My daughter chose her school just like she chose her name at three days old. Her little fingers grasped at several folded pieces of paper in a shiny porcelain bowl. By reflex, she became Fiona. In second grade, Fiona hated school. Out of concern for the entire future of her life, I took her around to let her intuit where she would learn to read. This was my first educational mistake and my approximately nine million, six hundred thousand, and forty third white woman mistake. I didn’t know at the time that the school was packed full of little blonde children like mine.
Every day of third through fifth grades I walked my daughter down the single hallway of this school on her way to morning class. Every day I cringed at some iteration of classroom activities like last week’s multicolored construction paper cutout flowers of green, purple, red; all centering a photo of a little white student’s face. The principle and each teacher stood in line at the start and the end of the school-day-ritual smiling and echoing a refrain of “Hi!, Hi!, Hello, Hi!” Miss Mary, Miss Margie, Miss Jodi, Miss Nancy, Miss Marni, Miss Christy, and Richard would brush their blonde hair behind their shoulders. Before the hallway there was always the trek across the street where the white and blue eyed crossing guard, Miss Annie would sing, “Fake it ‘til you make it! Halloween is coming!” or some other refrain intended to turn our frowns upside down while we walked grumpily across, un-brushed hair and unsymmetrically folded homework trailing out of my daughter’s backpack, both of us probably remembering her snack of pizza leftovers left on the table at home or, more likely, in the bellies of three happy dogs with the shredded takeout box nearby. On a nature field trip in third grade this same crossing guard told me that she moved away from Barstow because she, “couldn’t stand the stuff the illegals were doing.” Standing on the river bank that day she watched my face fall in disgust and her smile only grew wider and her songs more high-pitched, “Good morning! The sun is shining!”
In February of Fiona’s second-grade year there was not a peep about Black History Month. I went to see the principle about this silence, which was so loud it hurt. When I asked about what she would do for the month to observe Black History, she put her chin down on the desk, grasped her head with her fingers threaded into her blonde hair and said, “I just don’t know how to talk about race.” This began a string of emails from me to her with resources from women of color on teaching race and social justice in the classroom. One podcast stated that discomfort wasn’t a reason to avoid these topics, and gave resources on how to teach. None of these emails were answered. In fact, she started running down the hall when she saw me, smiling widely over her shoulder yelling “goood morning!”
Not a single sign or picture or song or assignment talked about Black History Month. A month passed and I continued stew. I decided I would have to do something about this myself, beginning with volunteering for Spanish Club. The Spanish teacher was also blonde and white. Señora Joni. Her glasses were fashionable and she wore a little headpiece with a microphone in front of her mouth like a telemarketer. She was the only one to bring books in for the children to read about people from other countries. She seemed to be open to talking about things other than the United States, which is why she placed a poster board in the hall one year asking which countries the students would like to study. Spain? Uruguay? The United States? Ecuador? Puerto Rico? There were more tick marks next to the U.S. than any other country and no one seemed to notice the space, filled with various country names, between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Language, Señora Joni told me, was her talent. She explained that she learned Spanish in a semester abroad about twenty-five years before and now she was not only the school Spanish teacher, but also the hostess of Spanish Club, so I signed myself up right away.
Spanish Club was on Wednesdays after school. The first week I arrived to find a young woman sitting in the corner who we were to call “Violeta,” while in fact, her name was Candace. Candace/Violeta did actually speak Spanish which she learned from her Salvadorian mother, and was volunteering, I learned later, for high school. That day the club was covering los luchadores, Mexican wrestlers. Señora, in her Flamenco skirt, swished past the children on her way from one room to the next collecting supplies and setting up the computer so she could play a little cartoon of baby wrestlers. The children were each instructed to use un luchador “gansta” name generator to find their wrestling names. El Taco Bella constantly asked me to bring more sequins over for her to glue onto her construction paper wrestling mask. El Rata Guapa, kept answering every question with the word, “Jack.”
When I was instructed to hand out pencils I asked him to tell me what it was in Spanish to which he replied, “Jack.”
“No,” I said to him, “It is called un lápiz.”
“What?” he asked me and, with a scrunched nose and squinted eyes he enunciated, “Peeennnciilll.”
“Un lápiz” I say again. “Pencil.”
“Do you know where the scissors are,” he asked.
In third grade on the week before Thanksgiving, I arrived at the classroom to find wagons made of tissue boxes in the bookcase and a rectangle taped onto the floor. Smiley Miss Mary told me that all the children had been squishing into the rectangle so they could imagine what it was like to travel in a small wagon. The bravery! At the end of the week, Fiona brought home a packet she created with the class on “explorers.” There were pages of handmade folders with pockets full of lovingly colored-in portraits and stories of adventure.
