In the mid-1970s, my grandparents volunteered to help a family of Vietnamese immigrants settle in their town, Chambersburg, PA. The Vietnamese father – I don’t remember his name, so I will call him Mr Nguyen – had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army, and had fled with his wife and 3 small children when Saigon fell to the invading North Vietnamese army.
They arrived in the United States with nothing. The father, the only one in the family who spoke a little English, had found a janitorial job, a step down from his status as an army officer.
My grandfather told me about the first time he met the Nguyens, and the entire family packed into his car to take a sight-seeing drive around their new town.
But Mr Nguyen had a special request. He wanted my grandfather to begin by taking the family to “where the rich people lived.” My grandfather was a little hesitant — the Nguyen family had just moved into a small, drab apartment – but he did as he was asked.
As they slowly rolled past the spacious homes and beautifully manicured lawns, Mr Nguyen talked earnestly to his young children crammed in the back seat, staring wide-eyed out of the car windows. My grandfather didn’t understand a word, of course, so afterwards asked Mr Nguyen what he had told his children.
He replied with something like this: “I told them that this is what you can have in America. I told them anyone in America can have a house like this, and a car and nice clothes, even if they start poor like we are now. But only if they work hard and do well in school. They have to listen to their teachers and get good grades.”
I don’t know what happened to the Nguyen children, but I suspect they believed what their father told them, and consequently worked hard in school, got good grades, and and are doing well today. The average income of Vietnamese immigrants is higher than the US average.
What we tell our children matters. But many children today are hearing something very different from Mr Ngyuen’s message of hope and possibilities. The website Colorlines offers this advice to parents of children of color in an article entitled The Dos and Dont’s of Talking to Kids of Color about White Supremacy:
Don’t perpetuate the myth that we live in a colorblind society. Everyone is not treated the same, and race and color do matter and America is not a meritocracy where they will succeed if they just try hard enough. Even if you believed this in the past, those ideas lack credibility today. . . .
Do teach your high-school student about institutional and systemic racism. From the racist policies, practices and procedures that institutions engage in that advantage White, straight, cisgender, able-bodied people and disadvantage the rest of the world, to the value system that underpins it all, they need an education. Racist systems are built to oppress.
It is hard to imagine a more defeatist message for poor black children. They are being told that if they get good grades in school and work hard, they will probably still fail because America is so deeply racist. They are being told, not only that racism exists, but that “America-is-Racism” – that racism is pervasive, deep, and a major impediment in their lives.
“Racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society,” argued the late Derrick Bell in his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well.
“Blacks are as far away from the ‘Promised Land’ as their great-great-grandparents were 150 years ago,” claims University of Maryland University College Associate Professor Donald Earl Collins.
“US Justice is Built to Humiliate and Oppress Black Men” declares a headline in The Guardian.
“I will teach [my children] to be cautious,” when dealing with white people, explained Yeshiva University Law Professor Ekow Yankah, an African American, “I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust.”
Could the “America-is-Racism” message actually be harmful to black children? Could the headline “How Racism Affects Black and Brown Students in Public Schools” discourage a “black or brown” student from trying harder at school? Contrast the above statements with Mr Nguyen’s words to his children. Which are more likely to motivate kids to strive for success? What we tell children about their world — and whether they can succeed in it — matters.