Care and Feeding

My Son Protested a Horrible School Tradition in Precisely the Wrong Way

I believe his intentions were good, but I’m mortified by his actions.

A photo of the exterior of a high school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Willard/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My family is white, and lives in a somewhat rural, majority white area, with one high school that serves three small towns. Both of my children attend this school. There are no other local options. The school has an annual “Senior Slave Day” fundraiser, where twelfth grade students can opt to auction themselves off to lower classmen for a day of servitude, with the funds going toward the senior class budget. Obviously, I find this tradition heinous, and have voiced as much to administration and the PTA, with little result. My 17-year-old son also finds “Senior Slave” distasteful, and when he told me he was going to protest the event last Friday, I told him I was proud. What he didn’t disclose to me were his methods.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My son, and two other senior boys, put themselves up for auction, arrived at the school for check-in and briefing, and then snuck away to apply blackface before stepping on stage. Well … that’s almost true. My son was the only one who made it on stage. The other two were detained before making it there, though one did apparently dart through the audience before being caught.

All three students have been suspended, and will probably not be allowed to walk in graduation. I am mortified. My son is unremorseful. He says that he accomplished his goal of making people uncomfortable, when “the nice way didn’t work.” I have taken away his phone and driving privileges, but I feel like I’m fumbling the conversations about why.

Advertisement

To be fair, he did accomplish his goal: While the school did finish the auction last weekend, they announced yesterday that “Senior Slave” will no longer happen going forward. My family is receiving a lot of anger right now, unfortunately more because my son “ruined Senior Slave,” than because he showed up in blackface. How do I talk to my son about the harm in his methods, when he accomplished in one night what I haven’t been able to in years? And how do I stand up to my neighbors, without making excuses for my son?

Advertisement

— What a Mess

Dear What a Mess,

I am a little torn here myself. I don’t know that there’s ever a good reason for a white person to don Blackface, but if there was one, this might be it. It’s unfortunate that it took such a dramatic event to end this tradition, but I’m glad that it did, and I think you should be proud of your son. When neighbors complain to you, ask them how they think most Black people would feel about this tradition. Defend your son and the noble intention behind what he did, he absolutely deserves that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As far as talking to your son, you can let him know that there may have been other ways to get his point across without stooping to the very gross act of putting on Blackface. There used to be a student auction held at the Historically Black University I attended, until one year, a popular young man hit the stage in nearly nude and in shackles to protest the event. Your son could have alluded to the horrors of slavery without painting his face, and you should let him know that even under these circumstances, what he did could be considered hurtful and offensive to Black people. Blackface is something people should never do, period. Let him know that if he wants to be an ally to Black people, he should consider how they would feel about his methodology. Would he have felt comfortable doing the same thing if the audience was more diverse? Are there any Black kids in town? Has he talked to them about what they felt?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

However, I do not think you need to go out of your way to further discipline your son for what he did, and I think you should also be careful to separate your disapproval of Blackface from the community’s reaction to the loss of the auction, which is sad and pathetic. It sounds like the school is taking strong action against him. Talk to him about what he actually did wrong versus why he’s being so harshly punished. Let him know that ultimately, his heart was in the right place, and that he did accomplish something significant, though the methods were not ideal. And then move on. All the best to you.

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here.
It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

At the beginning of the school year, my parents really wanted me to join a sport. I do not enjoy any sports, and I was involved in other activities, so my parents said that if I joined a non-sports team that was fine. I joined a team, and I hate it. It’s disorganized; all I do is read the rule book over and over and sit. I don’t like my partners either. The team isn’t in a subject I enjoy, and it really has nothing to do with the somewhat related class that I’m taking. I didn’t want to join, it was my parents’ idea and now I’m stuck. I have asked my parents many times if I can quit, because I’m not doing anything when I go to meetings, and all the other kids in my grade quit. Every time I ask my parents, they say we’ll talk about it later. Today, my mom said I had to stick with it until January because there’s a competition then and she wants to make sure I really don’t like it. I know that I don’t, and I would much rather join one of the other clubs that meet at the same time. What should I do?

Advertisement
Advertisement

— Stuck in Science Olympiad

Dear Stuck in Science,

I am sorry that this team has been so miserable for you. I think you should continue to advocate for yourself to your parents. Let them know that you aren’t learning anything, that you spend most of your time with this group doing nothing, and that you deeply despise having to go to the meetings. However, there is a good chance that your parents will make you stick with it until after the competition; this doesn’t mean that you haven’t done a good enough job explaining yourself. Some parents are just absolutely beholden to the idea of sticking with the things you start and/or the notion that an unenjoyable activity is better than none at all. Figure out why this level of participation is so important to your folks; if they are concerned about you having enough extracurricular activities for a college application, perhaps there is something else you can take on that will make you happier, or maybe you can make the case that you’ve got a solid number of things on your plate without it. Let them know that you have no problem finishing what you’ve started under normal circumstances, but that this group is just too unfulfilling and time-wasting for you to fully commit yourself to it. Be clear that you only took this on to please them, and that there isn’t anything to be gained by you sticking with the team. Hopefully, they will get the message, or at the very least, allow you to bow out after the competition in January.
Wishing you all the best.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, My Son Drew a Very Inappropriate Picture of His Babysitter: What should I do? How should I talk to him about this?.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister is a single mother to my 8-year-old niece. My sister works a lot, and since she lives down the road, my niece often stays with us. She’s here so often, in fact, that my in-laws consider her to be their honorary grandchild, and since her mom had to travel for work this Thanksgiving, they were excited to invite her for the celebration.