First, I leafed through it, asking her to tell me about what she had learned and complimenting her design choices. Then, because I couldn’t help it, I had to ask, “Did you learn anything about indigenous people,” a little too loudly.
“No.” she answered. “Well, we did hear about Squanto.” Which led to a long talk and some online videos about how “Squanto” was really Tisquantum who came from an economically and hierarchically complicated situation to learn several languages and brilliantly negotiate his way around the world in the early 1600s.
By fourth grade, Fiona was telling her teachers to watch out for her mom who would probably be angry at them. We had become a strange duo. Just what every child wants.
I discussed this with a friend who was also a progressive white professor. We lamented how freshman come to class thinking of themselves of “we” the colonizers. The two of us were outraged at the injustice of the replication of white supremacy in insidious and invisible ways. We were comfortable in our ranting outrage. Perhaps, but I hope not, it could have been the kind of rage that Shannon Sullivan wrote about in her book outlining how white people learned from the Civil Rights Movement, most of all, that they must prove they are not racist. We talked about how we have a responsibility to work on other white people so the labor doesn’t fall on people of color. We talked about ongoing settler colonialisms. When I told my friend about this piece and how the bottom line is that my daughter still goes to a white school she said, “I don’t think of you like that,” as in “you’re not one of those racists.”
And I sat back in my Otherness composing the email I would later write to the principle about the latest silence of learning how to be white.
Fiona’s last year at the school is fifth grade. Fiona loves her teacher. Early this year I was hopeful that Miss Jodi would maybe see through her icy blues and golden blondes to the social justice that we want our children to learn. I use the royal we facetiously, since clearly none of these people want their children to learn that. The week before Thanksgiving we were sitting at a restaurant for breakfast when Fiona shared something special from her class. They were learning to be a colony, she said. She was the wheel maker. “It’s really fun.” She told me how she was a “productive member of the colony,” keeping the colonizers rolling along, to which I had to clamp my mouth down on a bubbling lecture on late capitalism, hyper-consumptive definitions of productivity, the resting of production on the theft of lands and genocide on which white people still profit today. I did have to ask her who in the colony was in charge of murdering people who lived on the lands they were stealing, and then refrained from asking how they were in fact producing white supremacy.
She rolled her eyes and updated me that the teacher chose some “exceptional students” to serve as tax collectors. And one person to be the king.
“Anything about indigenous people” I ask.
“No, mom.” She rolled her eyes again, “but I did make sure there was a queen.”
At this point, I am waiting it out until the end of the year and furiously gathering home activities and experiences to counteract what she is learning every day at school. Now is the time. I know this. These are the reasons that my daughter’s teachers so carefully and furtively wore red shirts for the Red for Ed in Arizona, and also why they failed to come forward in support of our educated gubernatorial candidate David Garcia in a crowd of anti-intellectual, anti-education leaders. Garcia lost by so much there was nothing to talk about and the teachers continued to smile their way through each day. Paid nothing, and overworked, perhaps they are hiding out of fear of losing their jobs.
Now is the time, though. It is time to hold teachers and schools accountable. Politics are not, as my daughter’s teachers say, “private.” Politics are everything and everywhere. Learning to see through the eyes of colonizers is learning to step into the role of exploiter with the helping hands of teachers who lead these children right up to the stairs. These are not all the teachers, but many, have become afraid of any narrative other than the Red State tropes. Failing to scratch through this shiny veneer will result in hordes of classrooms filled with students who embody the dangerous combination of lack of critical thought and an overt entitlement to damage and destroy anything that stands in the way of their desired privilege.
In the words of Kalwant Bhopal, “Privilege is never consciously recognized or defined. It is normalized, internalized, maintained, diffuse.”
The taped rectangle on the classroom floor. The colorful notebook full of adventurous tales. These are not the products of childhood learning, they are the artifacts of the bolstering of white supremacy and these classrooms are anything but safe. Right now, with the Thanksgiving lectures and the daily smiles, it all just keeps rolling along.
The author has chosen to anonymize some names.
LJ Hardyis a medical anthropologist mama living in northern Arizona with her daughter, dogs, ducks, and chickens. At her academic home, she works on social justice through community-engaged research and practice, writes a slew of wonky articles on evidence-based practice and policy, and serves as the editor of the journal Practicing Anthropology. After experiencing a life-threatening illness, she realized it was time to send out her creative work, which currently appears or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, Riggwelter, and Writer’s Resist. You can find her on Twitter @LJHardywriting where she currently has 17 followers.