[This resonates with the experience of me and my parents in choosing what schools to send me to. Countless conversations with other white parents revolved around their concern, fear, and disdain for my parents’ choice in sending me to the least white high school in the county. “Do you feel safe?” we were asked, “Is she learning?”
Who was asking us these questions? This essay highlights interactions with white folks who would like to think they champion diversity. Norman peels back the hypocrisy of parents who want their children to experience diversity “on white terms,” to attend an orchestrated-rainbow school that isn’t “too black.” For our country to really make progress integrating schools, parents will need to align their school choice with their reaction to the This American Life story I shared and Norman references. My family and I do not tread the moral high ground here — we too made, and continue to make, flawed attempts at understanding diversity, dismantling oppression, and breaking apart our privilege. But I don’t regret where I went to school. It was formative and, for the record, just as safe.]
By Abby Norman
Last year when I attempted to pick my daughter up from school, the volunteers in the carpool line tried to put a fourth grader in my car, not the four year old I was attempting to retrieve. Both of us were vehemently shaking our heads, both of us looked totally confused, but the man with the radio would not be deterred. There are only a handful of white kids at my daughter’s school, and only two of them are car-riders. One of them gets picked up by her mom, the other, her dad. This white girl went with the white mom, and I was a white mom. This must be the right van.
This slightly awkward, but hilarious interaction strikes at the heart of the change in our neighborhood. While we were once one of the only white people in the neighborhood, most of the abandoned houses are now snapped up and fixed up by young white couples, often with kids. Those kids don’t go to our school.
Though my daughter is not the only white kindergartner in my neighborhood, she is the only white kindergartner in her class. My new neighbors, ones who come into the neighborhood raving about how much they love it, do not send their kids to the school. While they love my neighborhood, they do not love my school.
A friend and I were recently chatting about her move to the neighborhood next to mine. I was surprised that she didn’t even look across the dividing line road we live about two blocks from. She shrugged her shoulders, “yeah, I really like your house but our real estate agent said we shouldn’t even look there because of the schools.” Because of the schools. The school I send my daughter to. She did not look at the houses with more square footage and a smaller price tag because someone who has never been in the school doesn’t find it suitable.
This summer, when I told the other moms at the pool where my kids went to school, I was repeatedly told to move them. This from women who had never ever set foot in my school. They had not had contact with our deeply passionate, and very responsive principal, had not met the Pre-K teachers who my daughter loves more than Santa. They had not toured the various science labs, or listened as their child talked incessantly about robotics. They don’t know that every Tuesday, Juliet comes home with a new Spanish song to sing and bothers me until I look up the colors in Spanish if I can’t remember them from high school. Juliet loves her school. Her mother, a teacher at a suburban school, and her father, a PhD candidate at the state university, both find the school completely acceptable, more than acceptable. We love it, too.
But my neighbors will not send their kids there and my friends won’t even move into the neighborhood. They will whisper about it. They will tell their friends not to go there. They will even tell a stranger that she should move her kids immediately as they both wait for their children to come down the water slide. But they will not give the neighborhood school a chance. They will even go to great lengths to avoid the neighborhood school.
In July, through the neighborhood list serve I got invited to attend the charter school exploration meeting. A group of parents were attempting to start a charter school to center on diversity. They wanted a Spanish program and a principal that was very invested in the neighborhood. After inquiring I discovered the local elementary school had not even been contacted. The one with a principal who left his high profile high school job and came back to his neighborhood to an elementary school where he immediately implemented a Spanish language program. Before starting their own charter school, not one person had bothered even contacting the school already in existence. The school that has made huge strides, and could do even better with some parents who had this kind of time and know how. No one was interested in the school of the neighborhood.
The same people who were questioning the school I picked for my girls and starting their own charter school, wanted to talk to me about the This American Life Podcast about segregated schools. They wanted to talk to me about things I already knew. Our schools are more segregated than they have ever been. Our educational system is deeply inequitable. Things are only getting worse. They shook their concerned liberal heads in sadness wondering what they could do. Then they made sure their child got into the very white, pretty affluent charter school that is not representative of their neighborhood. When one didn’t exist, they took their resources and began creating one.
When I am able to move past the anger, the frustration that people are talking about a school they know nothing about, I listen to what they say. Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said is this: That school is too black.
The people who are moving into my neighborhood want their children to have a diverse upbringing, but not too diverse. They still want a white school, just with other non-white children also participating. They want to go to the Christmas pageant and not have their white sensibilities violated because the other parents are too loud and boisterous and it makes them uncomfortable, for really no good reason. They don’t want their kid to notice her whiteness in Pre-k and then find out while addressing that question, that while they already own great books about diversity, the only children’s books specifically about whiteness are published by the KKK. They don’t want their child to ask them why Quintavious’s sister says she doesn’t like white people. They don’t want to have to wonder when the teacher calls, if they are getting extra attention because white parents are often perceived as overbearing. They want diversity, just not too much.
And I get it. I do. It is hard to not always be comfortable in a place you had once thought of as completely familiar. It is weird when you and your child have some different cultural touchstones that you thought of as universal but are actually white (I am looking at you, birthday song.) It is kind of tricky to explain MLK day and black history month to a kindergartner who is the only one in her class that looks like the oppressor, the only kid that has benefited from the oppression being exposed. It is just way easier for white kids to talk about black history at a white school.
But why are we choosing easier and comfortable? White people get to be comfortable in most of American society. It took me until I was an adult to be somewhere white feelings were not centered. That stripping of privilege felt awful and unfair, even when it wasn’t. My kids already know what that is like.
It is a gift for my kids to learn in an environment where their experiences are not the experiences of the majority of the kids in the room. Amidst the discomfort, the worrying about what to tell my kid when she asks complicated questions about race in her simple vocabulary, I have found so many gifts. My child does not look side-ways at non-white names. She is not perplexed by non-white hair. (She is perplexed by why her mother won’t let her wear all those clicky and awesome beads.) She is talking about race, and it is not just for special occasions like MLK day or black history month. My child is getting a very good education in the classroom and on the playground. She knows about diversity because she is exposed to it, every day when we drop her off at school.
My neighbors and I don’t have to build a charter school for our children to experience diversity. But we do have to build a charter school in order for our kids to experience diversity on our terms. Really, if we are experiencing diversity on white terms, what good is that diversity anyway?
I hear my neighbors saying they value my neighborhood, they value diversity, and they value all kids getting a decent education. I just wonder when they will value those thing enough to give our neighborhood school a try.