Integration and Community Schools

Three days a week this school year, I dropped my kids off this morning over by the side door. The man at the door waves hello but does not come to open the doors, he has already learned which mini-vans have automatic doors. I roll down the window so I can hear his music. This man has gotten himself a portable blue tooth speaker and he plays funk classics every morning, just to get the kids’ day started off right. He runs a tiny gentlemen’s school where he instructs the boys to tuck in their shirts and let the ladies go first. He looks the boys in the eye, man to man. He notices and compliments the color of the new bows on top of the girls heads. He is just so good at his job.

My youngest has become especially close with her para-pro. This doesn’t surprise me. Priscilla has been welcome in that classroom since Juliet was there 2 years ago. The para-pro hasn’t changed and she has always been fond of Priscilla. In my girl’s school, when they say that they are a community school, they mean that. If you are part of the community, you are in, even if that means that your sister goes to the school and you hang around when your dad is volunteering in the cafeteria.

This winter I led a coat drive for the kids in the school who needed one. I put a link on the internet in, and in three hours the coats were on the way to my house. I packed them into my mini van and delivered them to a social worker who had been praying for God to provide for the children in her care.

A week later Juliet came home with a new coat. I knew hers was a little short in the arms but we  live in Georgia and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to wait one more year. After outfitting everyone who had no coat, they moved on to the kids who had coats that were obviously too small. My daughter jumped into my van after school totally thrilled “Mom! Look! I got a new coat! It has a heart on it!” She was thrilled. I was horrified.

I could have gotten my daughter a coat. I could have taken care of that. I did not need a hand out. They didn’t see it like that. The community saw me as a member of the family. They had something we could use, so they gave it to us. We all gave and we all took and everyone got what they needed.

I have been in the church my whole life, and I think I have learned more about community at this school than I have at any other church I have attended. I learned how good it was to be able to say “we love our coat too!” when someone thanked me for theres. It wasn’t charity that I gave and they received. It was just a community thing that we all benefit from.

This morning I heard yet another program on NPR lamenting the fact that American schools are segregated. I read somewhere else recently that most people want the schools their kids attend to be integrated. And yet, many choose vouchers and charters and moving into a different district before they will send their kids to a school that is less than thirty percent white. We want integrated schools in theory. We want a better system but we don’t want to do the things that would change the system we currently have. We want schools that are comfortable to us, that work like white schools, but have kids of color in them. We still want to be in charge. We want a community school that values efficiency above teaching boys how to open doors and noticing hair bows.

I am so grateful that I am learning a new way from my kids school, that my girls are being taught this community way while they are young enough to absorb it as simply the way things are done. Where you notice, and care for, and invite in, and welcome, and share. I am glad for the ways my community is patient with me, in learning those things alongside my girls. I too want integrated schools, but I don’t want a white take over of a school that is already beautifully functioning. I don’t want things my way, I want to do better. I want people to join me who want to do better too.

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Do You Know What an Innocent Black Kid Looks Like?

It is June 9, and in about half the country school is out for summer. For me and my girls this means pool time at our friends apartment complex and an excessive amount of outside foods (watermelon, popsicles, klondike bars). It means hanging out in our pajamas until lunch time and cheap matinee movies when it is raining. It means less rules and more sleep. It means summer fun.

But this isn’t the reality for very many of my neighbors. In my predominantly black neighborhood, I am only just learning the dangers of summer. For my neighbors summer means more sleepless nights and more fear. Our predominantly black neighborhood is changing quickly, old abandoned houses turn to cute renovated open floor plan funky colored relator peddled property in two weeks or less. They never stay on the market long. Apparently, we’re up and coming.

For me, this means that our “buy as much as we can afford” plan from eight years ago looks like a genius investment, for my neighbors it means their teenage boys are more likely to be harassed on the neighborhood streets. On the first day of summer a kid was traumatized for riding his bike to his friends house. He hadn’t even left his own neighborhood. His mother documented it on Twitter, otherwise it would not be news.

