Being a White Mom at a Not So White School

by Courtney | June 21, 2016


My youngest just graduated from elementary school. She went to a Title 1 (almost 95% Free/Reduced Lunch) school. And she is, like I was, a middle class white girl. Her school had a handful of us white/middle-class-hummus-to-the-potluck families at the school but we were definitely in the minority.


Some of us have felt unwelcome at times by the other moms. These “other moms” weren’t downright mean or even deliberately unkind; it was more of a sense of being barely tolerated. Confounding the problem is that many of the “other” moms don’t speak English and many of “us” don’t speak Spanish. Because it is a Dual Language program, our kids are learning both languages, but most of us Englishy parents can barely find our way to a pupusa. Cultural barriers can be difficult enough to traverse but without a way to communicate, they seem intractable for us adults.


This feeling of being unwelcome has led some families to leave the program – or at least to add that to their list of reasons to leave. “I just don’t feel comfortable here.” “It’s so sad that the parents can’t get together.” I get it; I don’t love the awkwardness of attending Open House and some moms can barely muster even a nod at my egregiously overcompensating smile. And if you’re looking for community around the kids’ schools… … …


I just accepted this as fact. Many people and many groups of people have had it far worse than I over the course of history, so, you know, I can take it. And the Dual Language/integrated school was well worth a little discomfort.


And then, almost as if a switch was flipped at the girl’s graduation, one of these moms actually talked to me! To my face! With a smile! And we blundered about trying to have a somewhat comprehensible conversation about middle school as the girls looked on and made jokes about my terrible Spanish.


My daughter is leaving elementary, she has done well academically and socially, she has earned the biliteracy award, and had just given a two minute speech in Spanish to an auditorium full of people … and my proudest moment was that this mom was nice to me.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this… about why I am so excited, why this mom is now being friendly, and what it means to be a part of a community.


I thought when we started at this school, all of us parents would be on the same team – that we would start there. We were all in the same place, at the same school, making the same choices together. Kumbaya!


It really could have been that I was awful the first time this mom and I met. Or maybe this particular mom is just an ass. But I don’t think so – at least not the ass part. I wasn’t the only one who felt a tepid reception and it wasn’t only this mom. Certainly not all the parents were standoffish – I have forged some truly wonderful friendships across these boundaries – but in large part, these were the exception rather than the rule.


I consoled myself that this chasm between the moms was not something we were reproducing. The kids played together and didn’t have the baggage the adults had. Their generation wouldn’t have the same struggles.


What I have come to realize though is that I had to EARN my way on to the team. I had to PROVE that I wasn’t a douche. And the main body of evidence would have to be time, that we truly invested our kids and our lives over years and weren’t just on some strange post-colonial tour.


It will be of no surprise to those more enlightened souls that this is another only-slightly-subtle example of privilege. Of course I would assume that we would all be happy to meet our kid’s classmates’ parents. Of course I would assume that they’d be happy to meet me. Of course. And of course this is ridiculous.


I am embarrassed that I imagined I could waltz in and expect and, yes, even feel a bit entitled to everyone’s camaraderie. But while I was accustomed to feeling wanted, she was accustomed to feeling not wanted… by people like me.


This kernel of friendship – or at least pleasant acquaintanceship – that this mom offered at graduation is a treasure. Our girls are friends and live in this community together and have done so at school since the beginning… And now this mom and I do, too, a little.

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