Native Son

with Aunt Julie and Uncle Jim
with Aunt Julie and Uncle Jim

If you are attempting to raise progressive, socially conscious children, it’s no secret that school will mess your kids up.

Having left the East Coast and our entire families behind for professional opportunities, my husband and I established a network of extended “relatives,” consisting of very good friends and neighbors. These friends became de facto Aunties and Uncles to our two children. Didn’t matter that folks came from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities.   Uncle Mike (Japanese American) and Uncle Jim (Korean American) were simply family.

Then one day our son came home with a special assignment. To celebrate the rich diversity of the school (a public school, grades 1-5) in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the pupils in this particular first (or was it second?) grade class were encouraged to bring a dish from her or his “home country.” Huh.

I think it’s fair to say that most parents of African American children dread the day when they have to discuss the history of U.S. slavery with their kids. This has nothing to do with shame or political correctness. It’s just that a) schools usually bring up the topic in a horrible and offensive manner and b) the conversation often happens much earlier in a child’s life than one might expect.

As cheerfully as we could, my husband and I pitched what we thought would be a sure winner: Why don’t you bring mac and cheese, son? Everybody loves mac and cheese! The kid wasn’t having it though. Anybody can bring that. You can even get it out of a box. What’s so international about that??? We explained that the U.S. is our home country, so let’s call up Nanny in Virginia and get her super secret recipe! But the disappointment was too great. Why can’t we just call Uncle Jim and ask for a recipe from Korea?

Damn.

Innocence over.

Dutifully, we went to the world map on our son’s wall and put one finger on our current “home” (Los Angeles) and moved it all the way over to the great land of North Carolina, which is as far back as we could go without making up stories.  This lesson was followed by a more official visit to the California African American Museum where our son and his three year old sister were bored by my lectures about slavery and U.S. history.  The mac and cheese ended up being a big hit at the school potluck, since most of the other kids either brought tacos or enchiladas, if they contributed anything at all.

I get it: the school was working hard to celebrate “diversity.” But too often “diversity” assignments in schools results in lazy thinking, at best, but usually cultural insensitivity, as we were to experience many, many times with both of our children.

In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t caved to the authenticity game that the school was playing.  The rules were simple: pick a box and jump in it.  There’s no reason why we couldn’t have offered up some kimchi or at least some spareribs. But we opted for “truth,” which meant that a 7 year old learned about the Middle Passage. Why couldn’t the teacher just ask every student to bring their family’s favorite recipe? Or why couldn’t each person learn about a new country and bring a popular dish from it?  There are a multitude of ways that schools can be inclusive and respectful without being marginalizing.  (Please include your suggestions in the comments below!)

Years later, while she was attending summer camp, we found ourselves in a similar situation with our daughter. This time: “wear an outfit from your home country.” She wore a cotton dress from Target. What could be more American than that?

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4 thoughts on “Native Son

  1. I love this story!! I have been thinking about how, in our zeal to overcome without actually overcoming, ideas of Black inferiority, we leave our children incredibly vulnerable. To use an analogy referencing Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we are “Sethe” and our children are “Denver”. My story to share involves well meaning attempts by progressive teachers at a wonderful westside school to get my 4 and 5 year olds not to use the term “black” in describing themselves, since they were really “tan”. Later in their school careers, when other children or teachers subjected them to micro (and macro)aggressions of race denigrating blackness, their understanding of themselves as “tan” left their psyches far more vulnerable than my Black upbringing left me. I have learned to walk the fine line between racial guidance and imposing my own, possibly outdated insights…..but it aint that easy!

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  2. As an adoptive family, with a closed adoption, this assignment used to fill us w dread too. One time I couldn’t take it and we went to the Anthropology Museum w a handmirror and created a history. We did the assignment based on the traits he noticed since it always led to judgement based on the superficial (the exact opposite of the intention in including diversity in core studies.) He took common crops from each place and created his personal ethnicity. One teacher educated. Like your idea of learn a country, what homeschoolers often do by us. Needs the addition though for those who are from other places to get to be available as expert consultants.

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    1. Thank you for comments. Teaching is a tough profession and I certainly appreciate all that teachers do. But just as you mention in your remarks, at times school assignments have the exact opposite result. It really takes a proactive support system to help students thrive!

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