When I was very young, my parents lived in a small Michigan town between their two jobs. We didn’t go to school there, and I didn’t understand why at the time. “Too racist,” my mom would tell people.
“That’s everywhere,” I remember a car salesman responding once.
That was almost 40 years ago. They were both right.
Despite my mom’s efforts to protect me from racism, I still experienced it. I went to a majority white elementary school because my mom was a teacher there and she wanted me close by. Some classmates called me a nigger. Some teased me for having black facial features.
And today, I’m struggling because I’m a mom now. I want a better life for my children, and I’m scared for them at the same time.
My parents divorced when I was 6. We moved to the city, and I grew up fearing the suburbs – you might get hassled by police, or worse, you might get lynched. Ahmaud Arbery’s killing proves I wasn’t far off.
I moved to Kansas City for work in 2003. I got married, had two kids, and now I live in the suburbs.
We moved here from the city in 2016 against my better judgment. But I relented because the housing market was tight and we couldn’t find anything we loved in the city. My husband said we could walk our son to elementary school – the schools are fully accredited with a great reputation – and there really are a ton of beautiful parks to play in.
The longer we’ve lived here, though, the more we’ve struggled with the decision. Only since the quarantine have we seen any families of color out and about in our neighborhood. I wave excitedly every time, and it’s only been a few times.
“Diversity at the elementary school level is pretty much nonexistent,” a fellow mom of color with an older boy told me awhile back.
As my son approached kindergarten age, my husband, who’s half-Latino, was the first to backtrack and say he wasn’t sure he wanted the kids to go to school here.
“I’ve been one of only a few kids of color. It’s not fun.”
He was called a Spic. A beaner. He was asked if his dad was legal.
I already told you my experience. Agreed. Not fun.
And then there’s the much larger issue of systemic racism and implicit bias. Right now, so many people are angry, frustrated and heartbroken not just about the tragic death of George Floyd, but about the deep-seated hate that killed him.
We’ve endured 400-plus years of systemic racism, not just the overt incidents my husband and I went through as kids, but the unconscious bias that permeates everything today, including our schools.
Teachers’ implicit bias against black students – especially young black boys – starts in preschool. And little black girls are more likely to be suspended, be called a racial slur, and are seen as less innocent than their white peers.
That makes my heart so heavy as a mother. And I can’t help but think it would be even worse in a place where my children were among very few minority students and teachers.
My son has already been singled out by preschool teachers because he can be quiet and shy. I’m the typical worrying mom, so I had him tested by the school district to make sure he didn’t have any developmental delays. He didn’t. But the kids getting tested that day told me a lot.
“I saw more people of color in one place than I’ve ever seen since we moved here,” I told my husband. I doubt that many minority kids have developmental delays. That’s implicit bias showing, and it’s terrifying.
I want the best for my kids – the best education, the best opportunities – just like any mom. But is this perfect suburb really the best? I don’t know.
It’s one thing for me and my husband to choose to be the only family of color on the block. It’s another to make our kids be the pioneers in their schools and deal with the same name-calling we endured.
My 5½-year-old son has noticed the lack of diversity in our neighborhood. He asked me on one of our quarantine walks, “Why do no brown people live around us?”
I didn’t get into redlining because, again, he’s 5½. I just said, “I know, Baby. I’m sorry. I wish there were more brown people, too.”
We started to look for a new place and prep ours for sale, but COVID-19 put everything on hold. We’re staying put for now.
I wish I could say that I was hopeful. Despite this movement, despite the protests, it’s hard for me to believe things will really change. That people will really confront their biases. That the world – that elementary school – really will be better for my son and daughter.
I know I can’t outrun racism anyhow, so I enrolled my son at the neighborhood school.
More than once, my husband has held me as I’ve sobbed with worry for our sweet children, and he’s promised me that we will be champions for them.
We will make sure educators know our names and faces and just how involved and knowledgeable we are as well as how determined we are that our children be treated fairly. That’s really the only thing I can be sure of at this point.
We’ll just have to see how kindergarten goes.
Pamela de la Fuente is a proud native of Flint, Michigan. She moved to Kansas City in 2003 to work at The Kansas City Star. Since then, she’s bought two houses, gotten married, worked at some other KC companies, and had a couple of kids. She is a La Leche League leader (Ask her about breastfeeding!), a mom of two toddlers, and a professional writer and editor. Pamela loves ice cream, craft beer, and grilled hotdogs, not necessarily in that order.