In the past year, white families have become increasingly aware of the fact that people of color continue to be mistreated in U.S. society. The shootings of black men and youth like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Brown, coupled with campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter, triggered deeper attention to other pervasive and insidious forms of structural inequality.
For example, children of color are frequently mistreated in school. In incidents that teachers and school authorities might characterize as misbehavior, children of color are rarely given the benefit of the doubt that white children often receive. This is reminiscent of the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had a toy gun—an air rifle—in his waistband when police killed him. I find it almost impossible to imagine that a white child in the same setting would have been fatally wounded by police within two seconds, then denied any form of medical aid while his devastated sister looked on.
The fact that black children are rarely given the benefit of the doubt from authority figures in our cultural institutions means that nationwide, they are 3.5 times more likely than white youth to be suspended or expelled from school for comparable infractions—even at the preschool level. Although black children make up only 18% of preschoolers, they constitute nearly 50% of all out-of-school suspensions from preschools.
This is a shocking pattern with long-term implications for children of color. Denying them an education equal to their white peers’ creates more problems than it solves. Over-disciplining them risks (among other things) creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, prompting kids to view themselves as troublemakers or worse when, really, they’re no more troublesome in behavior or attitude than their light-skinned peers are.
The good news is that state boards of education are paying closer attention to these types of disparity. For example, in October 2014, state investigators determined that black children in a Portland, Oregon school district were consistently being over-disciplined in comparison to their peers. In consequence, the State punished the school district by requiring them to use $1.5 million of their federal funding for sensitivity training—a significant penalty.
The bad news is that such sanctions are often ineffective. In fact, the State of Oregon punished the Portland, Ore. school district similarly in 2011, but those previous sanctions apparently made no difference. Critics lamented that the sensitivity training the district employed had been inane-–for example, focusing not on crucial matters, but on matters such as raising awareness that children from non-white backgrounds might be less likely to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
As a result, some white parents who are anti-racist allies are scrutinizing their schools’ punishments of their own children, thinking critically about whether their children are benefitting from white privilege.
What follows is a guest post on this subject from a Jill, a regular reader of this blog who identifies as white. Jill is conscious of the ways in which her small, blonde daughter might receive unjustified lenience from her school when she misbehaves, and she wished to share her thinking on the subject. Read on to learn more on how one mom is approaching her daughter’s lenient treatment by her school.
White Privilege in Elementary School Conflicts:
A guest blog post by Jill
The week before winter break, I got one of those emails from my seven-year-old daughter’s teacher. Another parent had complained to the teacher that my daughter had punched her daughter.
I’d like to say that I couldn’t believe it, but I did. My seven year old isn’t a hellion, but she has a lot of energy, a very fluid appreciation for other people’s boundaries, and difficulty keeping her hands to herself. She’s also very strong.
Of course, her dad and I have been working with her on all these issues and she understands what she can and can’t do. Sometimes, though, she forgets.
At first, I was furious and embarrassed. I called the other child’s mother to apologize unreservedly. I emailed my husband to let him know what had happened and emailed the teacher to say thanks for letting us know what was going on. And then, I had to sit and think. I had an hour before I was due to pick my daughter up at the bus stop, and I wanted my reaction to have the right effect on her. She’s heard my lectures and concerns, she knows the rules. What could we do to make an impact?
The most important thing to my daughter is school. She loves school. She adores her teacher with the fire of a thousand suns. Every child in her class is her BFF (even the one that she hit). The school bus is the most unique and precious form of transport ever invented. School is where it is at.
“OK,” I thought, “what if beloved and awe-inspiring Mrs. Principal had a talk her?”
I emailed her teacher and asked if the principal would call my daughter into her office and have a stern chat with her. I said I would be happy to come and collect my daughter after school if the principal didn’t have time during school hours. The teacher emailed me back quickly (yes, she is a fantastic teacher!) to say that the principal preferred issues like this to be handled in the classroom unless there was an extreme situation and that she (the teacher) was sure that a talking to at home would make a big impression.
And then I was left to think again.
Because, it was bad, what my daughter did. She punched another child. The other child was hurt and afraid. That’s awful. And the school thought that a talking-to at home would be an appropriate consequence. Which got me thinking: an appropriate consequence for whom?
My daughter is fairly tiny, and the youngest in her class. She has blond hair and blue eyes. She’s funny, and bright. She loves to read and tell jokes. She loves horses. She loves to spin around in dresses and wear sparkly things. Maybe because of this, she was being treated more leniently than other children in her class would have been.
“What if,” I wondered—“what if my daughter had brown skin? Would a talking to at home be considered appropriate then? What if she was a boy with brown skin? Would the principal step in?”
I decided that a talking-to wasn’t enough of a consequence. I imposed a one day suspension with lots of time with me to work on strategies to deal with keeping her hands to herself.
She wrote a letter of apology to the girl she hit.
She did some unpleasant jobs for me.
She was reminded over and over that she was at home because her behavior had been entirely unacceptable.
She lost the privilege of taking the bus home because I want to be able to chat with her teacher each afternoon to be sure that her behavior is on track.
But, despite the efforts that my husband and I make at home to teach our children that the rules apply to them, just like they apply to everyone else, that simply isn’t true. Their reality is that if they hit, they’ll likely be given a talking to and a second chance. I’d like to think that any second grader would be given the same understanding if they hit a classmate. I like to think that my daughter’s teacher would treat any child with the compassion she showed my daughter in the wake of the bad choice that my daughter made, but the experience of many children of color all over the country doesn’t bear that out.
I don’t have any solutions to the challenges of raising children in a way that they’ll grow up aware of the privilege that their sex, race, religion or socio-economic class confers on them. This is really the first time I could raise my hand and say that I am truly aware of the buffer that privilege has placed around us, but it won’t be the last.
Maybe the best thing that can come out of this is that, as the parent of a white child, I’m aware. I’m watching for the extra chances that privilege doles out to my children and me, and I’m going to try to see them for what they are: a chance to learn to do better, and a chance to develop the compassion to see that anyone can benefit from a second chance.
Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be kind in your comments. It takes bravery to publicly publish a personal story. Remember that she isn’t a professional writer, and as a parent, she is developing a critical conscience on these issues without a clear guidebook or any obvious answers. Therefore, unnecessarily harsh comments attacking the author of this reader story will be removed or edited.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.