Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"If We Don't Talk About It, How Can We Fix It?"

As a five-year-old Ruby Bridges took a test at her kindergarten. She was one of six Black children who qualified academically to be enrolled in an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Famously, she was escorted to school by four federal marshals because large crowds of angry white people didn't want Black children in a white school. White families pulled their children from the school in protest. Only one of the teachers was willing to teach her, a woman named Barbara Henry, who taught her alone for more than a year. Even after some of the white families began to break the boycott, Ruby continued to be taught alone. Her protectors wouldn't let her eat the school cafeteria food because of the high likelihood that it would be poisoned. She was cursed and threatened each day as she walked to school in the company of armed men. Ruby's father lost his job as a gas station attendant, local stores banned the family, and even her grandparents were turned away from the farmland where they were sharecroppers. 

It's a story that every American should know because it is the story of great courage in the face of great injustice. It is such an iconic American story of patriotic bravery that it is commemorated in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Waking up this morning in 2021, there are white Americans seeking to ban Ruby Bridges' story from elementary school classrooms, specifically citing as objectionable the use of words like "injustice," "unequal," "inequality," "protest," "marching," and "segregation." It's not an isolated objection. Around the country, legislatures and school boards are banning the teaching of the history of Black people in our nation, and failing that, they are seeking to whitewash history in a way that offers white people "redemption." 

Besides, they say, elementary aged children are "too young" to learn about such things.

Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was obviously not "too young" to be taught the lessons of racism. Indeed, she was already well-versed in it as were the white children whose parents pulled them from school. According to the American Psychological Association infants as young as three months old can recognize racial differences and often begin to develop discriminatory and racist opinions in preschool. This is true of young children of every race. In other words, children are ready to talk about race, injustice, inequality, and segregation long before they are ready to read. 

I think of my own childhood growing up in the south as a boy only a few years younger that Ruby Bridges. I lived in a white neighborhood and attended a segregated school through third grade. My family rarely talked about race. None of the adults I knew talked about race, at least not to us kids, although I overheard plenty, including words not fit to print. Then I think of Ruby Bridges and the Black children who went to school with me. They lived in Black neighborhoods and race was a topic their families simply could not avoid. Talking about racism was a matter of life and death. Perhaps we needn't offer our youngest citizens the whole, unvarnished truth, but as the author of What We Believe: a Black Lives Matter Principles Activity Book and New York City kindergarten teacher Laleña Garcia asked me recently, "If we don't talk about racism, how can we fix it?"

It seems so obvious that even a five-year-old would understand it, yet across our country white people are objecting to their children having this, or any, conversation about race. Apparently, some of them even object to preschool teachers having these conversations. During the recently completed Teacher Tom's Play Summit we were accused of "promoting critical race theory," because many of our presenters, Black, Brown, and white had the audacity to discussed race, inequality, and injustice. Frankly, I didn't even know what critical race theory was. I now know that it's a body of legal scholarship that seeks to critically examine US law as it pertains to issues of race in the US. It's something that is "taught" in graduate school, not preschool. In preschool, we're talking to children about justice and equality. We're talking to children about injustice and inequality. And yes, we are talking about these issues within the context of race and racism because if we don't talk about it, how can we fix it?

The big argument, it seems, is that telling the truth about the history of race in America is damaging to white children, who if told the truth will, their flawed reasoning goes, learn to loath themselves or their country. These people want to pretend that they can somehow lock the truth away like a family skeleton, but that's kind of hard to do when the skeleton keeps turning up everywhere we look. White kids aren't idiots. They see the skeleton too, they have questions about the skeleton, and believe me they notice when no one wants to talk about the skeleton. As Laleña says in her summit talk, "Some kids don't bring things up because they've already internalized that we don't talk about them." And by "some kids" I think she's mostly talking about white kids because the families of children of color know that the American present can only be explained by telling the truth about the past. 

Of course, for some white people, the goal is to raise ignorant children. For many others, however, the goal is simply to avoid conversations that make them uncomfortable, which amounts to the same thing. If we don't talk about it, how can we fix it?

When I look at the iconic photo of six-year-old Ruby Bridges at the top of this post, I see a little girl who is doing what no child in America should ever be expected to do. We want all of our children to learn about what we call American ideals, which are, not coincidentally, exactly what those who seek to ban the telling of her story object to: justice, equality, and protest. How is it possible to talk about these values without examining injustice, inequality, segregation, slavery, and yes, racism? To stand against the telling of Ruby Bridges' story is to stand against our national ideals, but even worse, it is to stand against truth.

As a boy, I was explicitly taught in my jingoistic social studies classes that the Russian Communists literally tore pages out of history books and that this would most certainly lead to their demise. As I write this, there are 22 US states that have either banned teaching about race, racism, or the history of Black Americans, or are currently considering doing so. If we don't talk about it, how can we fix it? The answer is, simply, we can't. 

There are so many even more outrageous examples of American racism that I could have used as the anchor for this piece, but I chose Ruby Bridge's story because she is a contemporary, a woman only a few years older than me, who attended a school not too much different than my own, yet her experience as a Black child made her an American hero while my biggest concern was learning to ride my bike. How many other six-year-old American heroes can you think of? This extraordinary little girl stood up for all of us, whether we knew it or not, and to tear her pages from our history books will most certainly lead to our demise. 

Redemption is possible, but not as long as our national skeleton is kept locked in a closet. Talking about race and racism are the first steps on the only path there is to redemption.

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