The Race Curriculum
By B.W. Hoffman
I t was a perfectly pleasant day - mid-70s, no rain. A lovely day. I'm running from place to place and taking just enough time to actually recognize the perfect pleasantness of it all when I bump into one of the most perfectly pleasant moms in my neighborhood. She's dressed in a lovely jogging ensemble, matching, hair neatly pulled back with that awesome wisp dangling daintily over her just starting to break a sweat, pretty face.
"Hi, we haven't seen you in months," she said. "I know, what a crazy year. We should do a play date." We go on, just long enough but not too long. It's almost a script, but really, honestly, it’s perfectly pleasant... until we broach the subject of summer camp.
"So, what did you guys do this year? I thought we'd see you at the Y?"
The Y, so accommodating, so grass rootsy during the school year, sponsors a not so accommodating summer camp that, by all accounts is just fabulous. The camp of choice, if... If you can afford it, if you don't work full time and can either get back to pick up your child at the bus at 4:45 (like, who gets off work at 4pm to pick up their child by 4:45 every day???) or can afford someone else to pick your child up from the bus every day, if you don't mind the hour and a half on a bus to get to and from the camp, if... your child is white.
My child is not white. I am, she is not. We are a non-traditional, multicultural, sole supporting single parent home, and while the children who overwhelmingly populate the Y camp look like me, they do not look like my daughter.
"Zoe went to the camp they ran out of our school," I said. There was a very awkward silence. She wasn't entirely sure she'd heard me. "Not the camp (so and so) runs... that camp? Really? And it was... good?" She was genuine in this burst of emotion, truly meant no harm, it was more like a deep concern that my daughter would be subjected to... that camp. But I am a bit of a rebel by nature and just couldn't resist the temptation to flaunt. no flat out brag about this wonderful little camp. "Well, let's see, they started the day tutoring the kids in reading and math, took them on trips to 10 different cultural and historic institutions all over the city, they went swimming at least 2-3 times a week, unless it rained, most days they gave them lunch and it was a full day program - 8:30-6pm. For $125 a week." Big - weird - pause, like a computer was jamming and finally she said, "Wow - well, that's amazing. Really?" Really. It was a great camp experience and my daughter not only loved it, she had wonderful, responsible care. And post script - there was not one white child enrolled in the camp. Not one. And I was the only white parent.
My neighborhood has undergone an enormous real estate boom over the past 10 years. 2-bedroom apartments that used to sell for $99K now sell for $799K and that's not an exaggeration. The landscape has changed, along with the demographic and the seams are starting to show. Recently we had a rather contentious Parents Association election. A white man ran against a latin female for PA President and in my perfectly pleasant neighborhood all bets were suddenly off. All around this election something very unpleasant began to swirl. A racial divide nobody was willing to address or mention. Rumors, innuendo, the latin female was allegedly spreading nasty rumors about the white male for votes, the white male didn't send his older child to the school and was clearly a "johnny-come-lately" poacher. It got ugly.
Walking down the street with a friend, a black woman with a wonderful, wry sense of humor and years of neighborhood experience, I thought I'd take a chance: "So, who did you vote for?" I pretty much knew the answer but that's not why I asked. I wanted the perspective. "I like (the white male). He's great. But I've known (the latin female) for 30 years. She was raised in my building, has 2 children still in school and 1 who went all the way through to graduation. She's brash and can even be abrasive at times, she's not always pleasant, but nobody cares more about this community and this school." "But..." (I had to know, I just had to) "but what about the rumors that she rigged the election, that she made up stories about (the white guy)?" She smiled and shook her head, "A lot of this nonsense, the rumors, it's a racial thing - on both sides. The old guard feels pushed out and the new guard feels superior. Everybody's fighting for their turf. Just go and take a look at who votes for whom." And then she added an afterthought, "Meet her... then you will tell me." And so I did. I met her - the woman in question - who won the election. I found her to be passionate, outspoken, knowledgeable, dedicated and no nonsense. A modern day Mother Courage. If Zoe has a problem in school I will call her and she will take the call. Her competition - the white male - is an exemplary individual who would have made a wonderful PA President, would have worked for the whole school, not just the white students, all of the students. But in a community that is losing its sense of identity to real estate, I want Mother Courage watching out for my kid. And btw, she will watch out for the white kids too.
As I write this I am struck by my own tone - so judgmental, even strident. I am not "the great white hope." Not even close. Truth be told, I couldn't afford the Y camp and I didn't like the hours or the commute. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy for me to bash my white neighbors. Given different circumstances I might be grappling with many of the same misperceptions and discomfort. And, whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a reality base here. People naturally gravitate to those most like them. It is unconscious, societal and engrained. It is inside and under the skin. And on the outside, we all struggle to maintain our most pleasant facade. My white neighborhood acquaintance, the jogger, is a great mother, and dedicated to both her community and her neighborhood school. She is not a racist and she meant no harm. But I think it may be time for all of us raising children to take a bit of a closer look at our perceptions and our attitudes about race and culture in our own backyards. It may be time for us to look at the language we use because that is what we teach our children. Because we are raising a generation of children who will come into direct contact with children of different races and cultures, children raised in single parent homes, gay parent homes, blended families, mixed race families, adoptive families and offspring of May-December marriages. Children like my daughter.
As I stroll through my perfectly pleasant neighborhood a thought presents itself: Here we are, so many years after school integration inside our own history lesson. All the colors of the rainbow now sit side by side. But the race curriculum plays out every day. Segregation may be over but separation is not. How amazing would it be for the feisty latin female and the innovative white male to work side by side for the good of all. How perfectly pleasant to not have to defend this camp or that camp. How truly different things might be if we were somehow able to make the inside match the “perfectly pleasant” outside. I'm sure many of the parents in my neighborhood have asked themselves the same naive, utopian questions. Ah well, until that day comes, one can only hope. And enjoy the changing landscape.