Friday, March 23, 2012


I'm sure everyone has heard about Trayvon Martin by now.  He is the young black man who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, in Florida (where apparently neighborhood watch captains carry guns?)   Trayvon was a teenager who got hungry while watching a basketball game on TV and walked to the corner story to buy Skittles and iced tea.  George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch of the gated community where Trayvon's father lived, called the police (for what?  Because a black teenager was in a gated community?) and was told to wait for police.  He didn't, and accosted Trayvon, ending up shooting him.  He said that he did so in self-defense, so the police let him go.  Apparently it didn't matter that Trayvon was unarmed and 100 pounds lighter than the white man who attacked him.

I don't have much new to say about this except that, even never having met this young man, I am broken-hearted.  I have thought about the chance of this kind of thing happening to one of my former or current students, especially when I've heard kids joke about running away from the police.  The reality is that if I ran away from the police, I'd probably get in a lot of trouble.  If a black man or boy did so, he'd probably be dead.  If I walk down the street in a hoodie, people assume I"m cold.  If they do it, they're dangerous. 

Here's some more reading about it.  Honestly, I'm too sad to have a lot of coherent thoughts.

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been One of My Kids

Why is it All Right for a Neighborhood Watch Captain to Shoot an Unarmed Black Teenager? 

Trayvon Martin case: George Zimmerman, mystery gunman

Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and the protection of 'police murder' in America

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Racism Hurts Everybody

In the last week, I have seen  this photo that's made it around facebook and heard about an acquaintance saying something about someone acting "like a typical black kid" - meaning, of course, that the child was being a troublemaker.

Obviously, these both make my heart hurt for a number of reasons.  The first thing I thought of was my Little Sister.  She is an ideal student and friend: thoughtful, caring, loyal, hard-working, and careful to think the best of everyone.  This is a girl who told me that we should give a homeless person her granola bar because the man didn't look like anyone treated him well, and everyone should be treated well, even if they're homeless.  She is also black.  I often think about what her reaction would be to either hateful racism, like this bumper sticker (and as snopes points out, whether it's real or not doesn't really matter, as you can buy plenty of products just like it online), or to ignorant racism like someone mentioning a problem child "acting like a typical black kid."

I feel like her reaction would be the same in both cases: stunned and extremely hurt.  This girl doesn't buy into stereotypes for the most part, and she understands that both she and the wild student in the corner of the room are both black but both individuals who have completely different personalities and temperaments.  When I see or hear of racism like this, I am heartbroken for my Little Sister.

However, recently, I have started thinking about the effects of this kind of racism on children who aren't black.  My almost-two year old (and extremely verbal) niece just got a doll with brown skin and black braids.  My niece is intrigued by the braids and wanted to comb the doll's hair, like she does with her other doll.  Her mom explained to her that the doll's hair was in braids so they weren't going to comb it and later told me that it impressed her that she's so little that she doesn't really know about the differences that the world believes about different kinds of people. 

My niece seems to be much like my Little Sister in many ways - very sensitive and already quite caring.  She talks about the people she loves and told a squirrel in the yard, "Have a nice weekend, squirrel!"  She likes interacting with my Little Sister and her doll with braids and has no idea that there are people in the world who would classify them differently than they would the people who look like us.  One day, my niece will also hear something either said in hatred or in ignorance about another group of people, and she will have to weigh that against what she knows.  It probably won't make a lot of sense to her.  She'll know my Little Sister who is gentle and caring, her cousin who is creative and friendly, and any number of other other people with different colors of skin, and she'll have to see that they're the target of stereotypes and discrimination.  And I think that will probably break her heart as well.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I have noticed - in an extremely unscientific survey - that most of the white children I know have only white dolls.  I mentioned this to someone recently who wondered if all children tended to have dolls that looked like them.  In my (again, very unscientific) observations, however, children of color (in the US) tend to have both dolls that look like them and white dolls.  This makes sense, as there is a wider variety of white dolls than other colors, of course (in the US).

When having these conversations, I can't help thinking of the doll experiments performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s.   These were the experiments cited in the Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually led to the desegregation of schools.  The experimenters provided children with two dolls that were identical except that one was white and one was black.  They asked the children (ages 6 to 9) things like "Which doll is the  nice doll?" and "Which doll would you like to play with?"  They also asked which doll was ugly, and which was bad.

Sadly, the results are predictable.  Most of the children - black and white - said that the black dolls were ugly and bad, and that they'd rather play with the white doll, which was nice, good and pretty.  This was used as evidence that segregated schools hurt the psyches of black students.

The saddest part, to me, was that the experiment was repeated in 2006 with extremely similar results.  We just haven't come that far.  I think of this when I find that white children tend to only have white dolls.  I don't think it's that their parents are racist ,but having dolls representing a variety of ethnicities kind of normalizes different racial groups.   It's just my opinion, but I think it probably helps children to see that people come in different colors but they're all people.  Again, there's no guarantee that children will grow up without prejudice because of the toys they had, but I think it's a good beginning.

My niece is an example of how kids start out before they learn that they're supposed to think a certain type of person is pretty, good, bad, nice, etc.  She is a (very) white toddler, and has a white doll with red hair, a brown doll with black braids, and several beige-ish tannish dolls that are ambiguous.  She loves them all and carries them around in the crook of her arm.  She likes to comb their hair and was confused about the fact that she couldn't comb the braids, but it didn't affect how much she liked that doll.  She still has no idea that there are different races and ethnic groups, and - although I often wish she could stay in that phase - I do think it's possible her to learn the differences without assuming that one group is better.  And, as silly as it seems, I think that having dolls that reflect the people in the world is a good first step.