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Brown people

Parenting, racism and the politics of elementary school

By Rachel Ida Buff

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It's 8:00 AM and I am doing yoga upstairs. Just as I am moving into the balance poses, there is a knock, and my four-year-old daughter, Celeste, says, "Mommy? There's someone at the door."

We clomp downstairs together, where, sure enough, Eric paces on our front stoop. Sighing internally, I open the door. Eric smiles anxiously. "Can I mow your yard today?" he asks. "I really need the money."

Eric looks like he's in his early forties. He must have already been up a long time, because he doesn't live in this neighborhood, and is often without a car or a working lawnmower. By 8 am he is already here, looking like he's been killing time until it's late enough to ring doorbells on our block.

I should say that I don't particularly believe in lawn mowing, and that, on moving to this house, I insisted we buy a push mower to run over the yard once or twice a year if necessary. And I don't particularly like paying Eric to run a loud power mower over our sparse quarter acre. Frankly, I think power mowers should be banned in favor of tall grass and quiet neighborhoods. But I invariably say yes, and pay Eric to mow our grass. He seems desperate, and I imagine that, in comparison, it's nothing to us to give him $20 for the work and endure the ten minutes of noise.

I close the door and consider whether it's worth trying to finish my yoga this morning. "Mommy," says Celeste. "I'm scaredy of Eric"

"Why are you scared of Eric, sweetie? He mows our grass. Last year he painted our house purple."

"Did Eric go to jail because he is a mean person?"

Eric disappeared for a while last winter. No offers to shovel a quarter inch of sleet, no requests to borrow our shovel for the afternoon. My husband, Ben, guessed that he was in jail. This happened around the exact same time Celeste was becoming intrigued by the idea of jail. Lyle the Crocodile gets forcibly interned behind bars in the city zoo; Lyle's mother, Felicity, winds up in jail because she misunderstands and shoplifts a bunch of perfume samples in a department store. Jail is a scary but thrilling place, and the denizens of it are both intriguing and threatening to her.

"No, sweetie. If Eric went to jail, it was probably because he is poor. Poor people go to jail a lot, not because they're mean, but because they don't have things. Sometimes they don't have enough food, or warm clothes, and they get in trouble trying to get those things." I skip over Ben's other theories, about Eric's not-so-distant past as a substance abuser. And I don't, though in retrospect maybe I should have, go into the checkered history of our city police where people of color are concerned.

"Well, I don't like him."

The truth of it is that I don't like Eric either. I don't like his dependence and manipulation. I don't like having my grass mowed because I know he needs the money. I hate our relationship and everything it represents: the social inequality that my family benefits from and does not fix. My not liking him is petty, given the long history of injustice our relationship represents. But my guess is that as long as there has been this towering inequality, it's probably felt pretty strange on both sides.

There is a certain smugness among the liberal white folks in our urban, mixed-race neighborhood. The Old West End is one of the few integrated neighborhoods in Toledo, Ohio, a small, quite segregated Midwestern city. White people around town invariably act scared of this neighborhood and predict smugly: "you'll leave that neighborhood when you have kids."

Those of us who stay -- and there are more and more white, middle class families drawn by the big old Victorian houses and feeling of community here -- share a sense that we are cooler than that. Never mind the fact that it is common to hear these same people speak of a block that is more Black than white as "that dangerous block." Never mind that most of us keep our kids out of the local public schools, which are 99 percent Black and, officially, "in crisis". We have negotiated a truce with American apartheid, and we feel self-congratulatory about it. This makes Eric's presence an awkward reminder.

Like many kids in the Old West End, Celeste started school last fall at a preschool outside the neighborhood, at a slightly integrated, private Montessori school. The school has about ten percent children of color. There is a little scholarship money available, but not enough. No way would Celeste wind up in a class with Eric's kids there.

Celeste took to school easily and well. The school extends from preschool through the eighth grade. Ben and I talked about how we could afford to keep her there for the duration.

I always thought I'd send my kids to public schools. I went to them, although that was in a lily-white, upper-middle class suburb. I felt confined by that place, and I dreamed of an integrated urban neighborhood, where my kids would go to school with lots of different kids, have friends of many different backgrounds. Now I lived in that neighborhood. And here I was, keeping my child out of public school.

That same fall, Celeste started talking about "brown people." At first, it was just one of her backseat taxonomies, a way for her to sort the world into categories that, she was busily discovering, matter a great deal to adults. Like the time the previous summer I heard her whispering to herself, sitting at breakfast at her grandfather's house in Texas. I leaned over, to hear her intoning quietly: "Papa Ted has a penis. Aunt Grace has a 'gina. Uncle Frank has a penis. Mommy and I have 'ginas." Like she was practicing the differences, to make sure she got them right.

Celeste's interest in skin color started off the same way. She started to talk about people we know, and what color their skin is. "Lucy is brown, and her mommy is brown, but her daddy is white. You and daddy and I are white. Uncle Mike is brown, but Auntie Lisa is white." As I listened to her sorting the world into racial categories, I thought about Maya Angelou talking about how she realized one day that a white friend, stymied by the power of a world divided into "black" and "white" had no words for the actual color of Angelou's skin. I hoped Celeste was developing a vocabulary to describe a rich world full of color and difference. And then one day, she said, "Mommy, I don't like brown people."

I remember exactly where we were when she said this: in the car waiting for the light to turn at one of the major avenues that intersect our neighborhood, leading, on either side, through portions of devastated central city. There were two African-American women waiting at the bus stop there, bundled against the bright but chilly fall day and, I imagined, ongoing affronts from every single white person, four-year-olds on up.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied. "I just don't."

"You know, sweetie, skin color really doesn't change what a person is like on the inside."


Five hundred years of lies and history hung in the air at that moment. I wanted to convey just a fraction of that history to Celeste, without losing her attention. I wanted to explain to her that race is something invented to keep us apart as humans. But most of all, I wanted to avoid shaming her out of talking about race. So many white people blush at the thought of distinguishing between a light brown and a deep black person, assuming that any mention of color is something bad. These same people may harbor deeply racist feelings, but they can't talk about them, and so they assume they're not racists. So I didn't say any more just then.

I could see that Celeste was in the process of learning race, learning racism

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