[Citizen Why is a new column from Ali Muldrow where the personal and political collide and where Ali hopes to infuse our political landscape with shared humanity while questioning everything. -Ed.]
While walking with my seven-year-old child Adrian a few weeks ago, she looked me right in the eye and asked: “Mama, am I bad?” It was a perfect summer evening and as we continued walking the sun hung golden surrounded by fuchsia as it lowered slowly in the sky.
I immediately recalled myself telling Adrian that she wasn’t being a very good listener the day before. I paused as I thought about why I never pointed out when my seven-year-old child was being a great listener? Why I made it a bigger deal when she made a mistake than when she did something wonderful?
I had seen Adrian’s question coming and I knew it required a more complex answer than “no,” but that’s what I told her. “No, baby, you are not bad. You are good. I love you always no matter what … even on the hardest days we have. You are intelligent and caring because you ask good questions and learn from everything around you.”
To that Adrian said, “I know. I just wanted to make sure you knew. Just checking. Can I play a game on your phone in the car?”
I once told a friend of mine that if she was going to scold my daughter, she would have to compliment her twice as often because my daughter will receive messages from media, teachers, friends, and strangers on the street all telling her that she is bad because she’s black. When she acts like a child, even at the age of five or six or seven, she is subject to the harshest punishment and the most profound criticisms. My friend promptly responded to this by telling me that she would scold any kid for the things she had scolded my daughter for. To her, it had nothing to do with race.
I understood what she was saying. I knew that was what was important to my friend in that moment was establishing that was she wasn’t racist, especially towards black children. My response to her was “if I told you my daughter was a vegetarian, you wouldn’t tell me you feed everybody’s kids hot dogs.” You would ask me questions … maybe even ask me to send her with a snack. But it would make sense to you to respect the difference between our kids if it was about food. Whether my child being black meant something to you or not, it means something to us. Being black impacts our lives daily. In order to build somebody up, you have to understand what they’re up against.”
“The disproportionate use of discipline when addressing students of color is not about behavior. Whether it’s suspensions, expulsions, detentions, or arrest at school, we disproportionately discipline children of color to reinforce the myth that children of color are dangerous. When children of color make mistakes, we send them the message that they are bad – not that they have done something bad.”
Learning is all about being built up. It is about being seen as capable and curious. In the words of Ms. Frizzle, “learning is about getting messy and making mistakes and taking chances.” So why has our focus become on behavior and particularly when we’re talking about black children? I read an article last year that characterized young African-American girls in high school as one dimensional and disrespectful while stereotyping their home lives. This article was written by a police officer working at a school here in Madison. In this city, you can’t drive 10 miles without seeing a bumper sticker that says, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” We are constantly telling young white women to stand up for themselves, and in the same breath, we are also constantly telling young black women that racism would go away if they would just behave/act right/stop deserving it. This damaging dynamic forces black girls to swallow unfairness while blaming themselves for it.
The disproportionate use of discipline when addressing students of color is not about behavior. Whether it’s suspensions, expulsions, detentions, or arrest at school, we disproportionately discipline children of color to reinforce the myth that children of color are dangerous. When children of color make mistakes, we send them the message that they are bad – not that they have done something bad.
When I was in high school a friend of mine got an infection while studying abroad. She had to have her wound reopened and have gauze packed into it multiple times a day by the school nurse to keep the injury from leaking as the infection oozed out of it. One day, she rolled up her pant leg on the way to the nurse’s office in order to avoid having to walk around for the rest of the day with her clothes soaked in an infection. She was stopped by a teacher in the hallway of our school who told her having one pant leg rolled up was gang affiliated and to roll her pant leg down. My injured friend refused and explained she was on her way to the nurse. The teacher followed her all the way there to confirm she was telling the truth. If she had been a young white person, her pant leg being rolled up would’ve been associated with bike paths and farmers markets – not organized underground crime.
But she wasn’t white. She was black and could not be trusted to roll up her pant legs and walk to the nurse for help. Had she been white, maybe the teacher would have noticed she was limping because she was hurt.
Disproportionately punishing children of color does not keep us safe; it keeps us racist. Breaking with a history of racism will mean shifting our focus away from the behavior of black and brown children. It will require that we work together in the best interest of students of color and build new channels of communication. We will have to learn to see children of color as children who have the right to make mistakes and recover from them rather than be defined by them. It will take leadership and understanding to move us forward.
For me, moving forward means investing in the leadership of LGBTQ youth of color. It means promoting my children’s ability to see themselves as kind and intelligent and being critical of myself as I engage with my children around the areas of race, gender and ability. Decentralizing discipline would give us the opportunity to emphasize communication, literacy, collaboration and critical thinking. Changing our schools means embracing the world I have never known, a world in the absence of racism and discrimination in which everyone has access to learning. We will have to work for this world, we will have to create it, and we will have to stop excusing the way we are and regain focus on who we want to become.
“Disproportionately punishing children of color does not keep us safe; it keeps us racist. Breaking with a history of racism will mean shifting our focus away from the behavior of black and brown children. It will require that we work together in the best interest of students of color and build new channels of communication. We will have to learn to see children of color as children who have the right to make mistakes and recover from them rather than be defined by them. It will take leadership and understanding to move us forward.”
I took another important walk as I considered writing about behavior. This walk took place on a warm afternoon on campus as I was joined by the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham. I wanted to ask her about the limits of the Behavior Education Plan as a tool to address the long-term racial dynamic of the Madison schools. However, I was surprised when our conversation erupted into a hopeful dialogue about learning from mistakes, meaningful relationships, and addressing dynamics of identity head on.
As we walk and spoke, Superintendent Cheatham described a shift from blame to vulnerability. This would shift the foundation of our conversations about race. Our schools would take on moving forward toward equality by empowering our community to see themselves as part of a mission to ensure each student would have access to success at school.
“We need to put more time and attention into building trusting relationships between adults and students based on mutual respect,” she told me. “Our students need their teachers – and all of the adults in their lives – to be their allies and to be seen by their students as allies.”
Cheatham’s clear vision of our schools as supportive, trusting, and fueled by people inspired by the common goal of learning invited me to step beyond behavior to a place of encouragement. As my walk with Superintendent Cheatham ended, I found myself energized by her relentlessly constructive and inclusive approach to leadership. The potential for our schools to become what they have never been seemed to be at the tips of my fingers and I allowed myself for just a moment to image my seven-year-old Adrian being recognized for her kindness more often by everyone – myself included.