All the White People
On the morning after the 2016 Presidential election, my third-grade students huddled around me. Most of them were Latino, and nearly all of them children of color. Before even taking off their jackets, they informed me, big-eyed, that Donald Trump had won. I winced at the contradiction; they were savvy enough to understand the implications of a national election, but innocent enough to imagine that I wouldn't know the news if not for them.
Within minutes, I'd ushered them toward the rainbow rug, and all twenty-seven of us were sitting in a circle on the floor. They took turns speaking, tossing a plushy stuffed hippo across the circle to the person who waggled fingers, wanting to speak next.
"I think a lot of Americans voted for Donald Trump because they don't like Mexican people," said Gabriela in her Spanish-accented English. She lobbed the hippo to Antonio.
"I know why he wants the wall. He probably doesn't like Mexicans," said Antonio.
I sighed. They were even more anxious than I'd feared they would be.
The hippo flew back and forth around the circle, until finally it reached Carlos.
"I know why Donald Trump won. Because all the white people don't like Mexicans."
There was an audible gasp from the circle of eight-year-olds, as they whipped their heads around to face me. Raised eyebrows and gaping mouths asked the unspoken: had Carlos gone too far with "all the white people"? This group was one of the chattiest I'd taught in years. Now they stared at me, silent. Waiting.
I am white. I was born in the U.S., and I speak English. I grew up fifty miles from San Francisco State, where striking student activists in 1968 birthed the Ethnic Studies Movement. Also fifty miles away from where I lived was Oakland, hometown of the Black Panthers. I'm fifty-nine; I was eight years old during the Summer of Love.
But the Bay Area diversity amidst which I live today was not the experience of my childhood. My world then was uniformly Catholic; nearly all my friendships were formed in my parochial elementary school. My few outlier friends--Christians who weren't Catholic--were girls I met either in 4-H, or on my Napa Junior Girls Softball team, the Sparrows. The sole embodiment of religious diversity in my life was my Jewish friend who lived four hundred and thirty miles away. We'd met when I was eight, basking poolside at the Lake Tahoe motel where our respective families spent a week each summer. Sometimes I would remind myself that she went not to church but to synagogue, and that exotic tidbit thrilled me. Even though we never talked about religion, I felt worldly simply knowing her; our friendship reminded me that life was bigger than just what I saw. Together, we splashed in the pool under clear mountain skies, and roasted marshmallows under the stars.
My Catholic world was also a white one. Though English wasn't the only language I heard--my immigrant Italian grandmother lived across the road from us--nearly everyone in Napa back then had skin that looked like mine. When my parents and the four of us kids would pile into our Ford Ranch Wagon and venture beyond the pastures and hills encircling my hometown, my parents always said the same thing to us as we entered the city limits of Vallejo.
"Lock your doors."
I don't remember asking my parents why, but we kids figured it out by looking through the window. Black people were never seen on Napa's sidewalks. Obedient children, we locked our car doors in Oakland and San Francisco, too.
The shame of that curls my fingers on the laptop before me now. My stomach knots as I type the words.
In the first three days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 201 incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation from across the country. Anti-Black and anti-immigrant incidents were by far the most reported. By the sixth day post-election, the tally was over 400. In a dizzying array of deeply disturbing findings, one aspect of the hate harassment especially haunted me. The most commonly reported location of these incidents was K-12 schools.
As a third-grade teacher, I can't absorb that fact; it runs off me like milk spilled off the cafeteria table. I know that children bully; I've seen it. But so often, I've seen kindness and big-heartedness in the actions of children.
I tell myself, "The harassment must be mostly at high school. Most kids are sweet in elementary." But that doesn't help, because high school kids were once little, too.
I just keeping asking: How did we get here? How are we here?
My Italian grandmother wasn't like my friends' grandmothers. She was much older, and spoke just a smattering of broken English. She never wore slacks, only long, faded cotton work-dresses covered with a full-length apron. She trudged through her prune orchard wearing shabby leather shoes with stumpy heels, one black shoe and one brown. I can still see the deep creases in her weathered face. I can see the way she stooped over when plucking tomatoes from the vine, placing them carefully into her apron held out before her like a bucket. How she whipped the scythe through the thigh-high grass behind the barn, the whoosh of it slicing the heat of late summer.
