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Elite Private School, All-American Racism and Sexism: A Parent’s Lament

 

 By Gladys Mitchell-Walthour | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

 Tuesday, January 30, 2017.

 

The recent H&M controversy over the company having a Black boy model a monkey hoodie and the case of a private school in Wauwatosa, WI where 4th grade students had to explain why slavery was good, both reminded me of the recent painful experience of segregation and exclusion my family faced as one of the top private schools in Milwaukee forced our daughter out of school since she faced racism and sexism. At least in the Wauwatosa case, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church & School, the administration apologized. At my daughter’s former school, they did not and in fact the head of lower school said that a child being called a monkey is not racist. My daughter is a 4-year old African American. 

Our daughter was in Junior Kindergarten for less than a semester (Fall 2017) at an elite non-religiously affiliated private school when the administration decided that their school was not a “good fit” for her due to her being a victim of bullying and racial intimidation. We first informed her teachers about her being excluded from activities in the classroom because boys in her class would not allow her to play with building blocks. Her teachers defended the boys who excluded her despite that the picture from class showed she was clearly angry. Teachers take pictures and upload them to the class website. I still have this picture. This was our first introduction to her teachers’ not empathizing with and believing what a 4-year old African-American girl told them.

 Later in the semester, a student started hitting her in class and again the teachers did not empathize with our daughter but said she was friends with the student. She was not. In the months of October and November our daughter came home saying “Girls aren’t leaders,” “There are no Brown people” and “My friend at school told me if you are the wrong color you can go to Florida to have your skin color painted peach.” She also started saying she did not like being Brown and was angry when we let her know that Brown people are beautiful. Finally, she came home letting us know that a student called her a monkey and pinched her. She was distraught that a kid called her a monkey. She repeatedly told us she did not like JK and that she no longer wanted to go to the school. 

After the last incident, we decided she would not go to school until her teachers’ were trained in cultural competency. In our meeting with two administrators we let them know this and agreed that I would attend classes to make sure she was safe. I was allowed to attend one class with her rather than what we agreed. 

These incidents of bullying, and learned sexist and racist discourse demonstrate that despite our in-home values and diverse environments we placed our daughter in outside of school, an educational institution challenged the values we taught her at home. Not only did they challenge these values, our daughter began to believe these values in less than a semester. At home our daughter was taught that women are leaders (in fact she was named after a woman who played an active role in the abolition of slavery and advocated for women’s rights), African Americans are beautiful, learns Portuguese, attends a Sunday Mandarin Chinese language school, and was exposed to diverse people as her baby sitters were from Brazil, Taiwan, and China. At school, through its practices of gender in the classroom, racist discourse from peers who were never corrected by teachers, teachers who never empathized with her, less than one semester undid the work we taught her for 4 years.

 

Teachers need to be trained in cultural competency so that they know how to empathize with students who look different than themselves, unlearn “gendered” practices in the classroom where boys and girls are discouraged from playing together, and how to intervene when bullying and racist incidents occur in the classroom. In our daughter’s case, administrators and teachers demonstrated that they are incapable of empathizing with African American girls.

 

Educational institutions such as our daughter’s past school have to do more than prepare students academically, teachers and administrators have to demonstrate kindness, care, and respect; all traits that are important to develop children into kind adults. I received my Bachelor’s degree from Duke University and my doctoral degree from the University of Chicago (both top 10 universities.) My husband and I chose Milwaukee’s leading private school for our daughter with the idea that the school would prepare her to graduate from a top 10 university such as Duke. 

However, this experience shows that education is more than academics. Institutions should also have “heart.” Heart is something that has to be practiced by students, teachers, and administrators. Having “heart” means students of different backgrounds need to be respected, cared for, and empathized with when they face difficult experiences such as racism and bullying. Unfortunately, this school was incapable of providing “heart” for our child, an African American girl. 

A Georgetown University Law Center’s 2017 report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” demonstrates that African American girls are seen as less innocent than White American girls. Ange Marie-Hancock’s (2012) notion of paradigm intersectionality and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1995) notion of structural intersectionality both demonstrate that institutions and structures interact in varying ways that lead to the marginalization of Black women, and in this case Black girls. As an educational institution, teachers and administrators at the school refused to view our African American daughter as innocent and her teachers’ repeatedly accused her of lying as they defended other students. She was the only African American girl in her class. While two administrators originally seemed empathetic to her case, they later defended the child who called her a monkey and they defended her teachers saying that in the classroom context, it is not likely a child was engaged in racist discourse. 

Administrators and teachers are obviously not aware of research such as UW-Milwaukee Dr. Erin Winkler’s research on how children learn about and practice race. We had a meeting with one teacher, and the two administrators referred to above. In the meeting, the teacher let us know that one child (a multiracial child) was called a monkey by another student. This student was a White American.The teacher did not correct this incident. As a result, the student who was hurt by being called a monkey called our daughter a monkey and pinched her. If this teacher had the ability to empathize with both students and if she was aware of racist stereotypes of Blacks being associated with animals including monkeys (See the movie Ethnic Notions), she would have corrected the White American student. 

As an institution, this school does not empathize with African American girls and this is the result of teachers and administrators bringing the attitudes that most White Americans hold of African American girls; that they are not innocent and their feelings and thoughts should not be valued. Our daughter’s intersectional identities as an African American and a girl compounded her classroom experiences where boys excluded her from activities she enjoys. She was bullied and teachers encouraged classroom play divided by gender. 

The in-class structure of separation by gender, the institutional attitude that presumes African American girls are not innocent (and that they lie about bullying and racist discourse), and the racial attitudes that children bring to the classroom highlight structural intersectionality and paradigmatic intersectionality which led to our daughter’s marginalized status and hurtful experiences at this school. Our daughter was one of three African American girls in JK. Now the school has 2. This is a result of the “New Jim Crow” where even highly educated African Americans are forced out of institutions when they speak out against racism and injustice. 

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter saw a picture of a dark skinned Black Muslim and asked “Mommy is he God?’ I corrected her but it was refreshing to know that she associated Blackness with a symbol of goodness and peace. Despite the tortuous experience she had, she is still able to see the beauty in Black people and in herself.

 

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Gladys Mitchell-Walthour, PhD is Assistant Professor of Public Policy & Political Economy in the Department of Africology at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  She is the author of The Politics of Blackness: Racial Identity and Political Behavior in Contemporary Brazil (Cambridge University Press).

 

Elite Private School, All-American Racism and Sexism: A Parent’s Lament

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