Why I'm Scared To Put My Black Son In Preschool

by Brandi Jeter Riley
Originally Published: 
photo credit: Brandi Riley

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work from home and be with my children every day for the last five years. When I first started, my daughter was a preschooler who attended school a few days a week for a couple of hours. My husband and I researched programs to find one that had a strong emphasis on empathy and kindness, and where we thought our black daughter would be safe. While the school we ended up enrolling her in wasn’t especially diverse, the director and teachers were sweet and really took to our girl from the moment they saw her. We felt comfortable leaving her in their care.

Now, just a few years later, I don’t feel as confident in my search for preschool for my son. He’s almost two years old, and it’s definitely time for him to get some socialization. When he was smaller, he napped a lot and on schedule. He didn’t need much at all. I could strap him on me in a carrier and go about my day. Now that he’s a toddler, he needs a lot more attention and more opportunities to learn. He’s ready, but I’m not.

I’m scared.

I knew when I was pregnant that raising an African-American son in this country was going to be a challenge. Even as I celebrated his arrival, the reality that I was bringing a black boy into a world that historically hates black boys stayed in the back of my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the boys who never got a chance to be men because of their perceived threat on society.

Trayvon Martin. Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. Jordan Davis. And the many, countless others.

Kids whose lives were cut short because they were “scary.” Or because their music was too loud. Because someone felt like they didn’t belong. But really, because they were black.

Is it any wonder that I’m afraid to let my son out of my sight?

This society fears black boys and that scares the shit out of me.

This isn’t just me being a dramatic mom, either. Studies, like actual research studies, show that black people are perceived to be less innocent than whites and other people in general. Black children were rated as being significantly less innocent than white people, period. Phillip Goff, the researcher behind the study sums it up by saying, “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

You know what that means? That when my preschool age son throws a block because it’s developmentally appropriate, he will likely be looked at as aggressive and treated as if he knows what he’s doing. Black kids don’t get to make mistakes. Black boys get sent to jail for making mistakes. They get killed for making mistakes.

I’m not being dramatic, this is the reality of being black in America.

Oh, yeah, and there’s a study that shows that, too. Black boys are suspended an overwhelmingly amount more than any other demographic across the country. They’re also punished more harshly for minor offenses than other students. While my boy has a few years to get elementary school, there’s not a lot of hope for his treatment in preschool, either. Research from the Yale Child Study Center shows that teachers have implicit bias against black children and in particular boys. Their expectations for kids like my son are low and they are constantly watching for misbehavior. Even where none exists.

It doesn’t make me feel secure in sending my son to adults who may or may not be able to see his humanity.

Oh, and it’s not even just the adults. Kids in preschool who come from racist families bring their bias into the classroom, too. I was called a nigger for the first time when I was 9-years-old. I was lucky. Some people remember being called racial slurs by other kids when they were as young as 4. Am I really ready for my sweet baby boy to be exposed to that type of hatred?

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to only worry about choosing a school based on its pedagogy or class size, or even tuition. Instead, I go into a situation reading the teacher’s energy. Do they seem to be uncomfortable around black children? Are they engaging with the black boys? Do they seem to prefer the small, blonde children over the stockier brown kids? How much the school costs or what they teach wouldn’t even matter if I knew I had found a place that I could trust would nurture my little black boy and care for him the way I do at home.

I’ve worked in early childhood education, and have already had one child go through preschool. In that time, I have observed a lot of teachers. I’ve seen black children being treated differently, teachers not being nurturing to them, or seeming to have an attitude every time they said a word to the black child. Black kids just weren’t cute to some of those teachers, so nothing they could do would ever be right. Interestingly enough, most of these observations were made in a preschool that catered to black and brown children. The white teachers didn’t last long.

I don’t want my child to have to grow up fast. At home, I can baby him, love on him, and give him the chance to be a baby. As soon as I send him out in the world for an extended amount of time, I know that he’ll be forced to be more mature because of the way society views him. Making mistakes and learning from them is a part of childhood that black children, especially boys, don’t get the luxury to do in a safe space. It’s not fair our children. It’s not fair to my son.

I’m not giving up all hope. My husband and I are researching schools for our baby boy. I’m crossing my fingers that we can find a place that can see him as more than just a little black boy. Until then, I guess Mommy School is in session. At least I know he’ll learn, be loved, and be safe.

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