Race to the Top

Jim Crow may be long gone but some still see the world in black and white, says the white mom of two biracial daughters.

Sometimes I worry that my child is not black enough.

For two years in a row, my biracial 12-year-old has picked up an award from Arlington Public Schools for some type of academic achievement—the latest was for an essay competition. Good for her! I’ve always known she was exceptionally bright and it makes a mama proud to have others recognize it, too.

But the awards are through the Office of Minority Achievement, and lately my white self has been wondering if she deserves them.

After all, these awards are designed, in part, to narrow the achievement gap by supporting and applauding minority academic successes. My daughter’s performance is not consistent with national statistics that show black and Hispanic students lagging behind, on average, in reading and math. In fact, she is ranked near the top of her class.

In her case, there is no achievement gap to close.

The truth is, my daughter has it all. She has a comfortable home, good health insurance, and two supportive parents who help with homework, provide healthy meals, drive her to and fro, and show up for her softball games and piano recitals. Her father’s job allows him the flexibility to coach her basketball team. I work from home, where I am available to provide rapid response to her texts and phone calls. We both have the time and inclination to help out at her school and get to know her friends.

We are the lucky ones. We live in a community filled with similarly fortunate adults and their similarly fortunate children who are involved with, and supportive of, our family. Both of my daughters are honor students in their primarily white schools.

And thus my conflict.

You see, sometimes I think that my girls are not white enough either.

I can’t say for sure what it feels like to be them, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to be one of the few people of color in your neighborhood. And if you have a white mom, it can be even more confusing.

Before my kids could even walk, it was clear that people in our community saw them as “different.” Some assumed they were not mine. Many asked me where I had adopted my children. Strangers always wanted to touch their hair.

When my oldest entered kindergarten, a little blond girl told her she had “funny hair” and that she couldn’t come to her birthday party. When I volunteered at school, my daughter’s classmates were visibly dumbfounded when I said I was her mother.

On the day my youngest started elementary school, the front office selected her racial category as African-American based on visual identification (I had not selected a category at all because, at that time, there was no appropriate option).

In second grade, one teacher continuously underestimated one of my daughters, despite her high test scores, refusing to give her more challenging material. In third grade, one of my daughters’ classmates told her, while learning about America before the Civil War, that if my daughter were her slave, she would set her free. In fourth grade, another classmate (with my daughter’s permission) created a pretend monetary system wherein other students could earn the right to touch my child’s hair.

In fifth grade, the same front office accidentally forwarded my daughter’s records to the wrong middle school—not the one within walking distance of our home, but the one across town with more racial diversity.

Not that I’m keeping track.

Like all parents, I grapple with how and when to intervene. These incidents weren’t mean-spirited. None was an egregious example of overt racism. Am I overreacting? Underreacting? I try to tread carefully and keep each person’s intent in perspective. But I also fall apart a little bit each time one of these scenarios unfolds.

I’m not immune to inadvertent offenses either. Sometimes white people send me news articles or tell me about stories involving black people that “made them think of my family.” Often there is nothing my family has in common with the people in the story beyond skin color, and I am left scratching my head. The person means well, but they clearly don’t get it. Should they? How can they?

We live in a highly educated and generally open-minded area. But the fact remains that the white society in which my children thrive is also—perhaps unconsciously—compelled to point out how my kids are different. Sometimes, I believe my daughters like the attention, but in my gut I also fear that these incidents will take root deep inside of them and slowly, gradually, erode their confidence and sense of self. Over time, I think they might be hurt.

And this is why, I’ve decided, minority awards should not make me feel conflicted. No matter where we live, no matter how we achieve, at the end of the day some white people will still look at my family and the first thing they see will be black. The Office of Minority Achievement reminds my daughters that they are also smart.

One day, toward the end of sixth grade, my oldest got a text from a boy that said, “I’m black.”

I was a little uncomfortable that she was getting a text from a boy, but she was uncomfortable for a different reason: The boy is white.

What message was he trying to send? My daughter didn’t know and neither do I.

It is clear that incidents like these will continue to play a role in my daughters’ burgeoning awareness of race, identity and their place within our community. Both girls are just starting out on their journey to figure out with whom they identify and why. It won’t be easy.

But I am certain they are smart enough to find their way.  In the end, that’s all that really matters.

Categories: Parents & Kids