Sunday, March 10, 2013

Courageous Conversations

Somewhere along the way through motherhood, I missed out on an important meme, Courageous Conversations. Sure, I’d heard the term, but I didn’t realize it was capitalized.

I bet I’m not much different from the rest of America. I have a vague idea it was a phrase Obama said, and one that many of my “culturally competent” friends will drop into our conversation, signaling they are in the tribe.

I haven’t read the book and I didn’t Google it before beginning my thoughts. My jumping off point today was the article in Seattle Times today regarding a US Department of Education probe into discrimination in the classroom. When I finished it, I heard “courageous conversations” ringing in my mind.

Before speaking further, I must identify myself to anyone who has not met me. I am a divorced white mother of a mixed race 13 year-old black son who is at the racial identity phase of development.

I wanted Son to read the article, of course, but knew that was not going to happen. Instead I reread it underlining quotes and data I wanted to share with both Son and his teaching team at the meeting about his attitude tomorrow afternoon. (Spot on timing, Seattle Times.)

While there have been no suspensions at our house, there have been plenty of lunch detentions. Plenty. Lunch detention doesn’t sound like much, but think about Son’s perception that others are getting away with just a talking to.

“[He] has heard countless stories of black students who receive harsher punishments than white students for infractions that seemed identical.” “Yeah, so, I already knew that,” says Son.

“Some of the biggest disparities show up in schools with relatively small numbers of black students.” There are just 5 blacks in Son’s grade. Five.

“Where the racial disparity kicks in, all the discipline data says, is when you look at subjective reasons for discipline, things like disrespect or being disruptive, excessive noise, or loitering.”

Some of Son’s white female teachers have found him disruptive and disrespectful. Son feels he is singled out unfairly, the only one being called out at a table where everyone was talking. (Yes, he admits to talking and goofing around. The problem is the added edge of being singled out for reprimand when you already feel a bit of an outsider.)

What’s complicated is that all of the adults in the situation are well intentioned, culturally experienced white people who sees things very differently than Son.

I sincerely believe every one of the adults involved are doing their best. They’ve been through the training. They even have family across racial lines.

But if I am honest, if I am courageous, I must admit that I can’t recognize in myself any deep-seeded bias I might have not yet discovered. Have I been more protective because my son is black? You bet. Do I worry more? Absolutely.  Of course I’m biased, so why aren’t they as well.

And what parent of a young black man growing up in this country isn’t doing her or her best to help their son build the necessary armor and savvy to keep them safe out in a world who expects them to be either thugs or Oreos.

So tomorrow I will do my best to have one of the courageous conversations that ends in smoothing the way and keeping Son on the right track. I will follow Dr. King’s teachings and begin with a compassionate heart.

And tonight I’m going to meditate on the challenge of self knowledge. Can we ever see into our subconscious motivations and their resulting actions?