Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up black in a white family (MLK Day)

I don't remember this from public school, but they do a great job with MLK Day at Kulani's Jewish day school. They study the holiday all week. Each grade studies differently (and age appropriately), sometimes performing for the whole school with a skit or a play. The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated by study of his commitment to effect justice through peaceful means. And the study is explored through every student in every single grade at this school.  I appreciate that.

As a family, we talk about racism, but we tread pretty gently on the subject. Like sexism and antisemitism, we've always kept it positive and tried to impart upon Kulani a pride in her heritage. To be fair, the positive messaging is age appropriate for our daughter. Kulani is seven and not ready for some of the really heavy stuff. We also teach Kulani that the chance to overcome a challenge is one of life's greatest gifts. 

We forgot to tell Kulani that MLK died. Or that he was shot with a gun.

In first grade, they covered that important information. Kulani freaked out at school and had to sit with Jake, the classroom sensory stuffy snake.  The teachers handled it very well and reached out to us immediately.

They asked us how much and what Kulani knows about black history, MLK and the treatment of African Americans in this country. That wasn't the problem for Kulani, of course. It was the gun. But since last week, I have been thinking about the situation. As a family, we have spent a lot of time building Kulani's confidence and pride in being African American. She felt terrified sitting there alone with 20 white kids and two white teachers in the class only to find out, maybe for the first time, that it is dangerous to be black in America. 

I got back to the teachers right away and we worked out a plan. Well us, and Jake the sensory snake. At least for now Kulani feels safe, comfortable and she has agreed to go back to school. 

The truth is that racism is something that is and will always be at arm's length for us as a white family. Something we really only understand through other people, and maybe through books and movies. In the end, we are a white family raising a black child. Kulani is alone. She is alone at the Jewish school and she is alone at home. We are doing the best we can, but I wonder if, how and when we should expand her horizons (and ours).

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