For my daughter the moment came in kindergarten. Even though she was the only African American girl in her classroom, she made friends easily, adored her teacher, and was growing in confidence as a student. Then in May, just a few weeks from the year’s end it happened. She and a little white boy were playing together at recess as they had done all year when he looked at her and said, "You know, I would like you better if you would take off your brown skin and put on some white skin."
It was 2008 and we live in a liberal enclave in the Northeast.
She was confused, hurt, and surprised when she told the story. She wasn’t completely sure what it meant, but I could hear in her voice the creeping, sticky shame of inferiority. I sat listening with my stomach in my feet and a voice in my head screaming, "Not yet. It’s only kindergarten. Not yet. Not yet."
I had a similar reaction when I first heard the story about the racism at a pool just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . A group of black and Latino children from Philadelphia’s’s Creative Steps Summer Day Camp were turned away from the predominately white Valley Swim Club because "There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club." They were turned away despite the fact that the day camp paid $1900 and prearranged the swimming period. It appears the core resistance to the presence of black and brown children came from white adult members of the pool.
When I read the story I felt that familiar sick feeling that black adults have when we witness our children encounter nasty, old-fashioned racism for the first time. So many of us have these stories ourselves. Whether we grew up in black communities, mixed ones, or largely white neighborhoods, in the North or the South, urban or rural, we remember the first time. The first time we were called "Nigger." The first time a teacher explained "Nigger means black person." The moment our friends declined to invite us over because their parents didn’t want us in the house. The first brutally racist joke whose punch line we still remember decades later.
Because we have these stories we suspect that a similar day of encounter will come for our nieces, sons, sisters, and grandkids, but we hope we can delay it. We hope it will be softer for them than it was for us. We allow ourselves to hope that maybe, just maybe, this generation will be different. We keep believing the doors we opened will stay open long enough for them to pass through unscathed. Then some racist, selfish grown folk turn our precious children away from a pool in the heat of summer as though their blackness is an infection that will spread through the water.
The policy advocate in me says its time to find a lawyer. It’s time to collect evidence, time to call for a boycott, public demonstration, and letter writing campaign. Many in the Philadelphia area have begun those efforts.
The parent in me just wants to say ENOUGH. I hate that these young people will never forget the summer of 2009 because while their black President was addressing health care, and their Latina judge was being confirmed to the Supreme Court, they were being turned away from the white people’s pool.
When the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 they cited evidence from psychologist Kenneth Clark’s doll studies. The studies showed that African American children had a strong preference for white dolls. They attributed positive characteristics to white dolls and negative attributes to black dolls. Although the research design had serious flaws, Clark’s study was crucial in convincing the justices of the deleterious psychological impact of white supremacy perpetrated through the segregation of children. These compelling data were important for demonstrating that separate is inherently unequal. Replications of these doll studies continue to demonstrate strong preferences for whiteness even today.
The slow, halting, backtracking, difficult work of dismantling white supremacy is not just about the law, although certainly law must be part of the effort. It is not just about the health of our national democratic project, although our politics will remain sick until we fix it. This work is about our very souls. It is about the deep and enduring damage that racism, segregation, and inequality does to the hearts and minds of human persons.
In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois called the work of healing America’s racism "our spiritual striving."
–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
There is a kind of happy ending to the Pennsylvania pool story. Girard college, a Philadelphia boarding school for low income children has given the kids a place to swim for the summer. I first heard about this story from a white colleague. Since the story started spreading through online networks hundreds of white men and women have contacted the pool to express their disgust and outrage.
Many black adults who carry the wounds of our childhood encounters with racism have gone on to live successful, meaningful, happy lives. We don’t spend all of our hours fretting over the ignorant 6th grade bullies who called us "nigger." Many of us have stories of white allies and advocates who have been important in our personal and professional lives. When my daughter was hurt by her friend’s racial comment, it was her white grandmother who held and comforted her. But the scars remain. The damage is real. And the racial distrust and division in our nation are cemented with these acts of racial cowardice and avarice.
We must be allies together in this struggle. Black and brown children need advocates of all races. The Philly kids needed a white adult at that pool to stand up for them.