Too black?!

As much as I bitch about Americans and how narrow-minded they can be, I do think that Europeans have things a helluva lot easier when it comes to dealing with different cultures and races. Most Europeans (unless we grew up in a major city) are just not used to dealing with people who look and act differently from us….because we don’t have to! Obviously I know that things are changing, but for the most part many of us live in societies that are still mainly white. This was, at least, the case for me when I was growing up. There were a couple of kids of Pakistani origin in my classes and that was about it throughout my entire time in school!. Oh, I nearly forgot – when I was in my final year of primary school, there was a little black girl in Primary 1, who was an object of some fascination to everybody because, well, there just are no black people in my country. According to Wikipedia, only 0.16% of the population is black!

When I imagine what it must be like to be a teacher in “the motherland”, it seems that it would be fairly easy compared to being a teacher in the US. If you’re a teacher here, there are a million different issues to deal with in the classroom…in terms of race, culture and language. There are probably schools back home where these are factors, too, but I don’t think to such a great extent.

Take today for example…

Today I had my first ever volunteer session in a local elementary school. The idea is for several volunteers to meet once a week with a class of 2nd graders (for non-American readers, this means kids around seven years old) and spend forty-five minutes reading to them in groups with around two to four students.

I didn’t read to my kids today (two little Latinas) but just spent some time getting to know them. I have zero experience with such young children, so I was wondering how our time together would go. For the most part, it was quite fun, like when one of the girls pointed to a map, and showed me the town where her uncle lived, then whispered conspiratorially “He’s in jail!”.

When I was in my awful alternative teacher certification course, they taught us that the most important thing to do first in the classroom is to introduce your behavioural expectations. If they don’t do that, they say, all hell will break loose, and you’ll have a hard time getting your students back on track. Of course, this was exactly what I didn’t do! This was partly because those little girls just looked so damn cute that I didn’t want to come in and be all strict with them. It was also, I admit, because I was just a little flustered in the beginning and forgot! Big mistake! One of the little girls talked a mile a minute and was up out of her seat any chance she got. Oh well. You live; you learn. Next week I’ll outline my expectations…like no talking over me or your classmate; no saying you can’t do things when you can do them perfectly well; no getting out of your seat without asking permission etc.

Another reason why it would have been good for me to have outlined my expectations was because it would have been easier for me to stop the girls chatting aimlessly, and focus more on the matter at hand. At one point, Miss Chatterbox overheard someone in another group mention the word “Obama”. She then went on to tell me how her friend wrote a letter to President Obama in her journal, telling him how much she liked him. I asked her if she liked the president, and she said, quite forcefully, that she most certainly did not. “Ah ha”, I thought. “Clearly someone’s parents are Republicans”.

The talk then turned to Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, which was natural enough given that they’re close in age to my students. This was when it all went a bit pear-shaped, though. Miss Chatterbox (who proved herself to be a right little opinionated so-and-so) declared that she didn’t like Obama’s daughters either. I asked her why and she said she thought they were ugly. At this point, you’d have thought I might have guessed the direction the conversation was going but, no, I blundered on and asked “Oh, really? I find them really pretty. Why do you think they’re ugly?” Miss Chatterbox screwed up her face and said “Well, their hair is OK but their faces….yuk! They’re too black!” Hmmm, guess whose parents are racist?!


I can’t say that I was exactly surprised by this confession but, to be honest, I just wasn’t expecting it on Day One. I wanted to point out that such a comment could really hurt somebody’s feelings and that all skin colors are beautiful, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying this to child I’d just met. I didn’t feel that I’d quite earned that right. I didn’t let it go entirely (I said something like “Well, hmmm, I think they’re very pretty” and then I just quickly moved on) but I felt bad for not addressing it more.

When I first encountered racism between minority groups, I must say that I was a bit surprised. I really expected Latinos and African-Americans to be “brothers and sisters” against oppression but this is apparently not the case. In fact, inter-minority racism is as old as the hills in the US. Check out this extract from the following text (written in 1808 but dealing with life in pre-Revolutionary Upstate New York). The author, Anne Grant, a Scottish-American is writing about the Native American view of slaves:

“It is a singular circumstance, that though they saw the negroes in every respectable family not only treated with humanity, but cherished with parental kindness*, they always regarded them with contempt and dislike, as an inferior race, and would have no communication with them” (Memoirs of An American Lady, with Sketches of Manners and Scenes in America that Existed Previous to the Revolution).

Sigh. Sometimes I think it would be easier to move back to the “motherland” where I wouldn’t have to deal with race issues…just people who are pasty and unattractive!

* “Treated with humanity”? “Cherished with parental kindness”? Yup, Mrs. Anne Grant is an apologist for slavery alright!


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12 thoughts on “Too black?!

  1. Reluctant Blogger October 16, 2009 at 7:07 am Reply

    Yes, it was the same for me growing up – there was only one non-white child in the whole school. I didn’t live in a city but it was quite a big town not so very far from London.

    There are almost exclusively white areas still here – where I live now is often referred to as Britain’s last white city. There are non-whites obviously but for a city the number is very small. But it is not like living in a village in Sussex or something where you’d probably rarely see a non-white face. But at my children’s state primary school, two miles from the centre of the city, there are 100 pupils and they are ALL white (there are a few Germans and Italians).

    As you probably know, the BNP are big news over here at the moment – they have a spot on Question Time next Thursday and are currently being challenged on the legality of their constitution (which does not allow white members). So things are a-happening.

    • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 10:03 am Reply

      Oh my God, no, I *did* not know that the BNP is making inroads in Britain! Jesus, I really need to start reading The Guardian online or something because I’ve just been reading Scottish newspapers, and I’ve not heard any mention of it.

