I have this memory of sitting in the back of my father’s sedan and watching a shiny black Cadillac pull up next to us. The driver was a black man in a pin-striped business suit. I was in 8th grade and most of the black men I had seen in real life were professional athletes.
I couldn’t place his face, so my first thought was that he must’ve been a lesser-known pro athlete. Then in all seriousness, my next thought was that he was a famous rapper. Then I remember saying to myself, “maybe he’s a drug dealer…” As an 8th grader I had recently heard adults talk about drugs coming into our suburb from the city and maybe this guy was delivering… then I stopped myself.
I looked away ashamed, realizing my thoughts were centered on this man’s race. I had seen his color. I had seen that he was black and what was worse I had assumed something negative about him because of it. I stared at the floor mat of the backseat ashamed. I knew I wasn’t supposed to see color.
The only formal lessons I received about race were variants on the theme “Celebrate Diversity” which was proudly displayed in several posters and a stairwell mural with kids from various races holding hands.
So the rest of my racial education, like so many Americans, was whatever my young brain could glean from TV, Movies, the News, and the adults in my life. And my experience looking at the man in the Cadillac bears this out. I had grown up in a racially homogenous community, and had mostly seen representation of three types of black men in my life: pro-athletes, rappers, and drug dealers.
And at the same time I had gleaned from adults that you weren’t supposed to see race. When I would overhear the white – but again not talking about being white – adults talk about race, I noticed they always slightly lowered their voice. As if they were gossiping about an untoward detail. They way one might mention a woman’s weight. “I heard she has a black sister.”
And I don’t think my informal racial education is unique.
We don’t teach our children to talk about race. And by ‘we’ I mean America. There is no agreed upon public curriculum for teaching children about how they should celebrate or ignore or embrace or see or not see race.
There aren’t even basic schools of thought being fought over.
At least with Sexual Education we talk about public curriculum. However, you feel about the Abstinence vs. Safe Sex debate, at least American acknowledges that the Health teacher need to say something about sex.
And despite our differences it seems that we still agree on the basics. I personally went to an Abstinence Only Christian grade school and a Safe Sex public high school so I got a bit of everything.
We start off by teaching elementary age kids about the chicken and the egg, that you shouldn’t play doctor, and not to get in the van even if you are offered candy.
In middle school you hear a lot of talk about puberty. And then middle school-ers spend a very significant percentage of their mental energy trying to find less awkward ways of asking adults and high school-ers – and God forbid, each other – all their unbearably awkward questions about dating and boobs and masturbating.
Then somewhere in high school adults try to scare you by showing a slideshow of a penis infected with gonorrhea followed by a close-up of a birthing video.
And with any luck, by junior prom someone taught you about birth control and not to wear two condoms.
Now I admit there are variations on this theme but most people would recognize this as the generally accepted process for Sex Ed.
But I challenge anyone to come up with a list like this for racial education in America. I have worked in public education for 10 years and never come across anything close to comprehensive.
When it comes to introducing a public racial awareness curriculum, its crickets.
Now many of these conversations are happening in churches and around dinner tables in families of color. But I can assure you they are not happening in the vast majority of white households. And they are not happening in schools.
Now it may seem more universally relevant to talk about sex, as it is a universally human part of life. But if we are going to go down that road, why not cut out the unit on the planets. Its certainly more likely that a child will encounter someone from another ethnicity than it is that they will visit Jupiter.
In the majority of elementary schools kids are told over and over to “Celebrate Diversity.”
This happens in a very general, non-racially specific way. As in mural and a poster and general comments from teachers like “judging people hurts their feelings”, “people have different traditions” and the ever popular “that is not a school-appropriate topic.”
And that’s it. That for most kids in America is the only racial education they are formally presented.
The media of course provides us with a myriad of images and messages, as do the adults in our lives.
Which leads me back to my 8th grade self, staring at a black man in an expensive car assuming he is a professional athlete, a rapper, or a drug dealer and then feeling ashamed of myself.
I was never given the rest of the education I needed.
My middle school teacher didn’t tell me that our brains are hard wired to see difference. And that when I see someone is different I need to acknowledge that I see that and then find ways to change my perspectives. My teacher didn’t help me change my perspective by bringing in Black, Hispanic, and Asian American business people, artists, and stay at home moms to broaden my vision of people of color.
And I certainly wasn’t encouraged to ask adults my unbearably awkward questions about race. My parents never sat me down for a gaze averting talk about blacks and whites, the way they did with the birds and the bees. I can assure you I never heard the phrase, “Son, there comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that black people are treated differently than white people – and not in a good way.”
In high school we read Huckleberry Finn, but were encouraged to skip the word nigger when reading aloud in class. There was no in depth discussion on the evolution of racial slurs, how the plantation derogative nigger transformed into Jay-Z’s nigga. So when I listened to Jay-Z I did what I was told to do and stopped singing along for a brief moment whenever the word nigga came through the speakers.
We learned about Harriet Tubman, slavery, Martin Luther King Jr. and the KKK. But the current implications of this racist history were also skipped.
Suffice it to say my teachers were always conjugating racism in the past tense.
It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to the term white privilege. But by then the window for education was closed for the majority of my white classmates. “Celebrate Diversity” had somehow transformed into an “I don’t see color” narrative and there was no convincing them otherwise.
And with this dangerously lean racial education, we can hardly blame them.
It is no wonder that so many white people have begun putting #AllLivesMatter on their Facebook walls.
They are just regurgitating the only lesson they were taught. The same lesson they saw on the school mural and the posters on the wall.
“All Lives Matter” is just a slight twist on the standard 1st grade classroom poster “Celebrate Diversity,” which for most white people, was the first and last formal education they received on race.