What to Do When Slavery Lessons Put Black Kids on the Spot

Race Manners: Help them embrace this uncomfortable experience as the racial wake-up call it is. 

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“I teach after-school enrichment at a predominantly white elementary school. While I was doing an art project with the kids last week, two of the black kids told me that while their teachers were teaching all the kids about African-American history, and in particular about slavery, they felt very uncomfortable because all the other kids (with the exception of the other children of color) kept looking at them. The boy was very angry and said if it happened again, he was just gonna say, ‘What are looking at me for anyway? Stop it right now ’cause I don’t like it!’ The girl was more sad than angry and said the only other time she knew people were staring at her and her dad was when they went to a church and they were the only black people there and everyone was looking at them.

“I listened to them but did not offer any solutions—just said I was sorry they felt so uncomfortable. I sent an email to their teachers informing them of what the kids said. Any feedback or ideas you can share with me about what should be expected of the school in this situation and/or how I can support the kids?” —Concerned Caregiver

I hate to hear about kids feeling like this. Makes you understand why some families choose to home-school, doesn’t it?

Bullying, outright hostility and racist teasing are one thing. They can be prohibited or punished. But stuff like this (the looks and stares, the innocent observations about difference and those moments when kids’ prepoliteness mindset means that little ones get the unfiltered truth from their peers) can be even tougher to process. I’ll never forget my first day of kindergarten, when a cheerful classmate presented me with a chunky black crayon “because you’re black!” These interactions aren’t against the rules, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be unsettling and, at times, deeply painful.

It’s no surprise that school is a hot spot for the formation of identity and is where many children are forced to confront what makes them different from their peers. Tulane University professor Michael Cunningham—a psychologist whose research includes examining adolescent development in diverse contexts, as well as resilience and vulnerability in African-American children and adolescents—says, "Kids, regardless of their background, are going to start thinking about these aspects of their identity, especially during the second decade of life, and race is just one aspect of that. It tends to be salient in the school environment."

And ask anyone who’s been the only brown face, or one of a few, in class: Lessons about the history of black people in America are particularly infamous for jump-starting the process by which students grapple with the tensions between their identity and environment.

“Being the only black kid when race issues are brought up makes you more aware,” one reader told me in a Twitter exchange about this type of experience. “You consider yourself to be one of them, but then it’s discussed and you feel like you have a target on your back. You feel as if people are watching and waiting on a reaction you’ll never have in front of them,” she said, adding, “It’s honestly one of the most uncomfortable situations to ever be in. Even now in postgraduate [school], I dislike it."

That brings me to my first piece of advice: These kids obviously trust you, so you’re a great person to assure them that the way they felt—sad, mad or whatever—when they were being stared at because of their race was normal. That it’s something a lot of people have dealt with. I think it always helps to know that you’re not alone (even if it might feel that way in the moment).

Second, yes, by all means, give their parents a call to talk about this. Because despite good intentions on the part of all parties, the long looks they’re getting are unlikely to be the worst of their experiences in the classroom. The parents should know it’s time to start fortifying their kids at home, whether it’s by giving them lessons about how black history might be simplified and distorted in class or preparing them for a future teacher who, for example, asks them to be the resident black-history expert or says, “Slavery wasn’t really that bad” (both true stories I heard from readers on Twitter). A parent-supplied framework for processing situations like this can make the difference between feeling like a helpless victim and understanding exactly what’s happening and why.

Also, definitely tell the teachers, who are probably completely unaware of the experience these children are having.