TW: racism against black children
READER POST: My husband, Jeff, and I are white and two of our daughters are black, both teenagers. Until recently, we’ve lived in St. Anthony in southern Idaho. My girls have been quiet sometimes, feisty sometimes. They’ve argued sometimes and stayed silent sometimes. They’ve told their school teachers, administrators, church leaders, and therapists about the racism that has happened to them in their school and community. Without exception, every single one of those they have gone to (all white) about the racism they were experiencing—including their therapists—has told them that they are making too big a deal of:
1) Their friends using the n-word around them—and not just with the soft R (“-ah”) that some people have decided lately is acceptable, but with the actual hard R, on purpose, looking them directly in the eyes.
2) A group of kids coming to our house one Sunday night after some friend drama that occurred at school, hiding in our bushes, and throwing pebbles at our doors and windows. When my girls came outside, the kids harassed them, one shouting, “Come at me, N******.”
3) Their worries about police encounters. This includes a therapist telling one of my daughters, “Cops are good, they aren’t racist.” When my daughter responded, “But some cops aren’t good. They do kill minorities. Minorities do have to be careful when cops stop them.” Her therapist replied, “Just assume it’s a good cop.” Add to that an adult Young Women church leader who shut one daughter down on the same topic, proclaiming, “Cops aren’t racist” and refusing further discussion.
4) Their feelings of joy and pride for black culture, including trying out things such as accents, dress styles, hairstyles, and slang. One of my daughters has been ridiculed repeatedly for this by adults. Her question: “Why can’t I be happy about being black? Why can’t I like things about black culture, and be a part of that, without people accusing me of being ‘fake black.’ I mean, I am black.”
5) Their anger when they were finally old enough to process that the school system celebrates President’s Day but not Martin Luther King Day.
6) That time, back when they trusted adults to support them, one reported to school administration that racial slurs were being aimed at her. It took a great deal of courage (and the urging of best friends) for my black daughter to stand up for herself in front of a white administrator. But that administrator didn’t stand up for her. Nothing. Was. Done about it.
7) Being accused of stealing pants from a white girl’s locker. My accused daughter is a straight A student with no marks on her record. Yet, the administration brought her into the office and grilled her. My feelings about this are edgy and mixed. Maybe this is the normal way to respond to a report of stealing. I don’t know. But I do believe that the accusing student was bolder in her allegation because my daughter is black, and I’m not backing down from that.
These are their experiences—and only a few, to be clear—but I felt them deeply. The incident at our house is what broke me. Not because of what the kids did. Kids can be naive and make dumb choices. But because of what their parents did not do:
No parent apologized, nor did my kids ever get a real apology from most of those kids.
In fact, the kids denied anyone used the n-word, and their parents defended them fiercely. Their children faced no consequences, but my girls faced narrow-minded racism happening not in a public place or at school but at their house.
Three of the kids who came to our house that night were members of our LDS congregation. Their parents were noticeably cold and unfriendly to us after the incident.
That evening, after calling the sheriff and reporting the incident, I wrote a letter to let one beloved teacher and one trusted administrator (who also served as our LDS bishop) know what had happened.
The administrator sent a short, professional reply. I didn’t hear anything further about it. The teacher didn’t respond.
A month later, I followed up in person with the teacher. He was a dear friend and a junior high history teacher who starts every year’s Civil War unit with a hard discussion of slavery. One of his educational shticks is to write the n-word on the board and scary-talk the class into knowing all the things he’ll do to them if they ever use that word to refer to somebody. But to me on that day, he said, “Yeah, your daughter has made some enemies.” That ended it. And it broke my heart the worst.
That teacher had been my bishop 15 years before. He was my Sunday school teacher. He was the one person I promised my girls would be in their corner if they ever went to him for help.
His betrayal, in particular, and the attitudes of the Church members who had been involved in the incident at our house, moved my daughters to the point where they lost their ability to feel safe at church. One started attending a different Christian church with other girls of color. One attended our ward but would ditch her Young Women class.
The experiences I list above were only the most egregious ones. Not a week went by without something milder but still problematic occurring. My daughters have been told, “I don’t like black people. Your people are loud. I don’t like loud people.” And “I would never date a black girl.” There have been racist jokes at Girls’ Camp. People touching my daughters’ hair without permission like they’re dolls to be played with and not people with boundaries.
I could list for hours the daily things that happened which were harder to define, harder to object to or report, the things which were milder and “acceptably racist” to some. (Do you see what’s wrong with that statement?) We gave up when adults proved they would not help my children protect themselves.
I suppose, if you wanted, you could read each incident I’ve mentioned and dream up reasons why they aren’t really racism; why those things happened unrelated to race, and what I or my kids should have done to prevent these things from happening. That’s on you, though, not me.
All I can tell you is what my family has been through, and that I saw what living in St. Anthony was doing to my two black daughters emotionally, socially, and spiritually. I lived their pain alongside them. The racism is real.
I wasn’t going to talk publicly about any of this. It feels like a “storm out,” and I hate that, but I decided to so the next mixed race family, or black family, in St. Anthony or any other town in America will be treated better because I talked about it. I have gone through all kinds of mental gymnastics to make racism not be the reason we moved: “We’re going back to my roots.” “A better job for Jeffrey.” “The kids will have more music and sports options.” None of it was true.
Even though this is hard for me, a person who avoids debate, and even though my daughters dislike public attention as much as I do, I have to say this clearly so everyone hears: Racism is why we moved our family to another state.
My black daughters suffered in their hometown. My hope is that you will make your hometowns better for children like mine.
READER BIO: Sarah Grace Dunster is an outdoors enthusiast, a voracious reader, a rabid gardener, and an award-winning poet and novelist. Her debut novel Lightning Tree was released in April 2012, and her follow-up novel, Mile 21, won the prestigious Whitney Award in the General Fiction Category. Grace is currently publishing in the supernatural cozy mystery genre. For more information, visit SGDunster.com.
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