“I don’t want my baby to be the only white kid.” We hear this a lot. Somehow we don’t hear the inverse question being asked of parents of color whose children attend majority-white schools. And somehow we think of this as a problem rather than a gift. In a society that privileges whiteness, the opportunities to be one-of-many-white-people are legion. My (white) children (now 13 and 15) have for most of their schooling been the ONLY ONE, or one of a very few. This has been an important experience for them and one that I see influences so much of who they are becoming.
But I digress… Shannon Burton reached out to Integrated Schools recently wanting to share her story of being the ONLY ONE. She now works with kids in New Orleans and sees every day the deep and disturbing segregation. Hope you enjoy her story…
The Only White Kid, All Grown Up
Guest Post by Shannon Burton
Hi there, I’m Shannon: a third generation “only white kid in my class.” Well, “only” is a slight exaggeration, but for most of my education I attended schools in Los Angeles and the US Virgin Islands in which white students were in the minority. In fact, at my elementary school and university, white students made up less than 10% of the student body, so there were plenty of situations where I was the only white person in a classroom, and plenty of situations where I was not.
Admittedly, it was a little different for my mother and her mother, who are from the Virgin Islands. Dubbed “Frenchies” for our French heritage (there’s a fascinating history behind that, for another time), they weren’t culturally the same as American “white kids,” but the effect was the same: they were often the only light-skinned students in their classrooms.
This factored into my mother’s thought process years later when my 4th grade teacher, concerned for my education, pulled Mom aside and said she needed to get me out of my school. It was 1995 in Van Nuys, California. Eighty-two percent of my classmates were Hispanic, and many were ESL students. My teacher was concerned that the curriculum, which was being taught at an accommodating pace for the students whose first language wasn’t English, would affect my education in the long run.
My mother really had to sit with this information. Other public schools were already full, with long waiting lists. Private school was expensive. She reflected on her own educational background and experiences to make the best decision for her daughter.
She decided to keep me in my school. A lot of things factored into the decision, such as the friendships she’d made with the families in our neighborhood and her belief that we would all take care of each other, as people had back home in the islands. She also trusted my inquisitive drive as a student, always seeking out more knowledge and trying to share it, even standing in front of the class occasionally to teach my fellow students Japanese. She decided everything would be ok, and you know what? She was right. I excelled at school, went to college on a full-ride scholarship, graduated Summa Cum Laude, and was immediately hired as a 12th grade English teacher in 2008. My education was fine.
I won’t pretend issues never came up. I have a memory at that elementary school of a group of girls approaching me, speaking to me in Spanish, and laughing when I couldn’t respond. These girls were not my friends, obviously, and I don’t remember having an issue with them after that. It was just girls being mean – they could have chosen to do it any way, and language was the easiest.
At the same school, learning about slavery in America for the first time was tense. I don’t remember the teacher’s introduction to the topic. What I do remember are all the glances from my classmates as we progressed through the first lesson, and growing increasingly distressed about what terrible things my ancestors might have done to the ancestors of some of my classmates. I was one of only two white students in the room that day, and I felt like the whole class was staring at us. On the schoolyard at recess, my friends came and found me sitting by myself. I was nervous, and probably defensive, but my friends simply told me that they knew that I wasn’t “like those people in the book.” With only so much recess time left to play, we mounted our imaginary flying creatures and ran around the schoolyard as usual.
Similar memories pepper the rest of my time in public school in Los Angeles. Inquisitive people like to ask about my experience with gangs at the high school I went to, which was known for them. Since I wasn’t a member of any gangs, my experience is disappointingly limited. One of my basketball teammates got kicked off the team for gang affiliation, and I had to take her place as center, and I was not very good – so that was mildly tough. If my friends who had access to drugs were involved with gangs, they weren’t making any effort to recruit me, and they were certainly not violent people by any measure I could make. My mother probably deserves some credit here: she always knew where I was and who I was with (quite a feat before the days of GPS-enabled phones), so my opportunities to slip away would have been limited even if there had been offers.
Being one of the few white kids at my schools added to my life in so many ways. I learned more Spanish than I would have with the basic school classes I took, and received a very in-depth education on Black History. I am comfortable in just about any company and can talk to just about anyone; more than one person has told me that I’m the least judgmental person they know. I’m compassionate, and have a deep passion for social justice. I’m comfortable calling out overt and covert racism. When I’m with my global-majority friends, they feel safe and loved, because they are, and I do.
As for negative effects, I’ll admit: I’m often uncomfortable in large-group social events where there are no or few people of color (barring, of course, certain family, cultural, and geographic situations). I can’t help but ask, “Why aren’t there people of color here?”, and sometimes, I’ve been disappointed to find that it’s because the crowd isn’t very welcoming of them. It can be tough for me to have a good time when that’s the case (calling out racist comments and jokes does get tiring, as does biting my tongue), but if I’m honest, a part of me feels that’s a good thing – I don’t want to be okay with being a part of groups that don’t make people of color feel safe and welcome.
Halfway through high school, my mother, my siblings, and I relocated to her home in the Virgin Islands. The culture shock was hard, but I know it would have been harder if my mother had made different choices for me. There, I met some of my best friends, went on fantastic adventures, went to college, and did what we hope all kids do as they become teens and then adults: learn and grow. Today, I have a diverse group of friends, many of whom I made in school, and many whom I made while living and working in different parts of the country in my 20’s. I now live in New Orleans, where the public charter-vs.-private educational landscape is so segregated I could cry. I work with thousands of kids who aren’t getting the experience I got, and honestly, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the United States has racially-based issues with police brutality and incarceration when, starting from so young, we’re all just spending time with people who look like ourselves, and thinking of those who don’t as “others”.
I am so grateful for the people in my life, the perspectives they give me, and the insights some offer to what it’s like to be not-white in America. But perhaps one of the things that strikes me the most about how my friendships came to be is how normal it all was along the way. My friends are the people who were around me as I moved through life; people who I had something in common with to talk about and bond over. It’s cliché, but we all really are more alike than we are different – we just need to spend more time with people who seem different to understand that. So, thanks Mom (I know you’re reading this), for an education that went a bit deeper than the curriculum.