Friday July 25 was my day off, I had a million errands to run, but I was gluttonously allowing myself to lay in bed and scroll through my social media feeds. My cousin had posted an article I instantly clicked on and devoured: My Son Has Been Suspended Five Times. He’s 3. The piece by Tunette Powell takes us through her year as a Black parent of two Black children enrolled in preschool who were both given multiple suspensions in response to their acting out. The author notes that her sons’ behavior was not acceptable (throwing a chair without hitting anyone, spitting on a classmate, hitting a teacher’s arm) and punished her boys at home as well. She blamed herself, she had been a “bad” preschooler herself, and she felt she wasn’t shaping her boys to be any better. But then at another preschooler’s birthday party when talking about her sons’ suspensions with the White mothers of his White classmates, she made an upsetting discovery: none of the other (again, White) children had been suspended that year for similar or even worse behavior (i.e. hitting a classmate with an object so hard the other child had to go to the hospital, and the parent only getting a phone call).
Powell doesn’t think her son’s preschool is run by tyrannical racists- she knows early childhood educators care very deeply about children- but what she suggests is that even educators with the best of intentions have internalized racism, and thus inadvertently interact with their students in racist ways.
It was an honest and balanced essay that brought up some really important issues all educators need to think about. So naturally I shared it with the Storytime Underground Facebook group. And then the comments started rolling in, leaving me quite a bit gobsmacked. Commenter after commenter took the blame off of the pre-school and placed it all on Tunette Powell. People wanted to be clear throwing chairs was unacceptable and needed to be punished, which as I said before, Powell herself agreed with throughout this process. People suggested that the problem with children acting out is parents not disciplining well enough at home; which, while that can be true, in this case Powell disciplined her sons in tandem with the suspensions they received, so it didn’t seem to be necessary to point out in response to this article. One particularly upsetting commenter suggested that Powell “invented evidence” that her sons were treated differently than their white peers.
And this is when I remembered where I was, not a utopian community of educators dedicated to challenging themselves and their attitudes to improve the experience of the children they work with; this is real life where multiple educators would make excuses and deflect blame rather than believe a Black mother.
It was easier for many of my peers to call a Black mother a liar then it was to trust her that she and her children had experienced racism. All those commenters found a narrative about “casual racism” unbelievable, which is troubling, because casual racism should be the most believable thing; it occurs every day. We’re not talking about burning crosses and pointed white hoods as markers of today’s everyday racism; we’re talking about asymmetrical treatment of people of color by police, by employers, and by the education system. Racism adapts, but white people’s view of what is ‘real’ racism hasn’t.
We, the members of Storytime Underground are aware of the disparities within American Education, are we not? You’re all with me when I talk about how illiteracy rates in kindergarten are disturbingly accurate markers for incarceration rates of the same individuals when they come of age (The “Preschool to Prison Pipeline” Powell mentions in her article), right? I don’t lose you when I point out that a disproportionate number of children entering kindergarten with low literacy skills are Black, correct? So why is it that, when a Black mother tries to suggest that preschool teachers have treated her Black children differently than White children, so many of us want to give that behavior a reason, any reason, besides racism? I fear it’s because it is hard for a lot of us White people to believe a Black woman’s telling of her own experiences with racism. I fear further that it’s because to admit that Black children are treated differently by early educators implicates us, and we are not ready or willing to accept that fault.
Of course throwing chairs is unacceptable behavior and needs to be treated as such. Of course teaching children how to be respectful and responsible people starts with the parents. Nobody, not Powell, not myself, is arguing that any children should be able to act out in disruptive ways without disciplinary responses. What Powell was saying, and what I am agreeing with, is that well-meaning early childhood educators treat Black children with more severity than they treat White children. And if your instinct right now is to give examples of how that is not true, or excuse behavior that might be construed as racist, then please STOP. Take a breath.
I, as a White person, find racist prejudices and ideas within myself. I grew up in a society that taught me a lot of messed up things about people of color, and in particular Black people. I don’t want to be racist, but that want does not make these internalized oppressive ideas disappear; to not be racist I need to admit that I am racist and then work tirelessly to change myself.
So if you are trying to reason away why a similar situation in your library wasn’t at all racist: I am challenging you to just entertain the idea that even though you don’t mean to, even though you can explain it another way, there’s a possibility that you have treated some of the children you work with differently at least in part because of their race. It’s only from that place that we might be able to do the work we need to do to be anti-racist educators working in a fair system. It’s only from that place that Powell’s article could stand on its own without this White lady-authored essay to back it up. And I hope we can do that work. Because Tunette Powell, her boys, and all the millions of Black children out there deserve so much more.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…
Here are some contemporary black voices on racist experiences:
Clifton, Derrick. 17 Things All White People Need to Know About #YesAllBlackPeople. A fairly comprehensive article on The Daily Dot about “casual” or “everyday” Anti-Black racism, how White people often don’t beleive Black narratives about their experiences with such racism, and then goes into the 17 point list.
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Choosing one bell hooks book to put on this list was a bit arbitrary, she is a brilliant and prolific writer who focuses on the intersection of race and gender. This book explores how Black women experience racism and sexism in our society.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. A basic look at the development of current Black identity and biracial identity, and a look and tensions between Black and White communities.
Since I used a Reading Rainbow reference to kick off this list, I’m also recommending this clip of Levar Burton explaining the talk he had with his son about how to interact with police officers, which epitomizes how racism affects Black people everyday.
Here are some white voices talking about trying to be anti-racist:
McIntash, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible Backpack. This is the quintessential first published article about white privilege. She explains what white privilege is through both an essay and a list of things white people take for granted that we have day-to-day.
Rothenberg, Paula S. White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. Rothenberg is the editor for this anthology of multiple writings about white privilege. This is an entry level, no nonsense, plain language exploration of the topic.
Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Tim White has written a number of books about White privilege. This book is a personal look at how White privilege operates in America.
Maggie Block is a YA librarian in Houston Texas. When she’s not talking about race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability with her friends she’s usually doing it on twitter @wolfielibrarian or occasionally on her blog radbooksradkids.wordpress.com.