Sometimes boys at school would talk about the scary old lady who yelled Italian at them when they took a shortcut and rode their stingray bikes through her field. She was mean, they said, and once she'd waved a shotgun at them. She was crazy, they said, laughing.
My cheeks burned, and I hoped the boys didn't know the scary old lady was my Noni. I was embarrassed, but also protective of her. They didn't know her story. Why she'd come to the U.S. very late in her adulthood, why she'd had children much later than most, why she was hard-edged and over-worked and alone. Her story made her bigger than what they saw.
When I was eleven, I often stayed up late watching TV with my older sister. During an episode of Medical Center one evening, the storyline dealt with a character who was gay.
I waited until the commercial, and then asked, "What's 'homosexual'?"
She blinked, surprised by my naďveté, and then gave a brief explanation that left me embarrassed. The Catholicism of my childhood was very rule-intensive, but surprisingly silent in some areas. Eventually, I absorbed the idea that my church didn't like homosexuality. I doubt if I asked about it. We learned not to question much.
More than a dozen years later, in the early '80s, my devout Catholic mom worked in a nursery and garden center. She had a solitary job doing bookkeeping in a back room, so she appreciated any contact with other employees. She began to speak of some co-workers, pleasant young men who worked hard and made her laugh. She loved them, and somewhere in the telling, I learned that some of the young men were gay. Over time, several of them became ill. Again and again, my mom quietly told us of yet another who had died.
In my twelve years of Catholic schooling, I can't remember a single official discussion of homosexuality. But by this time I was in my early twenties, so I knew that my religion believed it was wrong. However, when my mom's friendships with these young men developed, the story for her wasn't the fact that they were gay. It was how much she enjoyed working with them, and how distraught she was when they died. Despite Mom's deeply-held religious beliefs, I'd never picked up any hint that she was judgmental about their orientation. Embedded within the sad stories of the dying young men was that gentle truth. My mom's world was a little bigger than I'd realized.
Though my Catholic world in Napa was narrow, it broadened when I left for U.C. Davis. In my vibrant college church community, I studied two iconic Catholic figures, Dorothy Day and St. Francis of Assisi, both of whom lived lives of voluntary poverty and opposition to war. At church, I was ignited by talk of "social justice"; it gave a name to the kind of work I yearned to do. So after college, I burst from the constraints of my life's narrow path into a world as wide as I could reach. I moved to Oakland, learned Spanish, and worked with homeless people and Central American refugees. Later, I got my teaching credentials, and began teaching fourth grade in East Oakland. Though I was excited to be teaching anywhere, I especially loved working with kids whose lives were different from what mine had been.
And at age fifty-nine, I still do.
Part of it is probably that working with English-learners helps me feel more connected to my Italian father and to my immigrant grandparents' experience. I wonder if teaching children of minority groups also eases the flickers of guilt about the fact that nearly all of my own childhood schoolmates were white.
But the truth is more than that. Teaching in a school with more diversity than I knew as a child feels more real to me, more explosively alive, more reflective of the world I want to live in. Most of my students today are children of color, some of them immigrants, the majority of them learning English. The classroom is no utopia; there are the normal struggles of people learning to get along with each other. But when I help guide my young students to stretch themselves and see from another's perspective, I remember my own straight-line childhood, and sometimes I feel like I'm talking to myself as much as to them. The little bursts of growth? They're mine, too.
Many years ago, DeMarcus was in my fourth-grade class. He loved reading, writing, and art. Tall and brave, he was fiercely loyal to friends, and compassionate when kids were despondent.
And DeMarcus was very vocal--loudly, frequently, stubbornly vocal. Not only would his talking interrupt my teaching, but it riled me, because he would challenge me if he didn't like what I said. I'd ask him to stop talking, he would explain why he had a right to be speaking, I would start talking about "respect," and around we'd go.
One day after school, I called DeMarcus's mom to tell her something he'd said to me in anger. As I dialed, I found myself taking rapid, shallow breaths, my body anticipating an awkward conversation. I cringed while speaking DeMarcus's offending words into the receiver, and waited for her response.
Then she said, "I think it's sometimes hard for white teachers to hear a strong, Black boy speak his mind. He tells me he thinks you pick on him."
I scrambled for the right things to say; I was peeved but nervous, not wanting to come off sounding racist. I told her that he was usually respectful, that I tried to be fair, that I let the kids talk plenty throughout the day, that I knew he was a good kid. We eventually hung up after a fairly cordial conversation.