      Oops, just did a google search….Must not have been reading closely enough. Here’s an an article from “The Herald” about their presence in Scotland.

      Wow, that is just fucking disgusting, but I can’t say I’m surprised a bit. In times of economic hardship, people always start to blame minorities for all their problems. Sigh.

      I think it’s good that they’re on Question Time, to be honest. I do believe in freedom of speech, and I don’t think it does any good not to allow such types a voice. That way, they’ll probably be even more filled with hatred. Damn, I wish I could watch it on TV over here. I hope they make a fool of themselves on National TV.

  2. yogurtry October 16, 2009 at 8:45 am Reply

    my kids bring home questions from school, one of them asking why the blacks and hispanics hate each other so much. not a question that can be answered during one sitting of dinner.

    it’s true what you say. this melting pot called US can be a tightrope in the classroom. so much of the problem involves poverty and lack of education. they say it takes three generations for Mexican nationals to assimilate. The poor and struggling have a ton of obstacles raising kids – family members in prison, for starters.

    oh, and when you set the expectations with your kiddos? it can often help to say what you want to see,

    “one child talks at a time. remain silent until the speaker is finished or until you are called on. stay in your seat.”

    etc, rather than “don’t do this and don’t do that.” especially kids with learning problems. they don’t translate the “don’t do’s” into appropriate behavior very well.

    good luck!

    • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 10:06 am Reply

      As regards outlining my expectations, don’t worry, I wasn’t going to use negative language like “No this; no that”. I just wrote it that way in my blog post to highlight what behaviours piss me off. For next Thursday, I’ll probably make some kind of poster (visuals are always good for getting your point across) and then play some kind of little game. Maybe I could get them to role play bad behaviour, then good behaviour.

  3. Fantastic Forrest October 16, 2009 at 10:53 am Reply

    Don’t beat yourself up too much about not responding more directly to the little bigot. It takes time to build a relationship before such lessons can be absorbed. Once she’s gotten to know and love you, you can tell her to stop being a turd and it should make a bigger impact. I have a feeling that she will be sharing other, equally abhorrent observations with you. 😦

    And don’t romanticize the “motherland” too much – there are racists there too, even if you didn’t encounter them:

    • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 10:11 am Reply

      Fantastic Forrest, I’m upset that you thought I was romanticizing Scotland. That wasn’t my intention at all. When I said that I sometimes wish I lived there again so I “wouldn’t have to deal with race issues”, I didn’t mean that there was no racism in Scotland, but simply that you don’t have to worry so much about race (as a concept) because there simply aren’t as many people of different races in Scotland. Here, in contrast, all I have to do is walk out of my front door, and I’m confronted with a former African-American neighbourhood, which is rapidly gentrifying. I get asked constantly for money by homeless, crack-addicted black people, and so, yeah, there is an element of “white guilt” to my very existence in this part of town. My everyday life in Scotland would be much simpler than this.

      That’s what I meant. Sorry, I should have expressed it better.

      • Fantastic Forrest October 17, 2009 at 10:39 am Reply

        Dang. My apologies. YOU did fine – initially I’d interpreted the post as saying there were fewer people with racist attitudes, but you clearly say that you wouldn’t have to deal with race issues because of the homogeneous population. I got distracted when I was replying because my daughter was whining for something to eat. I’d meant to say something different – that I could relate to the notion of an area with few minorities, that Oregon/Washington was predominantly white, but that there were still racist incidents, which made no sense to me, and then comment that even though Scotland has an even smaller percentage of folks from non-white races, there are racists, which is sad. I’d even meant to say that before you moved back to the motherland, you should give the Pacific Northwest a try, because the climate was comparable. 🙂

        My daughter’s interruptions clearly are to blame for my failure to communicate.

        Or maybe I’m still reeling with disappointment over the news that Gary Lightbody is a dick. Having the object of one’s fantasies revealed as less than perfect can be devastating. Ha!

        • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 12:03 pm Reply

          I would definitely like to visit Oregon, and, in fact, I was supposed to go to Portland last year for the marathon, but my husband and I ended up not going because we couldn’t afford to. I think I’d really enjoy Portland but, having now experienced living in a place that’s sort of diverse, but nowhere near diverse enough – I don’t think I’d want to move to Portland, as that seems like it would be even whiter. The US’s diversity is one of the things I really like about it, and I want to make the most of that while I’m here. If/when I leave where I am now, I feel more of a pull towards the East Coast, or maybe even Chicago.

          You’re forgiven for being distracted while reading my last post! 🙂

          • Fantastic Forrest October 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm Reply

            Having noted that Portland/Vancouver is less diverse than Chicago, let me just say that my children’s classrooms are a veritable United Nations, particularly in comparison to my own suburban midwest upbringing. Her class has kids from Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, China, Japan, India, Mexico, and eastern Europe.

            I DO hope you’re able to visit this area some time. Not only is it lovely, it has Powell’s Bookstore, a delight for bibliophiles, and it has the smell of your past!

            • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 1:57 pm Reply

              Portland is actually right at the top of my list of places to go in the US, as I know I’d love it, and I’ve heard they’ve got great tea shops (I do enjoy a nice cuppa!). However, it’s probably a bit too middle-class and “perfect” for me in the long-term. Does that make sense? I guess I just like living somewhere gritty and industrial and a bit more down-at-heel. On the other hand, the weather would appeal a lot, and I know the Pacficic Northwest is just so goddamn beautiful.

              • Fantastic Forrest October 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm Reply

                Come visit, seriously. I will make you tea and smoked salmon sandwiches. It will be sublime.

                • petrichoric October 17, 2009 at 3:22 pm Reply

                  Well, I have just recently started eating fish again (I’ve been vegan for about 3 years) so I may very well take you up on that offer soon!

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