Well! That was fun! I read and thought about every single comment on my last blog, and I found myself nodding along to just about every one, even the ones calling me out for being a hypocrite or a racist or a reverse racist or a typical liberal whiner – the back and forth in the comments mirrors the arguments I have with myself every day.
There are several things I’d like to clarify, and please note that I am not editing any comments for style, grammar, spelling, language, etc.
1. I absolutely do not condone my daughter using the n-word. The comment that spurred my last blog, from “another New Orleans mama,” was actually a reference, I believe, to my comment in the previous week’s blog about how my 4-year-old knows the word, but my boyfriend’s 10-year-old, who goes to private school, has never heard it. This is not because they are less racist at his school – you can certainly be racist without ever using the n-word; this is because my daughter has heard the word being used – in a nonpejorative sense – by some of the black children at her school. It is not easy to try to explain the reclaiming of offensive and hurtful words to a 4-year-old, but I just treated it like any other bad word she hears on the playground: “That is not a word we use in this house.” As she gets older, I will explain it further. But the truth is that the word means different things to different people depending on a variety of factors, and I personally feel that the best way to handle it is to discuss it, discuss its power, discuss its history, discuss everyone's feelings on its usage, not pretend it doesn’t exist. Anyway, yes, if I had to choose between having my daughter being a racist and having my daughter use incorrect grammar, obviously I would rather her be a loving, decent person, and so, I’m sure, would “another New Orleans mama.” But I really don’t think that’s what either of us were trying to say.
2. “A Black woman who code switches” commented: “I do think that you had better search your beliefs and your heart as Ruby gets older and, because she goes to school with a majority of African-American kids, she will begin to become more ingrained in the culture, nuances, etc… of those kids. Can you handle her bringing home a Black young man as her ‘boyfriend’ years from now?” The idea of Ruby becoming more ingrained in the culture and nuances of black culture doesn’t bother me. Quite honestly, if it did, I wouldn’t have sent her to Morris Jeff in the first place. What I like about Morris Jeff is that its diversity reflects that of the city: I would imagine it would be hard for Ruby to be one of the only white students at an almost exclusively black school just as it would be hard, I imagine, for a black child to be at an almost exclusively white school. (I have never had either of those experiences, so I can only speculate.) As to whether I’d be OK with her bringing home a black boyfriend? I can’t imagine my sweet tiny baby dating, period, but when she does start dating, race will not be one of my concerns. In fact, I don’t even assume, necessarily, that Ruby will bring home guys. Do I care about the type of person she brings home? Absolutely. There are some things that would drive me crazy – drug and alcohol abuse or other reckless behavior, rudeness, a complete lack of ambition – but they are not race- or gender-specific. When I look at my own dating history, I have to admit that it is pretty homogenous – but in terms of class, not race. I have dated black men, but I haven’t ever dated anyone who wasn’t solidly middle class. And my parents were gracious to every person I ever brought home. I don’t know that there’s a conclusion to be drawn there, but I think I can safely say that I would be fine with Ruby having a black boyfriend (or girlfriend).
3. A couple of people expressed the sentiment that this was what I should expect from our public schools or inquired as to whether Ruby had picked up improper grammar from her teachers. All I can say about that is that Morris Jeff has some of the best, most dedicated teachers I’ve ever seen. All of the teachers, aides, assistants and administrative professionals I’ve met have been enthusiastic, intelligent and extremely driven to try to do right by their students. And yes, all of them speak standard American English. I think the school is poised to do great things, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I often get goose bumps at the school’s morning meeting when the students discuss the school’s five core values: being caring, principled, open-minded, reflective and inquisitive. Last week, Ruby and her fellow pre-K classmates did an assignment called “The Colors of Us”; they painted paper plates in the various shades of their skin, and all of the plates are displayed on the wall outside of the classroom, a peachy-pinky-olive-tan-brown rainbow that helps show the kids of the ways in which their physical differences are beautiful, especially when they’re all displayed together. Ruby and I discussed later how the words we use to describe race, “white” and “black,” really don’t do justice to the actual colors of everyone’s skin and how all of the kids in her class used a lot of different colors mixed together to get their skin colors just right, meaning that everybody is his or her own special mix of colors and everyone in her class is beautiful and perfect just the way they are. At morning meeting today, one teacher asked: “Is it OK if someone has two daddies? Two mommies? Parents with different colored skin?” And one of her pre-K students responded, “Yes. The more different we are, the more special we are.” I love that. Again, I feel like these discussions are important, even if they’re not easy, and I commend her school for discussing it so candidly and for offering me starting points for good, constructive ways to discuss it with her, too.
4. Gypsy wrote: “This attitude towards the speech of the majority of New Orlean's children is exactly what our city dosen't need. You cannot approach a community from the position of superiority and expect to be embraced or accepted. … It is offensive that you think its ‘noble’ to let your child associate with black kids in the public schools, so long as she dosen't actually ‘become’ one of them.” I know. I know, I know, I know. Believe me, I am acutely aware how this comes across, like I think I’m doing the school a favor or something or like I only see the black students as a way toward furthering Ruby’s daily diversity dosage. That’s not it, not at all, but it’s such a fraught and complex subject that I don’t even know how to adequately address it. Do I feel that “white” culture is superior to “black” culture? No, of course not. Do I think that I’m doing something “noble” by sending Ruby there? No. I believe in public education, and I do believe that I’m doing something good – not noble – by being as involved as I can in fundraising; volunteering; and just generally helping to make the school a good, safe place. But I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t explored private school options and rejected many of them because I quite simply can’t afford it. Some of the top private schools in this city cost upward of $15,000. I didn’t spend that kind of money on college, and I don’t have it to spend on Ruby’s education now. If I did, I can’t say I would send her to private school, but I can’t say I wouldn’t. So no, I don’t think I am superior, and I don’t think I’m noble. What I do believe is that proper standard American English is important. And as “a Black woman who code switches” wrote: “It's not black or white, it's grammar.” An anonymous commenter chimed in: “I don't understand our problem here. Your daughter has picked up incorrect grammar. Why do you feel guilty correcting it? I'm sure you wouldn't if she started talking like a redneck or a Cajun or a Northeasterner, for example.” This is almost certainly true, and it was admittedly racist of me to attribute the change in Ruby’s grammar to her going to a majority black school, just as it is admittedly kind of racist/liberal-white-guilty/annoying that I did so much hand-wringing over it instead of just correcting it. All I can say on this point is that I am constantly re-examining my own biases and that I am not coming at any of this from a hateful place. I am grappling with all of this; I think everyone in America is still grappling with race to some extent. Everyone who commented made me think and re-evaluate, and I am grateful for that. As far as the excessive navel-gazing and existential crises go, I can’t promise anything. This is a weekly blog, and I write it as part of my job, which means that, unlike personal blogs, I have to say something every week whether I have much of anything to say or not. I am always amazed and delighted that people read what I write, but believe me, I exhaust myself with my neuroses and overreactions and completely over-the-top analysis of everything under the sun; I understand if people don’t want to read about them. That said, I always welcome debate and criticism: The flip side of this not being a personal blog is that I don’t really have the same right to get my feelings hurt as personal bloggers and that I have a duty to try to respond to feedback.
OK. Next week, I promise to return to my standard fare of cute stuff my daughter does and why New Orleans is so awesome. But seriously, I’m glad we had this talk. These are the kinds of talks that we all need to be having, as respectfully and kindly and honestly as we can, and once again, I am so thankful that Morris Jeff Community School – with the tagline of “a school as diverse as the city we call home” – has cracked the issue open. Ruby’s the one in school, but I am definitely doing my share of learning.