Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Sweet Little Black Boy"

So how would you respond to the following situation?

One of your son's new preschool friends sees him in a park and says, "Hey! It's {insert name here}! Hi!"

You walk his direction. The lady you assume is the boy's mother says, "Oh, this must be {insert name here}! I've heard all about {insert name here}."

You raise your eyebrows and smile, assuming she's heard of your son because he's so cute or articulate for his age or can sing perfectly.

The lady says with a huge smile, "I heard that there was a sweet little black boy in the class this year!"

You are a little stunned. The lady then follows this with, "Yes, and I heard he is just so well-behaved! The other boys are so rough, but {insert name here} is just so sweet and polite!"

You don't know what to say, so you walk away with an uncomfortable smile, say goodbye to the preschool friend, and take {insert name here} by the hand to go watch a soccer game, convinced your child is in the wrong school and wondering if all the parents in the place refer to your child as "that sweet little black boy."



Meg said...

How awful. I have no advice, but wanted to offer support and I do not think you are overreacting to this at all. Ugh, just awful. This just makes me think that once our kids are home we'll very soon feel the pressure of having to educate everyone we meet...

The Journey said...

I'd meet with the teacher. I'm not sure what I'd say or how I'd guide the meeting so I'm really being of absolutely no help to you, but it feels like a parent/teacher meeting might be a productive next step. Hopefully it's just this one parent, and this one parent isn't representative of the rest of them... So sorry this happened.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jo- meet with the teacher. Also? I would ask Alana what to say- she was so right on with the email she sent that group of ladies....

annieglan said...

I went to a catholic school that was almost all white. The only black kids were from a transracial adoptive home. I saw a lot of prejudice. I won't go into details, but it was hard on the family. Hopefully when you bring your little girl home Abe will have someone to confide in. But it may not be a bad idea to put him in a school where he isn't the only one. I hope this helps, and I hope she realized what she said was wrong.

Jim Raleigh said...

I was one comment from someone who may not of understood what she was saying. Maybe have some grace here. My thought anyway.

Joy said...

Hmm, a very tricky situation. Partly because I'm sure this woman, in her way, is expressing what she believes to be positive and kindly attitudes toward your son. Condescention/patronization (such as "sweet little black boy") are difficult, because the folks being condescending often have no idea that's what they're doing (which is objectifying and dehumanizing your son by thinking of him as a thing, or at least differentiating him from "others"). And since they aren't (in most cases, at least) trying to be negative, it seems hard to find an appropriate response (I would find it easier to respond to overt negative attitudes), knowing they may not realize the problem and not wanting to come down hard on them in that sense, but wanting to address your legitimate concern, and hopefully have an impact on people's perspectives. Rambling a bit...partly thinking this through by typing (and partly need to hit the pillow soon). Found this post interesting & thought-provoking.

Lori said...

We have gone back and forth and back and forth about how big an issue to make diversity in the school we choose for our child(ren). At one point, we thought seriously about moving into a more diverse school district/neighborhood, but then a couple of books (The Color of Water being one) and conversations with people who are more experienced than we are with transracial parenting made us decide to keep things as they are since we're in one of the best districts around. And this preschool came highly recommended by many, plus it's right down the street.

I really relate to what Joy said: I know the lady wasn't being overtly anything; I just know that what she said rubbed me the wrong way, and I'm not sure how to articulate why. I'm going to bring the subject up at my job this week, a place where I am the lone "sweet little white girl" who works there.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those situations where reading it doesn't actually provide enough context. Only your gut can tell you what was behind it. On one hand it seems most newer studies on race tell us that white people pretending not to see color at all is not helpful to the situation. Although I am not sure if that is relevant or not. I wonder if it would have felt different if she said "african-american," "Ethiopian" or "brown"? Reading it my gut reaction was YUCK. Abe is a sweet little boy... but if he is the sweet little boy that everyone is referring to as "the black boy" of course YUCK. And the word Boy... well that adds a whole other level. Somehow if it was sweet little black girl it would not sound as terrible (to me). And if it was Sweet Little Ethiopian Girl - I would still know she recognized the child because of color, but it would feel totally different.
Yes, this is one of those posts that will have lots of your readers arguing themselves in circles. I am looking forward to hearing what happens next.

msl said...

