Monday, January 20, 2014

How Mr. Sposito opened my eyes about race

With my siblings (me on left), around 1972
Around 1972, a scant four years after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, my third-grade class was traveling by school bus to visit another third-grade class across town as part of a sister school activity. Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, was white bread as you could get in the 1970s. I remember only one or two African-American students in my entire (large) high school.

As we approached the other third graders waiting outside to meet us, my beloved teacher, Mr. Sposito, who was in his first year of teaching and wanted us to call him "Stan," pointed out the girl who would be my partner for the day. She was African-American. As an eight-year-old child who had never been exposed to anyone with a different color skin, I was more than a bit nervous. But I said nothing: I was brave but also polite. How could I protest? Mr. Sposito told me that of all the students in his class, he had specifically chosen me to be April's partner.

What did I find? April was an outgoing, funny, and friendly girl. When her class came to our school, I enjoyed spending time with her again. Mr. Sposito changed my life and challenged my ivory tower world.

My parents were always progressive, but they were raising children and trying to make a living during the civil rights era. And we lived in Oregon, a long way from the deep south. My dad worked as a social worker in inner-city Portland, with African-American students, parents, and teachers. He worked to make a difference in their lives, and I will always admire him for how he lived out his belief in social justice. When he was transferred to the west side of town (less diverse), he missed the inner city.

Nicholas' school worksheet
I don't remember learning much about the civil rights movement or Martin Luther King Jr. as a child. I am delighted to see that this has changed. Not only do we have a national holiday to honor Dr. King, but the kids also study him and his work in class, have school-wide assemblies, and write about his work. We also have a lot more diversity in our schools, even though we are still white bread Oregon.

The most important thing I learned from Mr. Sposito is that we are scared of things we do not know. That's the reason I was nervous about being matched up with an African-American girl as an eight-year-old. I had no other reason to fear her.

That's why it's important for our children to be around people who are of different races, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, they will be more open minded than we were as children.

My white face with coworkers and students in Japan
It's also good for us to be in the minority for a change. When I lived in Japan for three years, I experienced what it felt like to be an outsider, the other, the only person who didn't have black hair and couldn't speak Japanese. Being a white person in Asia is not the same thing as being black in America, however, because of the systemic racism connected to power. I will never be able to understand what it feels like to be scared of the police, have people fear me while I'm walking down the street, or have people make assumptions about me based on the color of my skin. After all, even though the Japanese seemed to look down on many American characteristics or cultural mores, white skin was a desired commodity.

In "5 Tips to Raise Racially Sensitive Children: Honoring MLK’s Legacy by Ellie of Musing Momma," Ellie talks about simple ways to raise racial awareness with our children. We need to talk about race with our families, examine our own stereotypes and be open to change ourselves, expose our children to differences and celebrate them, and promote diversity in our lives. We need to be brave enough to talk about our own prejudices and attempt to open our own minds.

Clementine Hunter
My children are way more open minded and receptive than I was as a a result of our changing cultural mores and more progressive education, growing up with an African-American president (this is huge!), and a more diverse population in our schools. They actually have much to teach me about race. Last year I remember singing "We Shall Overcome" with Nicholas' first-grade class during Black History Month, and my eyes teared up watching them all hold hands and singing with gusto. Another time he told me me all about Clementine Hunter, an African-American painter, whom he had learned about in school.

My seven-year-old's best buddy is biracial, and he takes this stuff extremely seriously. Many of his drawings of people have different-colored skin. He believes in racial justice in his core. He has a big dream, too. My dream is that when he too is 49 and thinks back to his childhood, he is amazed to recall the racism prevalent in our society when he was a child, and how it has vanished.

Nicholas' drawing of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Jackie Robinson

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Marie, for another thoughtful and real post! Since grad school I've wanted to learn more about the brave Grimke sisters and their fight against racism; now Sue Monk Kidd has made it easier. Like you, I'm sure, I can't wait to read "Invention of Wings".