When Andrew started attending the program he’s in, he was the only white student in the school. His school is in an African American neighborhood and the majority of students are African American. There is also a small Chinese population and a dual language Chinese-English program. But as far as students with his racial makeup? He was the lone ranger.
That is no longer the case. There are now a few other white students, and all of them, as far as I can tell, are drawn to that school to attend the program that Andrew is in. The percentages, especially in his class, are shifting, but he is still very much in the minority.
For a long time Andrew never noticed. There are a lot of ways that Andrew doesn’t see basic social groups. Gender, age, race: he has a tenuous grasp on these categories and is only now sorting them out. He still mixes up girls and boys from time to time. He talks to every one, of any age, the same way. 3 year old Tess, his classmates, the little old ladies at my church, have all sat through a thorough explanation of his bey-blades and were encouraged to try out these toys themselves. He has no filter to tell him that the octogenarian he just asked to rip a bey-blade, might not want or be able to. So as he started this program, I knew that race and color wouldn’t come up for a while.
Andrew started talking about skin color last fall. He told me that he wished his skin was more like his best friend’s. He remarked on different people in his life and how they had “black skin”. But his tone at this point was merely observational and nothing more. It was an easy stage. I just affirmed his observations and that was that.
Around Martin Luther King’s birthday, his tone began to change. We talked to him about Martin Luther King at home and he heard about Martin Luther King at school. They watched clips from the famous “I Have A Dream” speech and wrote about “diversity”, “respect” and “dreams”. It was about a week later that Andrew started talking to me about not wanting to play with his best friend anymore. He listed off the kids he didn’t want to play with and told me the one boy he did want to play with and the boy he chose was the only other white boy in the class.
When we talked about it he would talk about the other boys’ black skin but in an off-handed way. The reasons he listed for not wanting to play with them were vague. “Chase is too silly.” “Rashan talks too much.” “I like Tomas because Tomas is quiet.” (Tomas was born in Poland and is the other white boy in his class.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. My hunch was that all of the talk about Martin Luther King emphasized the differences in his classmates in a way that made Andrew squirm.
Andrew could have very well been telling the truth. He truly might have wanted a quieter friend to play with, a change in pace, some time to get to know Tomas. What stood out to me though, was that every time Andrew DID mention skin color, I didn’t know what to say. The more he brought it up, the more flummoxed I felt. I had my lines… “we are all different colors”, “diversity is great!” etc, etc, but the more I said them, the more it sounded like a script that just wasn’t helping. He seemed to be processing something and I felt ill-equipped on how to help.
So, I started asking around about it. I find race very, very hard to talk about. I felt embarrassed that this was happening and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to say to Andrew, but I needed to figure out what to do. I talked with a friend who knew someone with years of experience in diversity training. I emailed her our story and she called me the same evening to talk.
She told me a LOT of things that I found extremely helpful. She told me that everyone seeks out people that are similar to them. It’s just a natural part of life. And the more Andrew feels comfortable with who is he, the more comfortable he will be with people that are different from him. She said that is it normal for him to go through phases of seeking out people that look like he does. But that will change and shift and grow. Basically, she said that I have nothing to worry about, she said to keep the lines of communication open and to just keep talking about it.
And so I asked her how. How do I talk about it? How do I talk about it in a way that is meaningful and productive? She told me to avoid value statements. When Andrew told me that he wished his skin was like Chase’s, I said, “I know. Chase has beautiful skin! He’s a cutie pie!” She said instead to just state facts and ask questions. ASK Andrew about Chase’s skin. What does it look like? What color is it? What do you think about that? What color is YOUR skin? Is skin color important? And she said that his answers will change. Sometimes skin color WILL be important to him. Sometimes it won’t be. And all of that is normal. And again, the more comfortable Andrew feels about himself, the easier it will be for him to relate to people that are different than he is.
I decided to add a page about this in my advocacy journal (I changed the names and blurred the faces of his classmates). It felt like an act of advocacy to track this down and learn some skills. Heck, it felt like an act of advocacy to learn what questions I had and to see what I didn’t know. And going through this process was hard and sort of embarrassing, but ultimately really, really good.
His homework one night was to write about diversity and draw how his classmates are diverse. He drew himself with Chase and wrote how Chase loves mozzarella sticks and Andrew loves apples. They both have white shirts. I scanned his paper, shrunk it and added it to the book.
I’m sure this isn’t over and that it could very well get more complex as he gets older. But I feel like I have enough to go on for now. Which feels like sweet relief! :)