Just the fact this mom felt the need to mention color at all kinda leaves me shaking my head (and would she have made the same comment if you had been african-american?) I can see why this has left you wondering.

Lori said...

Yes, I had the same thought: would she have used the "sweet little black boy" had I been an African American mother? I doubt it. Seriously doubt it.

Stephanie said...


I suppose you might be referred to as the sweet little white lady by the people you work with, though ... I wonder why that strikes me differently. And - what if he were a child with some kind of obvious physical trait like one arm missing or if he were blind or something - would it be felt badly if someone said, "sweet little blind boy?"

You know, Lori, I think this bugs me because Abe is sweet - not because Abe is black. I ... think ... (going very slowly here, actually thinking) ... I think that's what my Mom self flinches at. Is Abe learning that "boys" are not supposed to be "sweet"?

I don't have an answer though. It could easily have been the kind of thoughtless comment that was really no worse than "sweet little red-haired boy." Abe's pretty vivacious in his sweetness ... maybe HE's the one who'll influence THEM.

Christine said...

I like the idea of speaking to the teacher because that might clear your head a bit. I have read a lot lately about white people being reluctant, usually, to use words relating to race in conversation. I do this at work all the time. I will forget someone's name and be describing him/her to someone else and be very hesitant to say 'black' as part of the description. I'm just adding this to the conversation, I don't know why, because there was no good reason why the woman needed to say 'sweet little black boy' to Abe or you at the playground. Maybe she was over-compensating, you know, "I know he's sweet and that he is black and I want you to know that I am hip enough to say it out loud, yes, that's me, bumbling through life." I'm sorry, though, some things do really bug a mama. Yesterday I found myself wanting to stay away from the whole world thanks to some ugly comments from family, no less.

Stephanie said...

Lori, this whole episode of yours has been rattling around in the back of my head. I think that maybe this is where you start to build your family's ways of dealing with this, because I don't think it will go away. Ever. It's going to be as much a part of your lives as the fact that my daughter was always freakishly tall was a part of ours (and still is -- wouldn't you think that the comments about "tall" would stop once a woman's over 25 years old?)

If everyone in your family had bright red hair, or if everyone had a lazy eye, or any other obvious physical trait, that trait would and Abe's traits will, be used to identify him.

The woman who talked to you was probably bumbling more than anything else ... but she's also probably a beginner. Beginners bumble. What she's beginning to do is overcome generations of a culture that divides itself into smaller groups, because that's what people do. And all the time, everywhere, every group has fears, hostilities, curiosity, and imaginations about all the other groups -- UNTIL SOMEONE BLOWS APART the unknown by introducing the knowable. That's what Abe's doing at school.

It's a heavy burden for a little boy, but maybe that's not so terrible. Maybe now, while he's blissfully unaware of carrying a burden, maybe that's when he can build a social habit of winning people over and teaching them not to fear. He doesn't have your mothering instinct to protect himself -- but maybe he doesn't need it. If he's being teased or bullied, that's one thing. But if he's actually leading the group because he's so "sweet," well just think about the effect he's having on all the lifetimes of all those other children who are just now deciding what they think of the various groups withing society.

If the adults are making a safe enough place for this to happen, Abe's being a cultural revolutionary in a way that will last for generations in all of those families that will come someday via all of those kids.

(And my first instinct is "get him home! Rescue him! Wherever boys are supposed to be stereotypical 'boys' is a bad place for real boys." But then I thought again ... I wonder ... maybe it's okay.)

Lori said...

Stephanie, thank you so much for your thoughts. Your explanation about why her comment bothered me makes sense. That's my whole dilemma now; I don't want to talk to the teacher unless I can explain *why* I felt upset. What you wrote is a beginning--it makes sense.

