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  • Márcia Fervienza

Racism in Schools: The Ineffectiveness of the Behavioral Approach

I am sitting with my 15-year-old daughter one afternoon in our kitchen table, just she and I! I am looking at pictures on my Instagram feed. A picture of a highly-celebrated plus-size model comes up.

“She has a beautiful face,” I say, “but I don’t think she is beautiful.”

“Why?”, she asks.

“Because I don’t like her body,” I answer. “I love her self-confidence, and I wish I were like that, but unfortunately I am not.”

“So, you don’t think she is pretty because she is fat?”, she asks, judgingly.

Even though I didn’t use those specific words, yes, that is how I feel.

She looks at me disapprovingly adding that I should never say something like that, that I should find a nicer, more proper way of saying that, because “don’t you realize how hurtful that is?”.

“Yes, I do,” I answer, “which is why I haven’t said (and would never say) something like this to her face.”

“But you still think that.”

“Yes, I do, and I am not sure I can help it. There is nothing wrong with her, and my opinion says nothing about her or who she is. It talks about me and my own problems with body image”, I say.

She is upset. She can’t believe that I said that. I feel uncomfortable because I am not, and I have never been, racist or discriminatory in any way, shape or form. I have never chosen friends or company based on skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or anything like that. My antecessors are black and the person I loved the most in the world – my grandma – was a poor, illiterate mulatto – the full package! So, no, that isn't who I am. But that is my daughter’s opinion of me at this moment, and that isn't a fun place to be.


I have never chosen friends or company based on skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or anything like that. My antecessors are black and the person I loved the most in the world – my grandma – was a poor, illiterate mulatto – the full package!


I ask her what she thinks about the girl. She says that she believes she is pretty. I ask her if she would like to look like her, and she says she wouldn’t. I ask her why. She doesn’t answer. I ask her why she worries so much about body image and body weight when she looks in the mirror or picks clothes to go out. [Probably because she is reflecting some of my issues, some might say, correctly]. She answers, “Because I don’t like how I look when I put on weight.”

So, what is the difference between my opinion and hers, I ask? She says that it is the way that I said it. Thus, it isn't about what one feels about something, but about being politically correct, I conclude. She says it isn't, and the conversation goes on throughout the entire afternoon. We don’t reach a common ground that day. But, at some point, we have to let go of the topic to get to our other tasks.

A few days later my 22-year-old daughter comes from Atlanta to spend the weekend. At some point during dinner, we resume that conversation. After getting her sister caught up, my 15-year-old daughter asks her what she thinks. I am again accused of being a discriminatory, judgmental person because I have voiced my opinion to my daughter in the privacy of my home about larger bodies.

A few weeks later, an incident at our local high school reach the papers. Some teens are accused of calling another student the N-word, and because witnesses claim to have watched the event occur, the entire class gets suspended. No one confesses to the alleged crime; thus, everybody is punished for it.

A speculative discussion about the episode ensues in our local parenting Facebook group. The post quickly reaches hundreds of comments and is soon shut down by the group admin. She explains that, at this point, nothing has been proved, but the school has taken action. Therefore, speculation won’t do anyone any good. Plus, she says, we must respect the parents of the accused children who are hurting for the school’s punishing measure. As a parent who isn't American and who is new to town, I feel like my mouth has been taped shut for no good reason.

Luckily, another group, a liberal one, which I am part of, restart the conversation. They say that even though nothing has been proved and punishment has taken place, the conversation must go on. I agree. And, in that conversation, people start debating why the post was shut down, and we have been shut up.

I honestly don’t know, but I wonder if this isn’t somehow analogous to the situation I had with my daughter in our kitchen table a few weeks ago. I feel that the shutting down of the post was about being politically correct (to the parents of the accused children). And, if that is the case, that may be the spine of the issue right there.

Maybe we are so concerned about teaching our teenagers to be proper that we forget to teach them to be accepting and inclusive. Maybe we should focus less on what shows and more on what doesn’t show: the essence of who we are. We are all equals! That isn't something that we say to look nice: that is the truth. But if we, parents, don’t feel that way, we will never manage to make our kids believe that. If we don’t address our own beliefs in these topics, we won't be able to model the correct mindset and attitude. And while that doesn’t change, situations like this will continue to happen.

When I asked my 22-year-old daughter if it isn't hypocrisy to worry about how one phrases a thought instead of focusing on the beliefs behind it, she said it is a step forward the right direction. But I am not sure she is right. I believe that once our beliefs change, our speech and our behavior change as well. Trying to contain the speech within safe boundaries is easier because it doesn't require us to examine ourselves. But it isn't the lasting solution. The lasting – and more painful – solution is to look at ourselves and our families to see how our household culture is fostering thoughts and behaviors of exclusion and intolerance.

As a parent who has been living in the US for a little over seven years, my concern is that I'm raising my children in a culture that is more concerned about appearances than content. That is concerning to me. I don’t care about who my kids appear to be when they are in a social environment, as much as I care about who they really are in any situation. I know they aren't racist because they haven’t been raised in a racist environment. Still, the fact that they think that how you phrase things is more important than what you think is concerning to me.

See, these kids accused of having called the girl an "n-ger" know that isn't right – or they would've come forward by now about who said it (assuming that the accusation has merit). But they seem to believe that a person of color is an “n-ger.” And that is where the problem is, in my opinion. Beliefs create behavior. If we work on our beliefs, everything else falls into place. So, are we really doing our kids and our community a service by focusing on behaving so properly in a social arena, if our minds and hearts are still in the wrong place?

Please don't tell me we have to start somewhere! It is about time that we move beyond that.

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