My husband has these two aunts who can be nosy and generally like to get in everyone’s business. They comment on absolutely everything. Most of his family dislikes their nosiness but put up with it anyways. My niece is an amputee and has one arm and one leg. I could easily imagine the aunts commenting on how much she eats or how skinny she is (she eats a lot because moving a prosthetic leg with a knee joint is so much more work), or how she’s adapted to doing things with one arm. She is sensitive to adults staring at her or commenting on her disabilities. We let the aunts know that she’s an amputee and asked them to refrain from making their usual sorts of comments.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Well, the aunts both got offended. One of them refused to come to Thanksgiving, while the other one showed up and made a big deal about how offended she was. She wouldn’t stop complaining. And she did make the specific comments about my niece’s disabilities that I was worried about. She also insulted me and my husband for offending her. My husband’s teenage niece took the kids outside while the aunt started arguing with everyone. My in-laws kicked her out before dinner even started.

Advertisement

Unfortunately, my niece felt super bad that she had ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving. Literally all the other guests tried comforting her that it really wasn’t her fault and that she was actually the victim, but she wouldn’t listen. It seemed to be overwhelming for her, so I got them to calm down. We had a quiet dinner during which my niece kept apologizing to everyone for “ruining Thanksgiving.” We left early because she was so distraught. It’s been a few days and my niece isn’t very upset about what happened anymore, but she still references it as if it was her fault. My in-laws called yesterday and explained that the only person to blame for what happened is the aunt, and told her they want her to come back for Thanksgiving every year. I think that if anyone else is to blame, it’s me. I probably could have phrased my warning better. I’m not going to tell her that because it would make her feel like I got into trouble for her. My sister heard about what happened and called to let my niece know it wasn’t her fault, but she wouldn’t listen to her mom either. How can we help her deal with her emotions and realize it wasn’t her fault?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

— Anxious

Dear Anxious,

Talk to your niece about what kind of person this aunt is, how she makes people feel, what kind of negative energy she brings with her into a room. Let her know that there are people like this throughout our society, and that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to ignore and isolate them. This aunt is a grown woman who was so incapable of managing her feelings that she embarrassed and targeted a child. She should be used as an example for a type of behavior that may be somewhat common, but that is wholly unacceptable nonetheless. Remind your niece that there is nothing wrong with her, nothing that she could have done differently to prevent this adult for behaving as ridiculously as she did. Her body is her body and it is perfect the way that it is. Anyone who cannot see that is not to be trusted or taken seriously.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Considering that your niece has lost a parent, is navigating life with different abilities, and is regularly separated from her mother, I think she would benefit tremendously from therapy or counseling. A professional will understand the range of emotions she’s dealing with and can help come up with ways to cope when someone says something about her amputations, or for when she is missing her parents. Talk to your sister about this and if you are able, help her to identify someone local who can provide the support it sounds like your niece could use.

As far as this aunt goes, she should be permanently banned from attending events with your niece, who should never have to suffer seeing her face again. If your in-laws want your niece to return next year, they must commit to making their home a safe environment for her.
Everyone makes mistakes, but I see no reason to give this woman another chance to make a young girl feel uncomfortable ever again. Wishing you and your family all the best for a much more peaceful winter holiday season.

Advertisement

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Thursday’s column, read it here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

The other day, before going to a restaurant, I casually asked my mom if I thought I should wear full length pants or shorter ones because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be cold. My mom told me it was a stupid question and to make that decision for myself. I guess it was a pretty dumb question, so I didn’t think much of it. Later that day, I heard my mom telling my aunt about it. I got a little annoyed because it was not something she needed to share and was so random anyway. But my mom said that she had the right to tell my aunt about it because it was a dumb question and that as long as I ask dumb questions like that, she will tell people about it. I got mad at that and told her I thought it wasn’t right. She pretty much told me what I thought didn’t matter and to leave her alone. I tried to explain to her that I am not a small child and that I have feelings too, but she wouldn’t listen. This isn’t even the first time she has done things like this and tried to make me feel bad. It makes me so unbelievably mad, because I feel like I have been telling her this my whole life but she never listens. She is always sharing all the small details about my life with other people. Is there any way to get through to her? How do I get her to listen to me for once?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

— Over the Oversharing

Dear Oversharing,

I’m not sure how old you and your mother are, but it seems safe to assume that you are an adult, which tells me that your mother has been who she is for a significant amount of time. One of the hardest things for us to do, as grown-up children, is to make peace with our parents’ shortcomings. If you’ve been letting your mother know for years that the way she talks about you to other people makes you feel bad, and she hasn’t changed, then it doesn’t seem likely to me that she will change without consequences. See, when we are children, there is little we can do to challenge the things about our parents that we don’t like. We’re still dependent upon them for food, clothes, and shelter. But as adults, we can set boundaries; it’s not necessarily easy to do, but it can be done.

Advertisement

You can let your mother know that she makes you feel small when she talks about you to other people. Tell her you’re sorry that it annoys her that you look to her for guidance about small things like what to wear, and that going forward, you won’t do that anymore. However, what you also will not do anymore is sit idly by while she insults you to your aunt, or anyone else. Let her know that she hurt your feelings and that you don’t want to be in a situation where you don’t feel good. You can give ger an ultimatum: If you are to continue seeing her, then she’ll have to stop trashing you and making you feel bad. If she can’t do that, then perhaps you don’t need to see much of her anymore.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I understand that the idea of stepping to your mom like that can be scary, but the only way to get her to listen to you is to give her a reason to listen to you. If you continue to behave as normal and come around with her treating you the way she does now, she’ll never change. Hopefully, the prospect of losing you will be enough to make her reevaluate some things. It may be hard to threaten your mother in such a way, especially if she is reliant upon you somehow (or vice versa), but she needs to be rattled a bit. Something’s got to give, but it shouldn’t be you. Best of luck in standing up for yourself.

Jamilah

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Advertisement