As for the boys being rough and tumble in the class, I didn't see that the day I volunteered in class. Of course, I was hunkered down at the art table most of the time, but I couldn't tell that the boys were any more aggressive/rough than the girls, so I'm not sure why the lady in the park even said that. Maybe I was there on an 'off' day.

Part of me feels like it's not worth making an issue of it unless it has bothered our son; if we're the only ones upset, then we can just let it go. But then I worry that maybe our son is internalizing things and unable to express his feelings when something happens that makes him feel "other."

Anyway, thanks so much for helping me process my thoughts on this matter. It truly does help, not just to Stephanie, but everyone who has commented thus far.

Engendo said...

ugh. learning experience for the woman maybe?

Stephanie said...

I think you'd know if something un-nameable was bothering your son. You'd see him acting out in some way - there would be something wrong, and you'd know that there was, even if you couldn't quite figure out what the heck was going on.

And you've brought up a real key, Lori. Watch Abe. HE'll let you know if something is wrong with Abe. As this is, you can ask questions of the teacher if you just want to keep an eye on things or get a feel for her perspective, but if nothing's wrong with Abe, then nothing's wrong with Abe.

(Golly, you're a good mom)

Emma said...

That is tough and I really don't know the best course of action. I can tell you that in my previous job I was often the only white person around and plenty of people referred to me as "that white lady" or "the white teacher". I know it wasn't meant as an insult. If I had had bright red hair they would have called me that red haired lady.

I suspect what she said just came out wrong but I didn't hear the way she said it.

So much to think about.

Evelyn said...

I don't have much to say except that I cringed as I read this. So sorry, Lori.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a transracial adoptive family and I hated being called "the pretty black girl" it was meant as a compliment but it bothered, and no one understood how a "compliment" could hurt my feelings.
As one who has been the only black child in the school/neighborhood/etc I would say watch your son for signs not just acting out but different behavior. I sometimes felt like I had to be good all the time because people thought black people were bad I had to be good so they could see that I was "different, good, not like those others. It was exhausting and I put up with a lot of nonsense that I probably shouldn't have.
Parents take care of children but remember that children also take of parents. I told my parents, especially my Mom what she wanted to hear because I didn't want to get her upset.
Anyway I just wanted to add my two cents, I hope everything works out fine.

kn said...


I haven't been reading blogs for months and I suppose it's stuff like this that had me take a break. My heart can't take it at the moment.

Quinn was in a lovely school that we thought he would stay in until 4th grade. We was there for two years of pre-k. The teachers, students and families were lovely. The education was top notch. I was on the school board.

He hated it. He was one of two black children. He got treated like the 'sweet little black boy' all the time. He was sweet. He was 'better' than the other boys, more well behaved. He also broke down many days at home from what we now see was having to 'act' like the sweet little black boy.

we switched him to the diverse, large, underfunded but very decent public school. He now feels comfortable in his own skin. He's been there 2 plus years and he still says he didn't like the other place. There he was special. But not for anything that he did - or when he was called out for a talent it always had that 'that sweet black boy is so good onstage' kind of stuff.

In a rather funny episode I commented on the kwanzaa song at the holiday show. The teacher said she put that in because Q said he celebrated Kwanzaa "He actually said he celebrated Hanakkuh, but I knew he must have meant Kwanzaa" said the teacher. "Actually," I said, "He meant Hanakkuh. We're Unitarian-Universalist and we celebrate Hanakkuh but also Q wants to be Jewish and has been saying he's Jewish all year so he really did mean Hanakkuh." "Oh, then we didn't need to have a Kwanzaa song in the show?"
Diversity was something that was 'done' for Q, not something that was celebrated for it's own sake.

I think I would have said something like 'Oh your son is the cutest little white boy!" Nice like, with a smile.

Stephanie said...

>>Parents take care of children but remember that children also take of parents. I told my parents, especially my Mom what she wanted to hear because I didn't want to get her upset.<<

Wow, Kimberly. So so so true!

It's true for every parent-child relationship, and I had not thought about how much more true this would be for a child who grows up obviously "different" from the parents or from the community. That's good to keep in mind!