There’s no possible way I can get to a thoughtful and complete post today, but rather than give up on NaBloPoMo on day 18, I’ll blog quickly about my son’s self-portrait that we saw at his parent-teacher conference today.

Here is the work of art in question:


What my husband and I love about this portrait is the attention to two features of which our son is very proud.  First, his skin.  A few years ago, he expressed some discomfort about looking “different,” and my husband came up with the best description of the specific brown of our son’s face and body: cinnamon.  My husband got out some cinnamon and shook it out so our son could compare his skin, and it was a perfect match.  Ever since, he’s taken tremendous pride in the color of his skin, and we’re so glad he found the perfect match in the Crayola box for this project.

Second, his hair.  Notice the tight curls that he drew around his head.  Granted, our son has a love-hate relationship with his hair.  He loves to grow it longer, but hates that we have to pick it out.  So every few months, he decides it’s time to have “no hair” again.  We take him down to the barber and they shave his head right down to stubble.  He grins from ear to ear and laughs hysterically that he is “bald.”  In the picture he drew of himself, he took great care to show his tight curly kinky hair; hair that we love and that is a distinctive part of who he is.

We hope this is indicative of a positive self-image for this brilliant, amazing, and loving young man!


Dear Principal

There is only one African American teacher at our daughter’s school, she teaches first grade, and she has a fabulous reputation as a teacher.  Last year, as our daughter neared the end of Kindergarten, I started beating the drum to secure her a spot in that first grade class.  I met with her then current teacher and the school psychologist, and I wrote a two-page letter citing some of the research on the benefits of children of color being taught by teachers of color.  I thought it might be a one-time thing, but a friend of mine mentioned that she’s done the same thing every year for every one of her five children, and her youngest are now in high school.  I realized then that I’ll be sending a version of last year’s letter to my kids’ principal every year for the next decade regardless of whether or not there are teachers of color in whose classes my children can be placed.  In the absence of qualified racial minority teachers, white teachers must be trained in the effects of race, power, and privilege in our educational system in order to be effective educators for my children.  And only by thoughtfully placing my children–and other children of color–in what the state now deems “culturally proficient” classrooms can my children reach their potential.

And so, here is this year’s letter, slightly edited only to ensure anonymity:

Dear Principal P:

Thank you so much for the invitation to write to you regarding our children’s classroom placement at our school this fall. Ms. H has provided a wonderful first grade experience for our daughter, and Ms. E has done terrific work with our son in Kindergarten.

Last fall, I wrote sent the former principal a similar letter to this one, and I am thankful that our comments were taken into account when placing both of our children this year. As you may remember, our children come from a fairly nontraditional family. In addition to coming from a home with two fathers, both of them were adopted through the Massachusetts Foster Care system. We are also a racially diverse family: our daughter is African American, our son is Latino, my husband is white, and I am Asian. We hope that you will take into account all of these aspects of our children’s identities when placing them into appropriate classes this fall. While we understand the need for declining to hear any parent’s requests for specific teachers, in the past, members of your staff have endorsed such requests in light of our children’s unique identities.

Last year, Ms. M and Ms. L supported the placement of our daughter in Ms. H’s first grade class, and I have spoken with Ms. E about a similar placement for our son. Although he is not African American, as a dark-skinned Latino boy with Afro-textured hair living and two fathers who do not share these traits, he needs Ms. H as a role model for his positive racial identity development. As we wrote last year regarding our daughter’s placement, we wholeheartedly understand that one does not need to be a person of color to be a successful teacher for students of color—Ms. M and Ms. E are living proof of this—but research shows that students of color who have effective teachers that look like them end up being more successful in school overall, especially when this happens at an early age. Specifically, Han, West-Olatunji, and Thomas’s findings published in their article “Use of Racial Identity Development Theory to Explore Cultural Competence among Early Childhood Educators” concluded that “African-American students performed better at school when taught by African-American teachers.” I’m sure you are aware of all of the evidence supporting these ideas, and we hope you will take this into account when placing our son for first grade this fall. For similar reasons, we feel strongly that you consider placing our daughter in Ms. W’s class for second grade since this is currently her last opportunity in elementary school to be instructed by a teacher of color, something we have discussed with Ms. H as well.

Further, we would like to echo some of the additional sentiments we’ve expressed each year regarding our children’s placement. We feel strongly that both of our children should always be placed with educators who have completed training in culturally responsive teaching practices and who recognize the importance of racial and cultural identity on academic achievement and engagement. As Willis D. Hawley and Sonia Nieto note in their article, “Another Inconvenient Truth: Race and Ethnicity Matter,” “most measures of good teaching do not deal explicitly with culturally relevant pedagogy, in spite of the fact that research has documented that this approach to teaching can be effective with all students,” and Pedro A. Noguera suggests in his article “How Racial Identity Affects Performance,” “teachers for whom race was never a salient piece of their identity development may fail to recognize the significance of race in their students’ lives.” We are so proud that our district attempts to alleviate these issues by actively encouraging teachers to continue to educate themselves on culturally proficient teaching practices. Since new hires to the district may not have had time to complete this important coursework however, we ask for your consideration in placing both of our children this year and in the future with educators who have.

Finally, we would appreciate your attention in placing our children with cohorts of other traditionally marginalized children, both those who are adopted and other children of color. The latter is even more important given that our school will likely have no new Boston students in attendance with the district’s plans for placing all new METCO students at another elementary school.

We appreciate you reaching out to families to share our concerns and ideas, and we look forward to more successful years for our children in our school system!

Stealing an Identity

It fell off a truck!

My son has had a little problem lately with stealing.  It started out with small things; he’d sneak into his sister’s room and take the Lego toys he gave her for Christmas.  In his mind, he gave them to her (ie: when I told him to pick something out at the store for his sister he pointed at them) and therefore they belonged to him as much as her.  We figured gift giving was just a developmental challenge he wasn’t totally equipped for yet.

