An Assumption of Privilege: Black Teachers and White Children
I have long advocated for the Black and brown students in schools. Knowing that the minute they walk into a classroom they are judged by the color of their skin, they are often thought to be less intelligent, trouble-makers, and poor. These are stereotypes that can follow a child all the way through school. I know…. because I taught many Black and brown students who were never told they were smart or of value until they sat in my classroom. I know because I was a darker skinned, dark eyed, black-haired child in a sea of blond and blue-eyed children.
Now as a “gamma” of a (an incredibly) white child who is in kindergarten this year. I am having to look at the other end of the danger of bias. My grandson is blond and blue-eyed, his skin is as pale as pale can be. He lives with me during the week and goes to school in my neighborhood. It is a STE(A)M school. The only STEM elementary school in our district and one of the few in the state of GA. They teach robotics and French to these grade schoolers.
Ashby is on the Autism spectrum. He began school in the district where his mom lives. His teacher there could not “teach the (kindergarten) curriculum” (on day 2) with Ashby in the room. Ashby, nor any of the other children I suspect, needed the curriculum taught, they needed to have their safety and security needs met. The second and final day of Ashby attending kindergarten in his home district ended with Ashby under the desk and telling the teacher to call the principal. He had been instructed to do that if the teacher was ever mean to him. Ask Ashby, he will say, “Mrs. A. is not a good teacher. She would not let me play.”
To all the Mrs. A.s out there…. there is this child developmental psychologist named Piaget… you may have heard of him… He believed strongly that children learn through play. Then there is this other guy…. Vygotsky … who believed strongly that children learn through their social interactions…. and of course, there is Bandura … who believed strongly that children’s moral compass is largely shaped by the adults in their lives. They are all three right.
Mrs. A. was ill-equipped to deal with a child on the Autism spectrum, or indeed any child who has been socially isolated for over a year due to a Global pandemic. She recommended Ashby go “back” to pre-K. Hello Mrs. A. Where were you for the past year while everyone else was sheltering in place?
Ms. A. made an impact on Ashby. After two whole days in kindergarten, he decided he never wanted to go to school again. To this day, when I ask Ashby how his day was at his new school, he will answer, “It was a good day.” Proceed to tell me why it was good, then say, “I do not like Ms. A.”
In comes Gamma and the reason Ashby now lives with her. Ashby is on the Autism spectrum. He is not disabled. He is unique in his ability to learn and communicate. He sees the world through eyes that take in everything. He has a mind that forgets little. As with most individuals on the Autism spectrum, Ashby needs explicit instructions and the reason why. He does not respect authority for the sake of authority. He respects reasons. I am this way. I am also on the spectrum.
This brings me to the real topic here. Yes. It took me awhile to get here because I needed you to understand Ashby. Ashby began his first day in his new school in September. He was a month and quite a bit more I imagine behind the other children. You see, Ashby is White, but did not grow up to his grand age of five in privilege. His mother and father struggled financially, and that is to put it mildly, for all of their married years. I finally took the reins and moved my daughter, largely for Ashby’s sake, to Atlanta. Dad is out of the picture. I could not allow my daughter and her children to continue in poverty any longer. I had been giving her fish all these years. Now, I am teaching her to fish. That is another story. Back to Ashby and why he is with me.
I live in Atlanta. I love Atlanta. I love the soul… the Black soul of Atlanta. I feel home, I feel safe here. I am not (all) white. I blend in like a smooth melody that sneaks its way into a crescendo. I love it. I live in a fairly affluent neighborhood. That school I told you about… well, zip code is the key. We all know this. The school, as is this district for which I taught for three years, is incredibly diverse. The majority of the teachers are Black. There are male Black teachers. This is a huge plus to me. So why send my little white grandson to this school… well, because his Gamma’s and Gampa’s side of the family is made up of Black and brown people. This is what he knows and how he best feels loved. I took this for granted.
Although I made it my business and my mission to educate Ashby’s new teachers and counselors on the varied and beautiful hues in the Autism spectrum and where Ashby falls in that wonderful kaleidoscope, I did not educate them to white poverty and the effects poverty has on every child.
I realized this week that Ashby’s strong, Black and beautiful kindergarten teacher looks at him and sees privilege. She sees him get out of his Gamma’s BMW, knows he lives in “the community” and sees his white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes and sees spoiled. None of this is true.
She had begun sending emails home about Ashby’s behavior. Much can be explained by, “he is five.” Much more can be explained by, “Ashby is on the Autism spectrum.” I had explained about rules. For children and adults on the Autism spectrum, Rules are made to be Followed — just give us the reason the rule is a rule.
The notes were coming frequently. The language held connotations of bias. “Ashby lies…..” for example. I had sent an email regarding several items Ashby had left behind at school. I received a terse note informing me of all the children, all the jackets, book bags, lunch bags, and water bottles she is responsible for. Could I please describe Ashby’s lost belongings? She also told me that when Ashby is asked to identify his things that he will “lie” and claim another child’s item. No, Ashby is not lying. Ashby is trying to give an answer. If he does not know the answer, he guesses. I took exception to her tone and the word lie, I must admit. I also saw the bias in her tone and the language she used. It brought tears to my eyes. All the years I had spent battling with school administration over their biased and unjust treatment of Black and brown students, I never thought I would have to be fighting for biased and unjust treatment of my own (white) grandchild.
I wrote this. She has not replied. I hope the message hit home.
Hello. Thank you. He has a Toy Story 4 water bottle and a Paw Patrol. They each have his name on the bottom. I will speak to him about truthfulness. Ashby has been scapegoated by his dad since he first came into the world. He is always afraid no matter his answer he will be in trouble. As far as wanting other children’s things… as much as he has in my home… he wants more. He has never lived as well or eaten as well as he does now. Poverty can be resolved with means… but the scars run deep.
Now, I must also add to this, that his other teacher — the special education teacher, whom Ashby adores, also a Black woman, who was included in my initial email inquiring about Ashby’s missing items, had responded with warmth and kindness. Her affection for Ashby as a child, undeniable.
To all the strong, beautiful Black teachers — I love you all, please when you see a white child, do not assume privilege. Yes. I know that there is a certain privilege that will always be… but you see… it is the adults that begin granting that privilege. It begins with the assumption of privilege.