Doyin Richards, Slate, October 26, 2021
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter “Clara” is very confident and focused on academic success. She is 15 and has her sights set on studying STEM at a top liberal arts college, and I think she has it in her to achieve that. I’ve tried to instill in her a deep awareness of equity issues so that when she encounters unfair treatment in male-dominated environments she’ll be equipped to recognize it, name it, and call it out. However, she might now be the one perpetuating injustice in her classes, and I’m worried about how to steer her without undermining the positive traits I’ve tried to instill in her.
Clara has noticed that when she and certain classmates submit similar work, those classmates will often get more points. If she works with a friend on a graph in her science lab class, she might get 8 out of 10 points with a note on what to improve, but a classmate who made a similar graph will get 9 or 10 points and a positive comment. To her this is unfair discrimination and she wants to report the teacher to the principal. However, the classmates are students of color. I know that all of the teachers at her school went to workshops on equitable pedagogy, and I attended a few of them myself because I volunteer at her school and all volunteers had to go to some of the training. One reason why her father and I chose this school district is their commitment to anti-racist education. I think these teachers are striving to ensure that students of color are well represented in the honor roll and competitive for scholarships on an even footing with the white students.
I’ve tried to hint at the racial justice angle, but she isn’t having it. To her, this is unequal treatment, and she says that I raised her to speak out against unequal treatment. To me, this is an attempt to make sure students of color are not held back. She keeps threatening to complain to the principal. The only thing holding her back is that I threatened to not let her take the driving test after she turns 16 next month if she keeps behaving like an entitled Karen. What should I do? I want a daughter who will speak out against inequitable treatment, who will always be confident and advocate for herself. I also want her to understand that the world isn’t just about her and we have to work for equity for everyone if we want something for ourselves.
Most of all, I want to keep the lines of communication about school open, rather than having her shut off. Our mother-daughter bond means so much and I’m afraid that I’ll threaten it if I put my foot down too hard about this. Please help.
—Caught Between Confidence and Equity
Dear Caught Between,
Based on the tone of your email I’m going to assume your family is white, so let me offer a Black person’s perspective on this. I think if you injected everyone in America with truth serum —including the staunchest racists in this country—they would agree that people of color have been (and still are) treated unfairly compared with white people. If I reported every racist slight against me, it would take me all day, for many, many days (weeks, years?), to come to get through my list. Being white in America means that these incidents of racial inequity are few and far between, and quite frankly I’ve noticed a lot of white people struggle when it comes to handling them. I mean, is this the hill she wants to die on?
As I’ve said before around here, if she’s going to make accusations like this, she’d better be right, because it could have a devastating impact on her teacher—and on her if she’s wrong. How can she possibly say for sure that something improper is going on? Has she witnessed this throughout the school year, or is this an isolated incident? Has she interviewed all of her classmates and compared their submitted work and grades? It seems like a stretch to conclude that unequal treatment is taking place, but let’s pretend that she conducted a thorough investigation on her own (which is doubtful) and came to the conclusion that something isn’t right. Why not address her concerns with the teacher first instead? You said you don’t want her to behave like an entitled Karen, but demanding to speak to the manager, er, principal, over something like this reaches peak Karen levels.
Also, you mentioned that this could be a case of the teachers ensuring that students of color are well represented on the honor roll, which is kinda insulting. Have you considered that maybe, just maybe, these students of color aren’t being given handouts and are as bright as their white peers?
I’ll say again I don’t think she should approach the principal with this unless she has an iron-clad case and spoke to her teacher first. That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t speak up against inequity; it means she needs to do her homework (figuratively speaking) and not use the nuclear option (going to the principal) before privately speaking with the accused party.