Clamoring Kids: Schools and the reinforcement of white culture

In my last email, I shared with you a personal story about my own “clamoring white self” taking over an exchange between two Black men in order to mitigate my own insecurity…. In this email, I tell a story about parenting during the coronavirus pandemic, and my growing understanding of the ways that our school system reinforces white supremacy culture in the next generation.

I was mysteriously uncomfortable this past Spring at my daughter’s middle school graduation. It happened over Zoom, but that wasn’t what made me uncomfotable. I was used to Zoom, after 18 months more-or-less sheltering in place due to COVID. 

Something about the graduation ceremony triggered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but a sense of insecurity and inadequacy was starting to seep in, agitating me out of the seat of myself (mySelf). It wasn’t until several hours later that I realized: 

I would have been one of the students honored at such a graduation ceremony, and my child was not. I would have been one of the kids, who against all odds, managed to maintain perfect grades and/or deliver some outstanding display of extra credit excellence during a season when most people were just barely getting by. Yes, I was that girl. And I had spent many years clinging to being that girl.

My kid was not one of the kids standing at the podium giving an impressive speech or receiving an award for all she had accomplished during this year of distance learning. While I know I would have been that kid at the podium, I was not the parent who made sure my kid could shine publicly at the end of middle school. 

In fact, I choose, again and again, not to be the parent that pushes for academic excellence at all costs. But then, watching the parade of high-achievers, familiar feelings of doubt, insecurity, and lack of belonging were starting to seep in. 

When I identified that my doubt and insecurity was the backlash of what had been a school year of my intentional resistance to what I call “achievement culture,” I started to relax. My old emotional patterns–needing to shine and perform in order to know I matter–were coming back to punish me for not ensuring my own child continued on this trajectory of visible, measurable excellence no matter what

This shame and insecurity, I am coming to understand, is part of what lures me back to the ways of white supremacy culture and the false security of performance-based belonging. These are the feelings I contend with, and I am learning to “host” and metabolize them instead of letting them drive me as I disengage from my old ways. It is the ongoing internal work to continue to discern and intentionally resist white supremacy culture in how I move through the world and how I parent. 

I have nothing against academic excellence. The experience of learning, of deepening our intellectual understanding of a subject, the experience of honing skills and bringing forth inner gifts to impact the world around us… this is a deeply satisfying aspect of being human. I want this for my child, and for every child, for every person: to have ample opportunities to explore and enjoy our individual agency and intellectual capacity ought to be our birth rite. The individual mind is an incredible part of being human.

What I am opposed to is the worship of the individual mind over everything else, over every other way of knowing, expressing, and being human. 

What I am opposed to is the requirement, under white supremacy culture, that we must perform in ongoing and measurable ways, ways that our white culture deems “impressive” and “notable,” in order to experience (even fleetingly) a personal sense of security, worthiness or belovedness. What I am opposed to is the ways that this generates a culture of strain, of speed, and the constant need for affirmation in the person who grows up under this cultural influence. 

What I am opposed to is the illusion that anyone ever achieves “greatness” all alone. For we know that every child at the podium, accepting an award, had a whole host of adults–parents, family members, and professional tutors, psychologists, coaches and trainers–who all ensured that this child could shine in this way. 

What I am opposed to is the celebration of only certain “objective” measures of excellence as determined by very narrow defined standards of our district’s core curricula. 

What I am opposed to is the way of life that secures some people a chance to publicly shine for their ability to perform by these standards, while ignoring all those who are forgotten, pushed out, and left behind. 

That’s what I am opposed to. What I am for is where I prefer to keep my focus. I am for relationships where people feel felt. Where people intentionally co-create one another with how caringly we show up for one another. I am for making space to honor and listen to our individual and collective bodies, to our individual and collective emotions: especially those that have been long ignored. I am for celebrating creativity and art matter as much as “objective” arenas of study. I am for taking life at a pace that is slow enough to ensure that all bodies and minds are remembered, honored, and celebrated. I am for mistakes, ragged edges, and honest failures… on the road to becoming more authentic, connected and whole. 

And I am for ceremonies and rituals that celebrate a wider range of ways that we have grown, learned, and come into our own fullness of being–individually and collectively. 

After all, our ceremonies and rituals are ways that we practice and reinforce culture. 

What we celebrate and lift up matters. 

I am celebrating that my kid started doing her own laundry this summer. That she is getting really clear and good at articulating what she needs in order to handle hard situations well. I am celebrating that even after eighteen months of distance learning, she is still intellectually and creatively curious. I am celebrating that she taught herself to make bread and now she out-bakes my husband, our family bread-baker. I am celebrating that she remembers every detail about every musician, album and song created since the 1970’s, and she can tell me the back story of every piece of music she loves. I am celebrating that she still wants to brush her teeth with me every night, ever since she was little and we overcame a toothbrushing challenge.

I am celebrating that she isn’t confused or full of self-doubt when she isn’t in the spotlight… and she does not overlook those who have never had a shot at standing on stage, applauded.

What we celebrate matters. 

What small, everyday thing are you celebrating today about your child? What small detail are you celebrating about yourself? Is there something about you or your child that perhaps no one else would ever know to celebrate, but you do? 

Cherish that. There you are gaining a small patch of freedom from white supremacy culture. That’s holy ground.

In my next email, I will share an example of what resistance to white supremacy culture looked like in my home during the coronavirus.