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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Teaching Racism?

Today, the Baltimore City Schools are closed as a result of the #FreddieGray protests. In response to the unrest in Charm City, the Washington Post offered a piece on the most racist places in America, according to Google. The map was developed based on the frequency of the n-word. And the result was shocking.

Now I realize that I am the last person who should be writing about racism or discrimination. As a middle-aged, upper-middle-class, white male, I offer very limited experience on the matter. Sure, I can relay stories I've heard from friends, but that is of little value. And while I often talk of some of the experiences my two kids, both born in Guatemala, have had, I also know what when they are with me, they tend to be treated as if they came from my background, and not from a poor Central American country.

Seeing the continued reports coming out of Baltimore, I'm struck by what I saw over the weekend. On Sunday, my son had his ninth birthday party with all of his friends. Twenty eight- and nine-year olds bowling and playing video games and eating cake. It was very much like the birthday parties I remember as a kid. Except I grew up in northern New Jersey. In my town, diversity was those kids who did not come from an Italian-American background. While there was a great deal of economic diversity (we used to tease that we definitely lived on the wrong side of town), it was the difference of middle class versus upper middle class.

But on Sunday afternoon, I watched my son and his friends just have a grand time. Nearly two dozen kids--boys and girls--enjoying themselves and enjoying each other. Huge smiles, lots of physical contact (in a good way), and pure, childhood glee.

Of course, we expect to see that sort of fun at a party. If not, then why bother to come. But what struck me was the collection of kids. My two children were the Latino contingent. We had Black kids. We had Indian kids. We had Asian kids. And we even had a few white kids. While some of the adults may have noted race, none of the kids did.

So it begs the question--at what point do we teach racism? When do these kids become the ones singing racist songs at a frat party? When do they become the ones using the n-word? When do they become the ones who can't grab a slice of pizza or shoot hoops with a friend because the skin pigment is different?

Maybe I'm a little naïve here, but I remember when I was about my son's age. We lived in a Boston suburb, one that was about as lily-white as they come. At my elementary school, though, we had students who were bused in each morning from Boston. One of my best friends came in each day on that bus. I remember one weekend where he slept over and then came to little league practice with me. We had the best of times. But to this day, I remember some of the parents in town disapproving. "Those kids" were supposed to go back to Boston each day. Me, I was just playing ball with a buddy. That weekend, though, was when I first really learned about racism.

As we watch scenes like those playing out in Baltimore happen again and again, perhaps we as parents need to ask what we are doing. Maybe we need to ask what we are teaching our kids and why. And maybe, just maybe, we need to stop.

There is a great deal I still need to teach my son. But I can learn a great deal from this great little nine-year old's view on race. He honestly couldn't tell you a person's race. He doesn't see the difference between black or brown or white. He just sees friends.

We should all be so lucky.