The Most Shocking Thing …

This is the second email in a series of email messages about waking up to progressive-variety racism as a white mom and a parent educator in Berkeley, California. To read the first message, click here

When my nine year old white daughter told me, “Black boys get in trouble at school for things white kids get away with all the time,” my breath caught in my throat, I felt my eyes grow wide and my facial muscles stiffen.

I was shocked. I reflected later that this was not exactly shock at what my daughter was revealing. Racial disparities in public schools and the differential treatment of Black boys was hardly a new headline. Neither was my daughter’s crispness of vision and clarity in articulating what she was observing: these things I had come to expect from this child, who had been revealing the world to me afresh with her perceptions of things since before she could speak.

What shocked me was the extent to which I had not seen this before! What shocked me was my own race blinders.

I felt like I was pretty awake to race. I was about as well-schooled in race relations in America as a middle class, college educated white person could expect to be. Early in my life I had had my own experience of disenfranchisement from our white community and our white extended family when my dad came out as gay, sending me on a deep search to get to the roots of why some people get pushed out, pushed down, and left behind in our world, whereas others are lifted up and celebrated.

My search led me to study sociology as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, with an emphasis in the social construction of race. My senior thesis was based on a year-long ethnographic study at an African American owned and operated bicycle repair shop that was situated at the border between the historically African American community and the affluent campus of the University. With the generous encouragement of the shop owner, I studied the daily interactions among the African American workers and the mostly white clientele, and how the daily interactions created and recreated racial identities for all involved.

Mostly notably, I noticed how being present in this border space impacted me: how my sense of who I was tightened and eased, expanded and contracted simply by choosing to witness these exchanges with an intentional focus on race.

I went on to spend the next dozen years of my professional life living and/or working in African American communities as part of multi-site cross-sector initiatives designed to help communities reorganize systems and reroute resources toward the highest risk youth in urban centers, who are almost always African American or Latinx.

I did this work under the wing of a African American mentor named Bob Penn. Bob was not shy about showing me how and how not to conduct myself in Black spaces. “I’m not sure how people get things done over there at the University,” he would say with a sparkle in his eye, “but out here in the community things happen a little differently.”

So, I was not new to thinking about race, nor was I new to reflecting on my own whiteness, its privileges and its confines. So why had I not seen what my child was now opening my eyes to about how race and racism operate in Berkeley public schools?

The answer to this question is complex, and I am still coming to understand the kaleidoscope of answers to it. Certainly part of the answer has to do with the sheer overwhelm I was living under in my own parenting journey. Most of my time as a parent so far, I had been a single Mom in a high-conflict co-parenting situation with my ex- who I experienced as intimidating and threatening; all-the-while while struggling with often debilitating chronic health issues, the cause of which was mysterious until only recently. These personal issues certainly demanded a huge portion of my time and attention.

But there was something else operating that made it difficult for me to see the racial realities of the water we were swimming in … In my next post, I will share more with you about the particular variety of racism operating in Berkeley, and why it is so difficult to see it from within (as a white person).