A few weeks later, he came home with a new pair of mittens.  They were the cheap kind that cost probably a dollar or two, so when he said that someone in class had a birthday party and this was the favor for everyone, I believed him.  The following week, he came home with a brand new pair of electric blue Nikes in his backpack claiming that his best friend had given them to him.  A phone call later, it turned out this wasn’t true, and the shoes had somehow found their way into my son’s bag at the end of the day while his unwitting friend put on his snow boots.  An email to the teacher that night revealed that he had stolen the shoes and the mittens story wasn’t true either.  Knowing that he’s only five, we didn’t sound the alarm bells just yet, and his teacher came up with a plan that if a friend actually gave him anything at school he was to ask the teachers if it was okay and she would send a note home; otherwise, his backpack should have no new items in it at the end of the day.

A few days later, he came home from the after school daycare center he attends twice a week with a little Lego figure.  Again he had a very cogent argument for how he ended up with it: his friend simply gave it to him.  My husband walked him back to the daycare to return the item since our son hadn’t followed protocol asking the teacher if he could keep it.  Later that night, the teacher called to say that our son had offered to put the Lego man away in his friend’s backpack, and slipped it into his own instead.

At this point, we just kept telling him we loved him and reinforcing that stealing made us and his friends sad.  We told him that just because he wanted something didn’t make it right to take it, and we asked him how he would feel if someone did that to him.  Standard stuff.  I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have lots of toys at home.  This is clearly about something else, especially with the lying that accompanies the initial transgression.

Lock up your Lego watches

Then the other day at pick up, his teacher asked me to have a seat on the bench outside the school.  The three of us sat down and his teacher asked him to tell me what happened at the end of the day.  With a sheepishly innocent look on his face, he told her he didn’t know what she was talking about.  She then reminded him that one of his really good friends in class was very upset at the end of the day because his new Lego watch was missing from his cubby.  The teacher asked everyone to check their bags, and our son refused.  When she “helped” him, she found the watch in his bag.

Since a pattern is clearly emerging, I spoke with the school social worker the following day who agrees that this isn’t a simple case of “I want that thing and my parents won’t get it for me so I’m going to take it.”  She thinks he’s working out some other need, and obviously we don’t know what that is–and neither probably does our son know what that is.  We have some working theories of course, and the social worker thinks we’re on the right track.  There’s the normal younger sibling stuff of watching his older sister get privileges that he’s simply too young for, and she received some toys at the holidays that are geared for an older age bracket.  That’s all normal jealousy stuff.  Then in addition to that, our daughter got a Christmas gift from her birth-grandmother, something that was difficult for our son in the absence of any word from his birth-family.  The social worker also brought up the fact that he didn’t join our family until after he turned one; she mentioned he might be working out some issues over the confusion about those broken attachments that he developed during that first year.  We’re looking into some therapists, and in the mean time, we’re going to try to reinforce his identity with positive reinforcement and extra attention.

After talking to friends and doing some quick Google searches, we know this is all somewhat normal developmental behavior for a kid dealing with some significant issues that he’s not old enough to cope with alone.  At the same time, I can’t help but being worried about how his actions will be interpreted in this homogenous suburban environment.  Because of his impulsive inclinations and inability to stay still for more than thirty seconds at a time, I’ve already had a candid conversation with his teacher about him being thought of as just another brown boy with behavior issues.  What might be seen as cheekiness and exuberance in other little boys can easily be seen as annoying and distracting in my son simply because of the color of his skin and the kinkiness of his hair.  And now that he’s stealing, I worry about the adults and older kids in his school who think he is merely fulfilling another Latino stereotype.

As I’ve written about before, racial issues are really about how others interpret us–just like that saying that homophobia is really only a problem for the straight people who suffer from it–and I wonder how long it will be until my kids really start to realize that no matter how they behave they will always face the stereotypes, judgments, and misunderstandings that people have of the way they look.  Without the negative interactions that occur because of the way that others interpret those who occupy the space outside the dominant racial group, people of color could stay forever in what William Cross calls the pre-encounter stage of racial identity development, a stage where an individual is virtually unaware of his/her own race and may even identify more closely with the dominant group.  My kids have mostly moved beyond this level even at their young ages, both because of some racially charged incidents in preschool and also because my husband and I have tried to stay ahead of the curve by speaking about how others may be unkind to our family simply because of the ways we are different.  For the past two years, I’ve taken our daughter to an African American History show in Boston where they dramatize all aspects of black history, including lynchings, slavery, and segregation.  Last month, her first grade teacher even led the class through a modified version of Jane Eliot’s “Blue Eyes” activity in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  My kids are consistently exposed to activities, conversations, and media that shows them the good and the difficult aspects of their racial history and identity, but that’s only because of careful, thoughtful, and deliberate choices by me, my husband, and my kids’ teachers.  Even with all of this exposure, neither of my kids is old enough to really understand the truly evil side of racism in this country’s history and its present condition, but they do have an awareness of it, and they have the vocabulary and tools to begin to really internalize it when they’re old enough, hopefully in a healthy way.

But for now we can’t really draw the clear connections without confusing them and stunting their positive identity development.  We can’t tell our son that if he continues to steal that he will simply reinforce the negative stereotypes that people have of his race and doors of opportunity will close to him even though he’s so young.  We can’t tell our daughter that one of the reasons she needs to work so hard on her spelling is to combat the stereotype that she is less intelligent than her peers because of the color of her skin.  And so we continue to walk the tightrope of educating our children in an age-appropriate way about the realities of growing up as a person of color in this country, forever wondering if there is a safety net below us for that inevitable moment when we will misstep and fall.