In a couple of weeks, I’m going to start the huge life adjustment of sending my oldest child to preschool. I feel a mix of things — excitement, anxiety, and skepticism.
On the one hand, it’s great that I’ll have more time to focus on my work. I’m glad that there will be days that I only have to wrangle one child — and I’ll be even happier if I can coerce my husband to do drop-off each day.
But, at the same time, it’s terrifying to think about all the things that could come with sending my son — my Black son — to school.
Sending him to preschool comes with several obvious changes, like a new monthly expense and an increase in gas spending. But it’s also a new source of stress for me. As a Black mother, sending my son to school is the first of many times that I will have to loosen the reins on him. I’m terrified that this might turn out to be my son’s first experiences with our white supremacist cultural landscape.
To be specific, here are just a few of the things sit atop my list of preschool-related fears.
1. Suppression of Creativity
Black cultural customs prioritize creativity, especially when it comes to musical creativity. We dance, we sing for no reason, and we move to a tempo within our heads. To a passerby who’s not accustomed to Blackness, this can be alarming. At best, it’s a source of confusion and an opportunity for clarity. At worst, it can become a chance for criticism and perceived as a threat to order that needs to be rectified or changed.
I don’t want my son to be misunderstood. But I also don’t want for him to be excluded or have the pep in his step cut out. I want him to be his most authentic self at all times. I want him to sing and dance and clap as his spirit moves him — without fear of how he’ll be perceived or possibly disciplined.
2. Excessive Discipline And Punishment
It’s no secret that Black children, especially Black boys, are punished at significantly higher rates and with more severe consequences than their non-Black peers. I have a three-year-old boy. Naturally, there are plenty of moments he can be described as “spirited” — though from what I hear, that’s pretty normal.
Yet when you live in a world that sees Blackness as an alternative identity, particularly the antithesis to whiteness, you risk folks in positions of authority making assumptions about who he is and what he intends to do.
When you look at typical behavior in the context of racial bias and the huge disparities and school discipline, they paint a terrifying potential for my son. I worry teachers won’t give my son the leeway they’d give other non-Black students. And I fear that his age-appropriate outburst will result in excessive disciplinary action, a behavior plan and, as he gets older, unjust suspensions.
3. Being Labeled
Another possibility that goes hand in hand with discipline is being labeled a “problem child.” I learned firsthand that the public school system isn’t ready for little Black kids who push the boundaries. Despite being a great student, I was labeled a problem child for something as small as regular class participation. According to teachers, I was a distraction.
As early as preschool, I had been given my own behavior plan. Raising my hand too frequently could get my mother called. I was “trouble.” I internalized that message, and the weight of it followed me damn near until college.
Research has documented the ways that Black youth, particularly Black boys, are substantially more likely to be misdiagnosed as having ADHD, schizophrenia, and similar conditions. And I don’t want my son to be next.
4. Indoctrination of White Standards of What’s “Appropriate”
Just the other day, my friend told me a heartbreaking story related to her coworker’s young Black son who’s already picked up on racial differences and began saying “I wish I was white” to his parents. Of course, there are a lot of contextual factors that I don’t have from hearing the story second-hand from a friend. But I’m ridiculously familiar with the heavy pressure to conform to white standards for existence; it was present in my youth. As an adult, I still struggle to resist the pressure to force myself to speak, dress, and think in a way that makes white people comfortable.
The list of examples is long. I’m anxious about wearing the sorts of “Black Girl Magic” t-shirts my friends in areas with more Black people wear, despite loving them. I’m uncomfortable speaking in my “normal” dialect of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). And my husband and I regularly feel the pressure of “representing” ourselves well as the only Black people in many situations. I don’t want my kids to inherit that sort of pressure.
I don’t want my son to lose appreciation for who he is before he has the opportunity to develop a sense of self, and being one of few students who look like him can have that effect. He has dark brown skin and a whole lot of big curly hair. When compared with the hair of white kids, it can lead to being touched more than he’s comfortable with, or making him question why we can’t make his hair or skin look more like his peers.
There’s so much room for improvement in our education system. Educational professionals are no exception to the bias that impacts all of us. Demanding detailed records of what discipline takes place and making sure elements of all cultures are embraced equally isn’t enough to ease all of the fears Black parents face, but it’s a start.
Preschool is a time of adjustment for any family, but race adds an extra layer of challenges. It’s so much deeper than searching for the right curriculum when you’re a Black family in America because your sense of self — your mere right to exist — is always at risk.
Only time will tell what’s ahead of us. Hopefully, it’s the best outcome possible.