say what he said, we would have said it was impossible.
And yet, there we were.
The only thing to do in that awful moment was to connect with the ones we had hurt. Fortunately, Avril responded to a text and said we could come over to their house. We drove there immediately, worked through the story of what had happened (which Avril had not gotten fully from the school), and apologized profusely. Avril, Matt, and Chloe told us they knew this day would come, but they didn’t think it would happen so soon. We told them we never thought this day would come, at least not as a result of something our child would say, and that we were so sorry it had happened. It wasn’t enough, but it was all we could do, and Avril thankfully gave us a few ideas on how to talk about racism with kids, ideas of how to educate ourselves, and ideas for diversifying the books we had in our house.
The next few months were terrible for Avril, Matt, and their family. There was no follow-up from the school, the Jaborskis were ignored, and no one from the school even got in touch to see if they were okay. There was no follow-up with the kids at school either nor any lessons about racism. We and the Jaborskis all assumed that the school had an obligation to do something, but the issue was pretty much brushed off.
At some point that spring Avril told us they were leaving, moving to a bigger city with more diversity. She said that they couldn’t stay at a school where no one addressed racism with the students and no one did anything to address it when it happened. Their reasoning made perfect sense, but it didn’t make their situation any easier to accept. They had done nothing wrong, yet somehow were the ones whose lives were upended by the incident our son had helped create.
The official silence and the unfairness of the situation helped open our eyes to how systemic racism works and how it flies below the radar of so many white people. If you never hear about racism (because it’s ignored, suppressed, denied), and it’s never negatively affecting you, it’s a pretty easy thing to overlook or downplay. And that’s perhaps the most insidious thing about it.
Our kids are still at the school and we are still hoping for and working for change. The problem of racism did not stop when the Jaborskis left. Our son brought forward an incident the following year in which two boys in his class were using the N-word on the playground. We immediately brought this incident to the school’s attention but were told that it was a trigger issue because of our friendship with the family that had left. And again we were told that the kids were just kids.
The problem is, eventually kids grow up. And if responsible adults don’t intervene, they can too easily grow up to be racists with the potential to do untold harm in their lifetimes.
In the end, the school did talk to just the one class about the N-word and how it is not appropriate for school. Clearly, they could and should have done more. Ignoring the issue and not talking about race at school sends a message to kids that it is okay to be intolerant of others.
Meeting racist language with the same kind of consequence as the use of potty talk at school is a false equivalency that may have been made unintentionally, but was absorbed by the kids involved nonetheless.
So, what have we learned from these experiences?
First, parents raising young kids to be color blind, rather than anti-racist, is a dangerous strategy. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, because that’s exactly what we thought we were doing, and it worked great … until it didn’t. In our minds, there would be a day, sometime in the future, always, in which it would be easier to talk to our kids about race and racism, a time when they could understand and not be too shocked by all of the awful history our country has accumulated. Instead, this happened, and our son caused a tremendous amount of harm to one child and one family, and it’s our fault as parents for not educating him sooner. If you’re waiting for the right time to have an open discussion with your kids about race, there is no better time than now. There are others better equipped than us to say what the contents of that discussion should be, but one clear message should be that “teasing” about race is different than other kinds of typical kid behavior, and needs to be treated as such.
Second, schools have an obligation to provide racism education. While we were disappointed with how this situation was handled by our school, in retrospect it’s hard to say that the school was well prepared by the district, the state, or the federal government. But why? With the exception of a very few open, proud racists who are so on the margins of society that their voices do not matter, white America is united in denouncing racism. Problem is, we seem to be really bad at not behaving and speaking in racist ways. Until we, as a state or country, get serious about giving kids a foundation in understanding the current toll of racial inequity, the thousands of ways racism harms individuals, we’re going to be stuck in this moment, this cycle. So let’s use schools, the centers of education in every community, to do something really hard, but really essential.
Shouldn’t educating Americans about race be as important as any subject currently taught in school? Would anyone really disagree with the message “All [people] are created equal” being instilled in American children in whatever way experts agree will reduce and eventually end racism as we know it?
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~ Meg and Ambrose are both graduates of Davidson College in NC, where they first met. Meg has a Ph.D. in zoology from Washington State University and is the Executive Director of Headwaters Science Institute. Ambrose is an English teacher at Sugar Bowl Academy and the editor of the American Whitewater Journal. They have two kids, Griffin (9) and Mari (6) and the family loves to adventure together in the Tahoe region and beyond.
Here are a few resources for parents, schools, teachers… anyone that is ready to make a change in their own lives and the lives of their kids.