But what I most remember is what I did after the call. My racing mind replayed our conversation over and over, and each time, I tried to comfort myself by itemizing the ways in which she was wrong. I wasn't racist, I told myself. I had successfully taught plenty of Black kids. If he would just try to meet me halfway, he and I could do fine. I tried to make myself impenetrable, so that her words would bounce off me like ping-pong balls.
DeMarcus and I ended up doing pretty well together, and these many years later, I remember him with fondness and admiration. But his mother--I feel regret when I think of her. I wish I had been brave enough to try to absorb her message instead of repel it. I wish I had asked questions, instead of giving answers. If I could turn back time, I would try to listen more.
"Can you help me understand?" is what I would want to say. "I want to learn. Can you help me see how it looks from where you stand?"
Last year, I saw an electrifying one-woman show, written and performed by Echo Brown. Through dramatized scenes from her life, the African-American actor explored themes of racism and sexism.
In the Q & A afterward, Brown mentioned her belief that all people are racist, and that we need to get over ourselves and accept that as a starting point. That truth was so obvious to her that she rolled her eyes as she said it, looking bored.
But it didn't bore me. She didn't exclusively blame white people for the problem of racism. The whisper of relief: it wasn't all our fault. My fault.
Then she explained that she's moving to Europe, because in Europe she is viewed completely differently. Here, she is seen as Black before anything else, and she depletes herself dealing with everyone's reactions to her race. In Europe, she is seen as American more than as Black. Without the onslaught of racist energy pushing against her at every step, she is able to spend her own energy simply living.
She must leave the continent so that she can simply live. It's an awful truth, and I will never know what that is like. The guilt of responsibility slammed back into me, though Ms. Brown is far too young to have ever heard me locking my car door.
A week before the 2016 Presidential election, I was listening to "This American Life" while brushing my teeth. The featured story was of a Somali woman, attacked at a Minnesota Applebee's because she was speaking Swahili. The blatancy of the anti-immigrant violence so appalled me that I listened for twenty minutes, perched on the edge of the tub.
The attacker first approached the Somali woman, Asma Jama, with the admonition that when in America, people must speak English. When Jama ignored her, the attacker began yelling that Jama should go back to her home country. At this, Jama began addressing her calmly, in English.
Then the attacker smashed a beer mug into Jama's face, and pandemonium ensued. As Jama's children screamed, the attacker stormed out of Applebee's, leaving Jama gashed and bleeding.
That portion of the radio broadcast ended with the words of a witness to the attack:
This American Life, episode #600
As I wondered how a person could feel such rage because an immigrant wanted to talk to her friend, I found myself remembering another immigrant, a very young one, and the treatment he received long ago in my classroom.
When Zayd showed up in my fourth-grade class in December of 1990, Arabic became the tenth native language and the third written alphabet in the classroom of thirty-four kids. Zayd was from Yemen, a country I'd never even heard of back then. None of us understood a word he said.
Zayd was adorable, a contradiction of angles and circles. His profile was all pointiness--thin, prominent chin, long, narrow nose. Curving eyelashes ringed his golden eyes, and his hair fell in soft loops of brown. His smile was frequent and electric. Though the students hovered over him, I felt sorry for Zayd. All day, every day, to speak without response, to listen without understanding.
The classroom itself was a contradiction, too. Built in the '70s, it had an accordion wall shared by the room next door. It was designed for flexibility and community, allowing us to open up into one huge room, but the teacher on the other side of the wall was cynical and bitter, so it remained a divider between us. The countertops and cabinets were all yellow-and-white Formica brightness, but the light from outside was blocked by cloudy shatter-resistant windows, covered with metal.
The hippie-design room was not nearly big enough for the number of students crammed into it. There was hardly space for the beat-up wooden shelf, upon which I placed my similarly beat-up books from thrift stores and stacks of discards from the Oakland Public Library. Besides my teacher desk and the thirty-four individual student desks, the only other furniture was a set of two small nesting tables, clunky wooden blocks with grooves carved into them by generations of students experimenting with scissors.
At the front of each side wall were two tiny alcoves pushing out like Mickey Mouse ears from the otherwise-square room. Our reading corner was stuffed into one ear and I made it cozy, hanging posters of book covers and tossing plump homemade pillows across the drab patch of indoor-outdoor carpeting. The larger nesting table was wedged into the corner alongside the weary bookshelf.
