Care and Feeding

My White Daughter Was Bullied Out of Her Majority-Black School

How should we process this experience?

Empty school chair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bet_Noire/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a liberal, White, upper-middle-class parent, and we live in a mixed-income, racially integrated urban neighborhood. When it came time to enroll our daughter in high school, we selected a school that was majority Black because it was close by, and we rejected the notion of getting caught up in which magnet school was most prestigious. Our daughter had a horrible time there—she was harassed so much that we had to pull her out, and other non-Black students there were victimized because of their race. I am struggling to make sense of the experience. I think she’s managed it well and hasn’t let it affect her general views on race, and I believe I’m doing the same, but mostly I am just so angry that our daughter had to endure this, and I feel guilty that I put her in this position. I also feel caught between friends who seem to want to say, “I told you so,” and those who seem to think that saying that she was the victim of racial harassment somehow makes me seem racist since it was at the hands of Black students. Maybe I should just chalk it up to bad luck, but how can I let go of the guilt and anger and all the other awful reactions I’m having to this?

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—Hoping I’m Not a Karen

Dear HINaK,

You don’t sound like a Karen to me, and I am very sorry that your daughter had a negative experience at her former school. No child deserves to be treated that way, and I think it would be ideal for both you and her to speak to a professional about the feelings you are experiencing as a result. This is a deeply complicated matter. There’s what you seem to know about how racism functions in this country, which is in stark contrast with what seems to be happening at this particular school. How your daughter recovers from this experience and how you recover will mean a lot, in terms of your relationship to Black people going forward and your understanding of these awful racial dynamics that surround us.

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I will not defend the actions of any child who went out of their way to mistreat a classmate without provocation. I, like many other Black parents, take seriously the dual responsibility of teaching my child to both understand racism and resist the urge to take out the pain that racism causes her on people who benefit most from it. I also recognize that in an area like the one you live in—one that sounds like it is somewhere in the process of gentrification—an influx of upper-middle-class White folks can be absolutely devastating. So again, bullying, regardless of the bully’s background, is not OK, but you asked about the larger context here, and so that’s what I’ll try to unpack.

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After years of being told that your community was unimportant and unworthy of resources, you get to watch it become a “hot spot,” see investment that would have never been made on your behalf. Black folks, who once had “the hood” as a place to be surrounded by their own kind after long days of having to labor for White people, now have to watch Whites become the most affluent, and seemingly most content, residents of our ghettos. If that were not traumatic enough, there is also the matter of our interpersonal interactions with our new neighbors, many of whom have called the police on us, unilaterally organized to reshape our schools, or otherwise come into our sacred places and treated us as we are so often treated by White people: poorly.

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Here is another tricky subtext at hand when something like what your daughter experienced happens: Consider the likelihood that a Black person over the age of 16 has had or witnessed least one egregiously racist experience herself and has been made at least somewhat aware of how racism shapes the world around us. For us, this is to be expected. Racism is just part of what this country is and what we are up against, and we basically have to plan to suffer as a result.

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One of the ways we attempt to negate that suffering is by forming community with others like us, away from the gaze of those who participate in and benefit from our oppression. Whether this was a school that was a source of pride for Black families in your area, or simply the local Black high school, it was a place where these kids—living lives undoubtably complicated by the gentrification that brought you to this area—connect with peers who are living like they do.

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Your daughter might not have done anything deliberately to harm anyone or to invite mistreatment, but her presence disrupts something truly fragile: the feeling of safety Black kids get from being with other Black kids. Those kids see their parents struggling to afford to live in an area that is changing to better reflect people like you. They think of how they and the adults they love have been treated by White folks in positions of authority their entire lives (perhaps including some of the teachers at this Black school). They know the world is kinder to your child than it is to them. The combination of that knowledge, that pain, and their youth can be very volatile.

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Here’s something else to consider: The disruption that White students pose in Black schools does not always come at the same cost to White kids that it did to your daughter. Indeed, there have been many instances of Black kids fawning over non-Black peers because they have been convinced that their privilege makes them somehow special. (Nearly every White rapper is an example of this happening on a grand scale.) How you might have reacted to something like that says a lot about just how prepared for this experience you were in the first place.

