Hard lessons learned the hard way.

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog piece entitled “The Binding of A.J.” In that piece, I mentioned that the white parent of a bi-racial parent may not understand the bias, overt and implicit, that a child may encounter. I expressed concerns that my wife might not recognize a potential problem when one arises. Well, it appears that time has come. Bear with me, this is a long read and I have included the previous blog in the body of this one. Here is the previous piece in its entirety:

Last year, during one of our Sunday morning services, I was asked to read the story of the Binding of Isaac with my then 8-year-old son. While in the course of the scripture reading, I unexpectedly became overwhelmed with emotion. Tears started to freely flow. The thought of facing what Abraham faced was just too much for me as I looked down upon my own son. So many thoughts were running through my head.

Well, last night I attended a series of short plays presented by a number of theater groups in Dallas. All the plays had been commissioned after the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman. Two, in particular, profoundly struck my heart.

The first was a telling of the Santos Rodriguez shooting that occurred in 1973. The other was a short play entitled “Dressing”.  The latter brought those thoughts of that Sunday scripture reading rushing back to me.

“Dressing” depicted a conversation between a mother and her son. She expressed her concern about how her son was dressed. It wasn’t about fashion, it wasn’t about indecency…it was about safety. This black woman was warning her son that his manner of dress might evoke trouble from others. Shortly after he leaves the house, she hears a gunshot.

After the plays ended and during a group discussion with the director, I mentioned that I had a feeling that a disconnect might exist between a parent of a bi-racial child and the need to have this type of conversation.  I was thinking how difficult it would be for Shelly to have “the conversation” with our sons.

People of color must have these conversations with their children all the time. My father had this type of conversation with me. I remember it well. It was timely too. The year I started as a freshman at Southern Methodist University, 1977, the Justice Department was investigating the cities of Highland Park, University Park and Dallas for pulling over drivers that were passing though the university area and happened to be brown or black. I was stopped.

That conversation my Dad had with me informed me how to behave. It went beyond acting with respect. It is the same lesson we teach today. It is the conversation that reminds our children that they are treated differently when they walk into a convenience store, shop in a department store, walk into a new school or classroom, have a substitute teacher, drive “too nice” a car, enter into a new church or simply walk through a neighborhood. Most importantly, they are treated differently when they are stopped by a police officer. I’m not sure that one can appreciate the importance of these conversations if one has never experienced security following them around a department store, having the police stop you when you’re simply walking (we always seem to fit the description of someone the police are looking for), or being pulled over for reasons like “one light is dimmer than the other” (yes, they have all happened to me, some more recently than I care to think).

My wife is well-read, intelligent, intuitive, and can be extremely empathetic, but she grew up in a white, middle-class family and was shielded from what people of color face every day. I am not sure she can grasp the concern I have as a male, person of color, with the concept of driving while brown. My car did not pass inspection recently and I needed to have a repair done so that it would pass. That forced me to drive with the sticker expired while I drove the needed miles to reset the computer. I was terrified to drive because I know how things can go drastically wrong in a second.

Implicit bias knows no bounds. The manner of dress, the level of education, how well-spoken a person is can be easily lost by the tone of one’s skin.

Which brings me back to the Binding of Isaac. Abraham was faced with following God’s instruction to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. God demanded Abraham’s faith be put into practice.  Well, we all know the story and we all know the ending. As I look down upon A.J. and Max, in their youthful innocence, I hope that I never have to have “the conversation” with them, but I know that I will. I know that I will tell them, time and time again to not wear their hat turned at that angle, don’t wear that hoody, don’t play the music too loudly in the car when you are driving, be aware of your surroundings and who you associate with, don’t give your friends rides, go straight to school/work and straight back afterward.  But like Abraham, I will offer them into the hands of God, daily, in faith, praying and hoping that God will bring them home safely by providing an alternative to sacrificing my child to a society that sees only the color of their skin.  Because for people of color, sometimes just going about our day-to-day business can be risky.  Sometimes it can be fatal.

Why did I cry when I read scripture that day? Because the Binding of Isaac is, in reality, the faith commitment people of color make daily with their children whenever we send them out our doors.

 

Last week, at my sons’ school, there was a school-yard brawl between two boys.  A.J. and another student in his grade intervened and pulled one of the kids off the other. In the process, A.J. received a fat lip from a head butt and kick, and the other intervener received a scratch.

I first heard about this altercation when A.J. and Max got home. He told me that one of his friends was “attacked” by another student and that this student wielded a weapon. My first response was to call the parent of the child that A.J. reported as having been attacked. I wanted to verify that A.J.’s version had some semblance of veracity, as I found it hard to believe that something this serious would occur on the school campus and that neither Shelly nor I would have been contacted by school officials. The story the other child’s mother told me was almost verbatim.

