When I was in third grade, my extended family came to an open house or something at my elementary school. Like most kids, I was always excited to show off my inconsequential daily activities in class to the grown-ups in my life.
I especially anticipatory because the previous day a kid in my class had tossed a mini white board slate across the room, leading to my teacher chasing him down the hall and to the principal’s office.
I was always the kid who prided myself on never acting out, therefore seeing a fellow student misbehave piqued my interest and made me wonder what caused such a difference in behavior between myself and others.
I decided to tell my uncle about the incident, eager for his reaction. You see, my uncle was one of those typical white dude uncles who was born in the 1940’s. Politically incorrect, not much in the way of a filter, and described by fellow family members as a maverick. In this case, I knew he’d especially have something witty to add to the conversation.
What I got from him was curious at the time, and severely disappointing in retrospect all these years later:
“Was he black?”
I was taken aback, but obviously didn’t understand my own surprise. I answered like most kids would.
He answered as most adults do when they are taking advantage of a youth’s innocence.
“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering”
I never got a real answer from him. I told my parents, to which they were too embarrassed for my uncle to give me a real answer either.
Raise your hand if you had at least one white relative engage in a conversation like this with you at any point in your upbringing. If you didn’t, you’re an outlier.
Racial stereotyping is not innate. It is not something that people wake up and decide to take part in one day. It is systemic. It is passed down. It is built within the structure of society.
Examples like these demonstrate the unfortunate realities of racial prejudice in America. If I had grown up with too many family members like this uncle, who’s to say that I wouldn’t have become someone who says these types of things to children myself?
It’s easy to see why black kids are put at a disadvantage in the American education system with stories like mine. Non-white kids are framed as violent, turbulent, and difficult to deal with at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
A 2004 piece published by the National Academies Press verifies that mistreatment and stereotyping of non-white students leads to a poorer education and worse preparation for the world ahead of them.
Mickelson (2003) determined that racially disadvantaged students (e.g., blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans) are found disproportionately in lower educational tracks for which curricula and instructional practices are weak (see also Hallinan, 1998; Lucas, 1999; Lucas and Berends, 2002; Mickelson, 2001; Oakes, 1985, 1994; Oakes et al., 2000; Welner, 2001; for a more extensive discussion and references, see Mickelson, 2003).
This creates an endless compounding cycle perpetuated by racist practices in schools. Instances like the one I described, wherein a black student acts out in frustration, usually because they are at a disadvantage, leads to poor behavior. They are then disciplined for something more harshly than should be penalized, leading to more acting out from the child.
This gets these kids placed in lower level classes which don’t see them for any of the potential they possess. Racist guardians and family members don’t want their white children in these environments, thinking that the “malcontented” children are muddying the waters.
It’s just one endless, structural problem that won’t stop until stereotypes like the one my uncle fed into stop.
People like my uncle infect the police force, resulting in incredible violence and bigotry.
People like my uncle infect hiring practices, leading to whites getting into jobs that non-whites are more qualified for.
People like my uncle are just one symptom of the prejudiced disease in our nation.
My hope is that someday the child’s view of the world will prevail. That our first question after an indiscretion isn’t to wonder what color the skin is of the perpetrator, but what was happening in the environment to cause poor behavior.
America’s race problem lies with those who are doing the judging, not the victims of such verdicts.
Think like a child. Love everyone just for the way they are. See people as people, and the world will become a much better place.