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Evil Black Men

It was supposed to be a simple assignment -- a little something to remind the kids about their lesson on adjectives. Magazine and newspaper clippings + lots of glue + fancy descriptives = an easy lesson and the perfect student work display for the parent/teacher conference.

We all drank in the oversized poster boards, us parents patiently waiting in the hallway for our turn with the teacher. Mari pointed lazily at the big navy blue sheet she worked on with her group; there were cars that were "slick" and "fast," desserts that were "tasty," and chairs that were "pretty" and "comfy."

And then there were the postage stamp-sized, newspaper cutouts of young black men, three of them spread out across the paper. Beneath each of them, written in simple, neat black bubble letters was one word: Evil.

The hell?

Mari got questioned first: Who wrote evil under those pictures? And why? Did the story the pictures came from show these boys were criminals? Did you see the story? Did you have anything to do with this? Did it occur to you to tell whoever wrote this that this wasn't nice?

I got little more than crickets from the kid. That and a bunch of "I don't knows." So I left her alone. Until, that is, I moved on to the next poster board, and the next one, too. On each poster, there were at least a dozen cutouts of black men glued down and summarily objectified.

Ugly.

Scary.

Bad.

Insolent.

Each adjective, it seemed, was uglier than the last. And each of those ugly words are the ones that first came to mind when the children in my daughter's class -- many of whom she calls friends -- saw pictures of black men.

This -- this was bigger than some random comments, some smart-ass kid who thought it would be funny to say mean things about random people. This was deep-seated stereotyping at its worst -- at first blush, the innocent ramblings of 10-year-olds, but, in our eyes, symbolic of a much larger issue: Even these children, young as they are, were falling prey to the negative hype that black man = bad.

Blame it on media imagery, pop culture, racism, ignorance, immaturity, naiveté -- a combination of all of them. Neither Nick nor I could be sure who or what to blame. What we did know was that when we got our turn to talk to Mari's teacher, we were going to request the posters be removed from the wall and that she consider having a talk with the kids about perceptions, stereotypes, and adjectives that hurt.

This is what Nick and I were discussing (privately, mind you) when a fellow parent burst into our conversation, accusing us of "making a big deal out of nothing" and "trying to find something that's not there."

"What about this picture?" she yelled (literally yelled!), jabbing her finger at a cutout of a football player about to be tackled, holding a football in his strong embrace. Beneath his picture, a student scrawled "sporty." "You both just conveniently ignored that picture!"

Dead. Fish. Eyes.

Now, I'd like to tell you that Nick and I handled this woman with grace -- that our conversation was measured and neat and that we had a Kumbaya moment and laced fingers and pinky-sweared better cultural understanding. But er um, yeah -- it didn't go down that way. Let's just say it got ugly and voices were raised and accusations were made and, despite my husband's petition for her to "walk in our shoes for a day, a month, a year, a lifetime" before she dared tell us how we should feel about the blatant stereotyping of black men on our children's class work, she just wouldn't acknowledge that something was wrong with those pictures.

Mari's teacher, however, handled our concerns with grace, humility, and a genuine understanding that with kids this age, teachable moments come out of left field and it's on the adults in the room to deal with the situation head-on -- to confront and adapt and use them to make children really think, instead of shrinking away from them or ignoring them or trying to reason away the obvious to make themselves feel better. The teacher, whom I've loved for many more reasons than just this one instance, allowed herself to see our perspective -- how there was no denying that this class-full of 10- and 11-year-olds, a virtual U.N. of races, backgrounds, religions, and cultures, could internalize negative perceptions of black men.

Heck, even Mari didn't fully comprehend why this was a situation until her father made plain how dangerous it is for people to look at a black man and automatically assume he's bad or ugly or scary. "How wrong would it be if your Daddy were walking down the street, or your brother, or your cousins Miles and Cole, and everyone assumed we all were scary or evil just because of the way we look?" he asked her, before telling her of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant III and the long line of black men who were killed after police officers wrongfully assumed they were criminals. Punctuating our points, I showed Mari a blog that, ironically, I'd posted on MyBrownBaby earlier that morning about how I feared for her cousin Miles, who will soon look like a man.

Now, my Mari gets it. It's a lesson we weren't quite ready for her to learn, but clearly it was a discussion that needed to be had.

My hope is that my baby isn't the only student who walks with a clearer understanding about adjectives -- and the ones that hurt.

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