My next call was to the school but by this time all but one person had left and she knew nothing that she could report. She informed me that she would contact and leave a message with the Assistant Principal (the Principal had left early in the day and did not handle the incident) but could not guarantee that I would be contacted before Monday. I then sent an email to A.J.’s teachers, the Principal and the Assistant Principal in which I stated:

I understand that there was an incident on the playground today involving two Fourth graders. In the course of that event, my son A.J. Gonzales and another class member, XXXXXXX attempted to pull one of those involved in the assaultive behavior off of the other. XXXXXXX received a cut from what may have been a weapon and A.J. received a head butt. From what I have been told, both A.J. and XXXXXXX were asked to give a written statement as to what occurred. As disturbing as this is, it is equally disturbing that neither my wife nor I were contacted by the school concerning this matter. Although there may have been disciplinary actions regarding the other children that I should not be privy to, I most definitely should have been contacted by the school regardless of how minor my son’s involvement may have been and, without question when he was asked to provide a written statement. I will expect an explanation at your earliest opportunity concerning this matter, I should not have to receive this information from other parents or children that attend your school.

I received a call from around 7:15 Friday night from the Assistant Principal who explained to me that the story I had been told was accurate, adding that the weapon was a spork. I informed her that I was concerned about the safety of my child and wanted her assurance that there would be no threat of retaliation for the actions of my son and XXXXXXX, the students who stopped the fight. She told me that the student most culpable (she indicated that both students involved in the altercation had some degree of culpability) would be removed from the classroom that all the students were assigned. Additionally “he would not be allowed on school property” for a week. This was some comfort, albeit did not allay all of my concerns. The Assistant Principal did state that the school was short-staffed that day and the fact that I was not called was merely “an oversight.” She was very apologetic that I did not receive a call but nothing said about the injuries, although minor, that my child had experienced.

I received an email from one of A.J.’s two teachers who explained that she had left school early that day also and expressed her apologies for the “lack of communication” and also assured me that the situation would be monitored.

This morning I received a call from the Principal…more of the same.

Since Friday up until tonight, I have had multiple calls, emails and texts from the school regarding the upcoming bond election, but no real update regarding “the incident.”

As I explained in my email to the school staffers, I fully understand that I should not expect to be privy to disciplinary decisions involving other students, but a fully expect that someone acting in parentis loco would keep my wife and me apprised of any situation that might affect my son’s safety and well-being while at school. Not too much to expect.

Well, today I learned that the two children involved in the altercation may be back in the same classroom, one in “isolation” with the rest of the students. The student not isolated has been instructed not to speak to the isolated student or that, he too, would be placed into isolation.  Whether or not this information is accurate, shouldn’t reliable information be coming from the school rather than the other parents and kids involved?

I am no proponent for zero-tolerance rules but, if true, and a child used a spork as a weapon in a school-yard fight, that child should, at the very least, not be returned to the same class in which the person he fought with, as well as the two that stopped the fight, are expected to learn in a peaceful and non-threatening environment.

Now comes the rub. The child who allegedly brandished this spork is white. The other children are all children of color. As Shelly and I discussed this situation and I mentioned the ethnic component, it struck her for the first time, the disparity of the treatment all the involved parties experienced.

Some might say that I am “playing the race card” here, but hear me out. We are genuinely concerned, as parents, for the safety and well-being of our child. Whether a weapon was brandished or not, the offending child might feel a need to seek retribution against those who prevented him from harming the other student. The debate begins…would things have been different had the aggressor been a child of color? Is there implicit bias at play? Would we have received a call if our child had not been a child of color? Why has the School Board not been apprised of this troublesome situation? Are mere apologies expected to allay my concerns about the safety of my sons in their school? Is this where the school-to-prison pipeline begins… disparate treatment for violations of the Student Code of Conduct?

If we rock the boat, would it be detrimental to our children’s education? What about Shelly’s appointment to the local church? Do we stay silent to a perceived injustice?

This takes me back to the binding story. We, as parents, feel as if we have been placed in the corner ourselves. It is the anguish parents to children of color encounter on a regular basis.  To push the issue might paint us as troublemakers. A school that we love; teachers we have respect for; programs that have led to great growth in our boys’ academic life; all could be placed at risk if we bring this to the attention outside of those school walls. We are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

When you look at Ferguson or Baltimore, it is hard to understand how such frustration can grow and fester in a community, ultimately exploding in a purulent exhibition of rage and destruction.

Well, I am here to tell you that it begins with the forgotten phone calls, the inequities in punishment and discipline, the assumptions that, your child isn’t as important as another parent’s or that, you, as a parent don’t even warrant a call when your child is injured at school.

For children of color, it is a lesson that begins, often in utero, and it is a school we never graduate from.

For Shelly, this lesson begins in the Fourth Grade.

 

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About Vince Gonzales

United Methodist Laity, married to a recent Seminary graduate seeking ordination. Active at all levels of the Church, I sit on the Board of The General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church, one of our 13 UMC Agencies. I also am the Chair of the Racial and Social Justice Task Force of Churches Uniting in Christ, an ecumenical group of communions, dedicated to the reconciliation of ministries and fighting racism, as well as representing the UMC at Christian Churches Together's Hispanic/Latinx Ministry Gatherings. Additionally, I am one of two committee members from the South Central Jurisdiction serving on the DisAbility Ministries Committee of the UMC. My polity pendulum often swings to both extremes so one never knows what they might find on this page!
Quote | This entry was posted in Baltimore, Binding of Isaac, Ferguson, implicit bias, Justice, law, Michael Brown, school-to-prison. Bookmark the permalink.

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