I wish I could tell you that I don’t know how this happens. I wish I could tell you that it is a mystery to me, but it isn’t. At twenty-three and surrounded by black children I found myself reacting as I had been trained. Having mostly seen black boys portrayed as criminals in the media, I interpreted benign actions as aggressive. I wish I could tell you I am the only one. But my neighborhood Facebook page, the Nextdoor site tell another story.

The suspicious people being reported in my gentrified neighborhood are almost all brown. The people being suspicious are almost all white. People opening car doors or looking in windows I understand, but every once in a while there is a post about a group of teenagers hanging out. What are they doing? Why are they there? Should we call the police? Sometimes it is just a particularly large or slow walking man the poster is curious about. They have conveniently snapped a picture so we can all take a look, decide if the person walking down the street is up to no good.

It took me a year surrounded by black teenage boys to learn what an innocent teenager looked like. It took me a year to figure out that I was surrounded by innocent teenage boys.

When we moved into the neighborhood eight years ago, a group of boys were on the corner just hanging out. I rolled slowly by as to not hit anyone who made a sudden move and they crossed their arms and mean-mugged me. I thought it was hilarious. I knew what innocent teenage boys looked like.  I rolled down my window and in my best and brightest first day of school voice I introduced myself. “My name is Abby! We just moved in! We live in that brown house over there! It is nice to meet you!” They raised their eyebrows at me and walked away. I saw them on the corner pretty much every day that summer. I waved. They mostly ignored me.

It took me another year to realize that this was a defense mechanism, that the boys guessed that I would see them as a threat regardless of how they acted, so they may as well be in charge of their own destiny. At 16 or so, they were already familiar with nervous white women calling the cops on them for no good reason. They already knew there was nothing they could do to diffuse white fear.

White fear has to diffuse itself.

But I rarely see white fear diffuse itself. Instead it ignores itself, justifies itself, if called out defends itself. White fear is allowed to exist, even if it kills black kids. And I get it, I do. It is horrible and awful to realize that the default thought you have about a group of kids is: criminal. It is really terrible to realize you have this racial bias, even when you don’t want it. But these things need to be faced, because they are actually traumatizing people, sometimes killing them.

I wish I could give all the white people in my neighborhood Facebook groups the benefit of the doubt, in fact I am sure that they really do not “mean anything” by the question about the kids on the corner, but it doesn’t matter what we mean. Actions have consequences.

White women, do we know how dangerous our fear is? Do we know how seriously it is taken? A few summers ago I was walking my overly friendly dog. We walked up my driveway just as a man walked by my house. I turned to say hello and my pit-bull pulled at the leash, I smiled and turned to tell him how friendly my dog was. He already had his hands raised. “Please don’t sic your dog on me.”

I was stunned. As a white woman I am conditioned to believe that I am never a threat, that my presence is never perceived as dangerous. My fear is always justified and I could never hurt a fly. But this isn’t true. My fear has been weaponized against the black community before I was born. My concern is reason enough for a child to be harassed or a gun to be drawn for my protection. If I feel afraid, I am allowed to sic my dog on a man who is walking in front of my house. This is the world that we live in. And when we feel afraid we need to know that.

We need to look at ourselves and our fear. We need to really understand why we are afraid. Do you know what innocent black boys look like? I am asking because I didn’t. I am asking because I don’t want my neighborhood to be a place where my black neighbors are harassed for existing in their communities. I know it is weird and uncomfortable. I know I will be accused of race baiting and blowing things out of proportion simply for writing all of this down. I have decided black lives are worth a lot more than my own discomfort.

It is summer, and teenage boys are out of school, teenage girls are wandering around in packs laughing too loudly, children are biking to their friends house. Everyone is staying out too late. At least, I hope they are. I hope they all get the summer my kids are guaranteed. I know that the world can feel like a scary place, but we need to react with the reality that is: Our fear makes it a scarier place for people of color.

Do you know what an innocent black kid looks like? Do you check yourself before you report something? Are you willing to look at yourself, your motives, your fear? Are black lives worth that to you?