Every single time the papers arrived not too long after the first week of school, I dreaded it. There are so many papers — more email forms this year given COVID-19, but enough papers and paperwork still arrive daily by way of my three kids that I often lose track.
But out of all of them, the one that I made sure to sign, especially last year, was the one that asked for complete strangers to take photos of my kid for the schools’ publications. When they arrived, I’d quickly circle “no,” sign it, and send it back to their teachers.
I didn’t want photos of my kids out there. I also didn’t want their photos to be used to profess a false idea that diversity existed within their schools. In other words, I didn’t want them to become the poster children for that Black kid or that Asian kid — the photos that scream “We are a diverse school, we have a Black or Brown student,” the ones that look so staged, so fake. I didn’t want them to carry the same burden I did growing up, sort of like the same one I carry now — being the face and the voice for an entire race of people, my people, shoes that are impossible to fill and a displaced expectation for me and for them.
This year, though, when the media consent forms arrived in their respective folders, I signed “yes” for each of them. The Black Lives Matter movement pushed me to want to see their names and faces front and center, even if they were “the only ones” to grace the cover of whatever pamphlet or newsletter their teachers or school administration wanted to send out. If nothing else, the narrative their faces would now tell is how much more work we have to do as a community, as a nation.
While I feel grateful that my kids’ classes are mostly diverse, our school district can do a better job to accurately capture photos of the faces which truly represent our community. That said, I must remember that I am working within a system that has long shut out people of color: school integration is a recent thing, after all. The Supreme Court case Brown v. The Board of Education, the landmark case which changed the face of our educational system as we knew it in the 1950’s thanks to the Little Rock Nine, wasn’t that long ago.
The photos matter, the ones that show the faces of Brown and Black kids, kids who also deserve an education. The nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative shares, “The resistance to integration extended to high schools and primary schools. In Prince Edward, Virginia, county officials decided to close public schools altogether rather than integrate. Tuition benefits were provided to white children to attend private schools with white-only admission policies. During this period, hundreds of white-only private schools sprang up throughout the South. Most of these schools remain in existence today.” I cannot be part of the resistance by signing “no” on these consent forms.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has revived me in a way I didn’t know I needed. It’s given me so much to breathe into, and so much to think about as a Black woman. Far too often, I stuffed down situations and filed them away, the ones born out of stereotypes held by white people, or accusations from white people about myself or my family members. Or I became desensitized to racial profiling because it became a way of life, something I got used to knowing.
I grew up in a school system on eastern Long Island, in a small town with a huge Italian American population. In his essay which went viral, Ramesh A. Nagarajah says it well: “I am a token black friend. The black one in the group of white people. This title is not at all a comment on the depth of my relationships; I certainly am blessed to have the friends that I do. But by all definitions of the term, I am in many ways its poster child. And given the many conversations occurring right now around systemic racism, it would feel wrong not to use my position as a respected friend within a multitude of different white communities to contribute to the current dialogue.”
As a Black woman, I’ve been there. When I graduated high school, my dark skin glistened against my white cap and gown. What stood out to me on my graduation day was that there weren’t many pictures of brown and black people in my graduating class. We didn’t have many people of color in our school, so how could they magically appear in photos shared by my school on our graduation day? The photos didn’t exist because the diversity wasn’t there.
When my wife and I decided to have kids, we had the conversation about schools and where we would choose to live. My wife, a South Asian American, also grew up in a town where she too was often was the only brown person in her class. We knew we wanted a different experience for our own kids. And the school system mattered — not only the rating the school received, but who was in the class mattered, too. Were they made up of mostly white kids or was there a mix? Were the teachers Brown and Black too?
As a mom with three growing kids, who need to see the colors of their own faces reflected back at them, representation is important. So I’m checking “yes” on the media consent forms my kids are bringing home. Because it matters for them to sit in the classroom with other Brown and Black kids and to see photos of them, like those of white kids, in the school’s newsletter … not just when it’s convenient to receive a grant.
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