Through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, I’ve been working with a little girl from the neighborhood where I used to teach. I think very highly of this group and have only had good experiences with them. However, at a recent area-wide picnic, I noticed something disturbing. Most (not all, but the vast majority) of the children being mentored were African American or Latino. Most of the adult mentors were white or Asian. Again, this was not without exception, but was apparent.
In this area of California, there is still a considerable amount of segregation, and it comes mostly from socio-economic inequality. The expensive neighborhoods are predominantly Caucasian, with some Asian (although not Southeast Asian) people mixed in. The low-income areas that tend to be less desirable places to live and are almost all black and Hispanic. I, a white woman, get stares when I walk down the street because I’m so out of place. I’ve never been sure how to explain this phenomenon to the children that I work with. Californians often point to the Deep South as the example of negative effects of segregation, but there are also plenty of examples here in the progressive Bay Area.
In 2000, I was new to the area and new to teaching. I was young and naïve about the amount of racism and segregation still present. I struggled to get to know my students while keeping my head above water with the curriculum. The entire 1st grade was immersed in a project about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I stumbled through explaining the bus boycott and segregation. At one point, I oversimplified and said something like, “Dr. King helped make it so black kids and white kids could go to school together.”
The kids looked at me incredulously. “But teacher,” one little girl explained. “Black kids don’t go to school with white kids. Ain’t no white kids at our school.” All the other students started nodding. It slowly dawned on me that she was right. There was not one single white child at that school. In fact, in my eight years of teaching there, the only kids who looked white were two Bosnian refugees.
Another time, I heard my first-graders discussing race. The conversation went something like this:
First student: There are three kinds of kids: black, Chinese and Mexican.
Second student: What about white kids?
First student: Silly, there’s no white kids. There’s only white teachers.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation for 13 years now and I still wouldn’t know how to respond, just like I don’t know how to explain the demographics of the picnic. I think we (teachers and other adults) mostly pretend this inequity doesn’t exist—after all, we didn’t have Jim Crow here in California. But this approach is neither beneficial nor respectful of anybody. As for my mentee, she’s extremely observant and very analytical, but she hasn’t brought this up to me yet. Is that because she is so used to it or because she already understands the inequality and assumes that it’s here to stay? I really want to have an ending where I tell everyone what I learned and how to deal with this problem in the future but I just don't. I’d love to hear from others. What is the best way for me to address this in a hopeful but honest manner?
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.