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Imagine if your daughter had been very popular at this school, well-liked and embraced by her peers. What if her Whiteness had made her a celebrity of sorts, accepted and celebrated by students and teachers alike because of the ways that society typically privileges White girlhood? How might you have reacted to that? Would you have been concerned about how this could affect the Black girls in her class? What if she were the valedictorian in that all-Black school? Would that have been a problem to you?

School integration is complicated, and the U.S. has never worked to implement it in any meaningful way. The haphazard integration that has been born of gentrification has and will continue to hurt a lot of kids. I am sorry that your daughter was one of them, and I hope you are able to help her get through this difficult time with the right attitude.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been married to my son’s dad for six years. We had broken up when I found I was pregnant; he was with someone else at the time, and he had a baby with her before we got back together 2½ years later. We’ve been through the complicated co-parenting/envy/bitter ex phase and have had two daughters (as well as a stillborn son) since getting married. We also share in caring for his son by the former girlfriend, and I love him dearly.

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I just don’t even know what to call the situation with our eldest son and his father, nor how to deal with it. My husband has this frustration/hate for our little boy; it’s as if he is competitive with him and jealous of our relationship. He constantly nags him, which has taken a great toll. Our son has been emotionally eating for years, which makes him less perfect, which seems to make his dad happy because now “he’s not perfect.” I don’t know, I’m at a crossroads here. My husband is a good man, a great dad, but I’m just tired from spending all these years trying to change his brain! What to do?

—Mom Done

Dear MD,

Your husband is jealous and critical of your 8-year-old son, so much so that you feel he triggers his emotional eating and that you are complaining about “years” of trying to change his behavior. … What exactly qualifies him as “a good man, a great dad” here? I’m not going to tell you that your partner is trash—you know him better than I do—but it sounds like he has some deep-seated issues with either his child or the concept of parenting for some reason, and he is taking them out on someone who has no capacity to defend himself.

An aside: No child is “perfect,” but even if one has typically admirable, impressive behavior, an emotional eating habit would not render them any less admirable or impressive. I’m not sure if you and your husband are referring to the emotional eating itself or his weight as an “imperfection,” but either way, it does not sound like either of you is having the proper reaction to a child using food to cope. Instead of taking it as a mark against him—one your hubby was excited to record for some reason—you should be concerned with what is making him turn to emotional eating in the first place.

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How does he treat his other children? His other son? Is he totally warm and cuddly Dad with them, but overcritical and insecure with your boy? No matter what those dynamics look like, the one he has with his eldest son is completely unacceptable, and you need to investigate therapy options for your family, as well as for your husband and son as individuals (and for yourself, so that you can talk openly about what this has all meant to you). Wishing you all the best and encouraging you to get on this promptly.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

We spend a lot of time with my husband’s extended family. During a family gathering, at least 75 percent of the group is browsing on their phones at any given moment, including a few college-aged cousins who literally never look up from their phone the entire time we are together. We have young preschool-aged children, and it bothers me that they might learn to view this as acceptable behavior during social gatherings. I do my best to try to model the type of behavior I want my kids to see by being attentive to the others in the room and putting my phone in my purse. But I still know that my children are seeing what everyone else is doing, and it has become normal to them. I know this is just part of the culture we live in, but I strongly value togetherness and conversation, and it saddens me that family gatherings have devolved to this. Do I have any right to ask my husband’s relatives to put their phones away while we are getting together?

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—Not Looking at My Phone

Dear NLaMP,

Considering that there are college-age kids participating in this phone frenzy at your in-laws’ gatherings, I am inclined to believe these screen habits have been going on a long time and would be mighty hard to break. Furthermore, these aren’t events at your home, but occasions in which you are a guest in someone else’s space, so I don’t think going on a crusade to try and change these behaviors would be terribly fruitful. What you can do is create rules for your own home and your own children regarding screen time, and help them to understand why it isn’t ideal for them to have their heads buried in a tablet when they are in the presence of loved ones they don’t see often.

