Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 4

This is Part Four of a Nine Part Series

I was concerned about my note to Mrs. H sounding like the hysterical ranting of a over protective mother quick to jump to wanton conclusions. I realized how impossible it was to stay dispassionate and objective when you know your child has been hurt for no reason or atleast have reason to think that has been the case. I sent my note to a few people to proof read and got different feedback.

D is half Puerto Rican and half Dutch married to an African American. She has no kids of her own but is in active participant in the life of several in her extended family. She also serves as a mentor to an inner-city teenager. She modified the letter to the point that it longer bore any traces of an aggrieved, anguished mother. It was steeped in businesses-ese such as "I would like to work with you to establish a decorum for exchange of information between the staff and teachers of X Elementary and myself" She made a few phone calls to other friends to solicit their opinion on what my next steps should be.

A is white, a New England native who has been in relationships with men of diverse ethnicities but is not married. Twenty five years of living in California has given her an lasting love and understanding for cultures other than her own. She was incensed at what had happened and thought my note needed no edits. "You should leave work this minute and go to her school to meet with the principal. This is extremely serious and I would not take it casually. J is at a very impressionable age and incidents like this can cause lasting damage" she said. As much as I appreciated her concern, I realized she loves J too much to be able to view this whole situation with the clarity that I was missing. She was probably being just as hysterical as I was.

L is Jamaican and two kids going to elementary school. Unlike me she lives in a racially diverse neighborhood. She expressed shock and indignation and volunteered immediately to come with me to school to give the teacher a piece of her mind. According to L, my letter was worded far too mildly. If I ever wanted to stand up for my child and protect her from prejudice, I would have to learn not to mince words. "Your tax dollars go towards paying that teacher her salary. She has an obligation to do the right thing by you and your child or risk losing her teacher's license". To L, J was "the poor little baby" who had been caused grievous harm by the teacher.

R is of Indian descent settled in South Africa for three generations. He is a relatively new immigrant to the US and has two boys going to middle school and high school. He did not have much to say about the note. "I have lived in apartheid and know what it feels like to be discriminated against. My boys are a lot tougher than J is and they would have brushed something like this off. But your child is so much younger than them. And that would be your best case scenario" He said that racial discrimination in schools was fact of life in this country that I should get used to.

More often than not it would be done so subtly that the parents could not bring any substantiated charges against the school or the teacher. The child would be able to feel it , sense it and would be hurt just as had happened with J. As a parent I would not want to exacerbate the issue. It was important for me to make the teacher aware of my displeasure but without antagonizing her.

It would not bode well for J for me to make big deal out of this and get the teacher into trouble. "The teachers are a fraternity. If something bad happens to this one because of you, J will pay for it no matter which class or grade she is in. They will try to patronize her so you don't come and cause trouble for them. And that would be your best case scenario" He thought that I should be prepared to change neighborhood so J got access to more ethnically diverse schools.

The final words of advice came from a WASP friend, Jon. He asked me "What is the teacher's race ?" I replied "British, Caucasian". "Well, that explains a lot. You know as well as I do that there is no love lost between the Brits and Indians". I was not sure that I did but I let him continue. He said that if I wanted to wage war over this I should be able to formulate two sets of plans. One, what my next steps would be if complaining to the teacher and principal did not result in satisfactory outcome.

Would I be ready to spend the time and money to sue the school ? Two, how would I retreat safely if I lost the battle. In essence, he did not recommend that I got into this with a seat of the pants strategy or play it by the ear. His final words of wisdom were "Prejudice against a child does not end by teaching the child to defend herself against it. It takes for the minority parent to act with confidence and to show the prejudiced adult their place. That is what it takes to end prejudice.You cannot ignore this"

What was interesting about all of these discussions with such a diverse bunch of folks was that "racial discrimination" was a foregone conclusion. Knowing the lack of ethnic diversity in my town and specially in J's school district no other possibility seemed to occur to anyone.

I will admit that I feared that was the case and it had directly contributed to the intensity of my reaction but I was very surprised that everyone else arrived at the same conclusion independently. It was all about J being the one kid of color in an all white classroom being treated differently by a prejudiced white teacher.

Even as my friends were outraged at what they thought was discrimination, I had to ask myself why I thought I deserved better or different as an immigrant to a country I came to of my own free will. What gave me the right to expect that the locals would accept my child as one of their own simply because she like their children was born in this country ? She did not look anything like them and came from a culture they were completely unfamiliar with.

At any rate, I would have found it much more comforting if there was at least some people in the mix who thought I was reading too much into this incident. The teeming diversity of my sounding board only echoed my own fears and that was as scary as it was concerning.


cheti said...

"More often than not it would be done so subtly that the parents could not bring any substantiated charges..."

I see this too ! Scarry ! and makes one feel so frustratingly helpless !

Heartcrossings said...

cheti - That is true. The law likes things black and white. Shades of gray are hard to prove and most often you can't win.