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There’s nothing wrong with mentioning your concerns to other adults, but if it doesn’t seem to be a problem for them, there isn’t really any value in your pushing the issue. When you are the host for a gathering, you can create and enforce rules about how much time people spend on their phones at the dinner table or during group activities. Your kids will see many behaviors over the years that you don’t want them to imitate; this is simply one of them. Focus on how you help them to understand and experience technology as opposed to attempting to reimagine a family that has already settled into habits that you can’t really control.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently lost my job due to the pandemic and had to move back into my old bedroom in my parents’ basement. While I was living in another city, my dad started using my room for storage, so it’s pretty tight in there between that and all my things from my last apartment. While I am home, I am watching my brother’s toddler, dogs, and chickens during the day, as well as keeping the house, which is usually a wreck, clean. He’s giving me $50 a day, but it’s not really a choice; there is no one else around, and we can’t just leave the kid home alone all day. My dad is constantly on my case about the fact that my room is crowded and messy. He got really upset that I wanted to move his computer collection out of my room even though he has lots of other storage space. He wants me to get rid of my bike because it’s taking up room in his garage, but I saved for a year to buy that bike and I love it.

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I am exhausted every day. I don’t know how I am supposed to watch my brother’s kid, keep up the property, and keep my own space tidy enough to please my dad. I want to get out of this situation, but by the time I’m done with all the tasks for the day, I don’t have enough time to job hunt. When I told my dad how frustrated I was, he told me that I am the woman of the house and living on his and my brother’s dime, so I need to contribute by taking care of the houses. I feel like I am simultaneously single-handedly keeping everyone’s lives together, cooking their meals, watching their kids, and cleaning their houses while taking up too much space and constantly getting in everyone’s way. They are constantly complaining about how I am scatterbrained and unorganized, but I am overwhelmed by managing their households with no support. I’m so occupied with taking care of my family I can’t get a leg up myself. On the other hand, if I just leave and couch surf with friends until I can rent an apartment, I know I am going to piss off my family and probably end up having to chuck my belongings anyway since I won’t have the means of taking them with me. What should I do?

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—Taking Up Too Much Space

Dear TUTMS,

I am so sorry that you’re in this predicament. You need to devote as much energy and time as you possibly can to getting out of this home. Your father and brother are taking advantage of you during your time of need, and that is not OK. Perhaps they have some messed-up attitudes about the role of women in a home, or maybe they are just overwhelmed by the discord in their own lives and heaping it on you. Either way, this is not a good situation for you, and you do not deserve to be responsible for caring for a child and a large home on less than a living wage. This is not a fair trade for having a place to stay. Investigate storage options nearby and try to get some of your things out of the way sooner rather than later so that when you have found a place, you can limit the amount of in-and-out movement in this home during the process of leaving, and so that you can breathe a bit more easily now. You might also communicate to your family that if they allow you a little more time to job-hunt, etc., you’ll likely be out of their “way” more quickly. This may be a project that takes a long time, but it is one that you need to begin, and take seriously, as soon as possible. Wishing you all the best.

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—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

Before I even ever thought of being pregnant, I knew that I would name my first child Nikola Tesla, with the plan of having lots of nicknames to choose one that would fit them after they were born. I settled on Tes because no one would really guess the meaning, and it seemed gender-neutral. After my son was born, his dad told me it was important to him that he be called Nikola, so that’s what we did. After my son turned 6 months old, his dad and I split up and he decided to call him Niko (the nickname I most loved and wanted to use). Eventually I started alternating between Nikola and Niko with a few other pet names. Now our son is almost 2, and if you ask him his name or what he wants to be called, he says Tes. If you call him Tes, he lights up. This has been going on for a few weeks now. So do I call him Tes? Do I ask others to call him Tes? Do I send out a social media announcement? Do I talk to his dad before doing any of this?

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