One day, I heard whispering during the supposedly-silent reading time. Irritated, I traced it to the cramped library corner, and headed over for a showdown. There I found Zayd pressed up next to Dominic, their heads on the floor, jammed together under the nesting table. Their four hands clutched the cover of a book called Zoo Animals.
Dominic pointed to a page, and said, "Giraffe."
Zayd giggled. "Zhuh-duf."
Then Zayd pointed. "Za-ra-fa."
Dominic repeated in a whisper. The two boys grinned, and flipped the page.
A few months after Zayd arrived, we were studying multiplication. The kids had piles of plastic colored squares on their desks, and they were building arrays, adding one row at a time. Even kids who usually floundered during math could move tiles and count; the kids were buoyed by success, their energy high. Amid chatter and clatter, they added rows, while I questioned them rapid-fire, jabbing my index finger at individuals.
"How many rows? How many in each row? How many squares in all?"
They cried out responses, and students cheered themselves with hisses of, "Yes!"
And then came the sixth row.
"How many rows?"
I saw it first--Zayd's face bursting into light. His hand shot into the air, his legs propelling him upward. He'd never spoken before the class. I'd never heard him initiate a word of English.
I pointed to him.
The class gasped as one.
"How many in each row?"
His hand an arrow, straight into sky.
"How many tiles in all?"
I put down the chalk.
But Zayd wasn't done. No one else even raised a hand as I tossed out questions and Zayd tossed back answers, number after number wrapped in the gentle curves of his voice, the voice I'd hardly heard before that day.
Until finally his words stopped, and Zayd met my delighted smile with a huge grin. Then thirty-three kids began to applaud. Outside, there were broken appliances in the creek and gunshots at dusk, the sidewalks sparkling with bits of shattered glass. But inside, nine- and ten-year-olds cheered for the curly-haired boy whose English-speaking voice, finally gone quiet, had just begun.
After four years of teaching in Oakland, a series of family illnesses and other stressors toppled me into the deep hole of depression, and I left my full-time job. I was ready to work full time again after a year of substitute teaching, but the bureaucratic dysfunction of Oakland's school district required more strength than I had. So as difficult as it was for me to leave the kids where I'd grown so much as a teacher, I left Oakland for a smaller, neighboring district in 1994.
And something strange happened on the first day at my new school. I looked out at the students before me and saw--blond hair. On more than one head. Not all were Caucasian, but I wasn't used to having any white kids in class. It was disorienting; in Oakland, nearly all my students had been African-American or immigrants from Southeast Asia or Latin America.
The sea of dark hair--I missed it.
I felt a stab of disappointment in that first moment at my new school; I assumed that my work life would become more bland. Wouldn't I miss the struggles and triumphs of trying to foster community among such diverse individuals? The stimulation and learning, the bursts of euphoria when students would bridge gaps and find commonality? In Oakland, I'd marveled at how far ahead of me they were compared to myself at their age. The days had felt so rich when we'd rub up against the sharp edges of differences and learn to get along anyway, scratching and scraping and clawing to reach understanding.
But thinking about it now--was that really them? Or was it more me?
Like a rising tide, the demographics of my new school gradually shifted, and within a few years, I was conducting half of my parent conferences in Spanish. By then, I'd figured out that there are still plenty of gaps to bridge in building classroom community, regardless of the ethnic blend of the students. But I was glad for the changing demographics, because I craved more.
I needed to be a part of conversations I never had as a child, discussions and experiences that I think would have made me better, more aware of the breadth of human experience. My childhood was a happy one, but I wasn't extended and challenged in ways I wish I had been. With each year, I'm more convinced that stretching beyond ourselves is essential.
In this time after the 2016 election, I think it's what can save us.
Stretching isn't comfortable, even for children, who can be pretty flexible. Some kids wrestle quietly, inside. Others become more vocal, like my former student Daniel.
I can still see Daniel's spectacular smile. When a drawing from one of his graphic novels tickled him, the burst of joy that would light up his face reminded me of plugging in a Christmas tree. He overflowed with energy. When frustrated, Daniel sometimes bellowed in protest and smacked his desk for punctuation; when filled with delight, the laughter would overtake him until he dropped to the floor, too weak to stand. Daniel was brilliant in math, and fluent in English and Tigrinya. Daniel was curious and passionate.
And Daniel was in love with Natalia.
Natalia had just arrived from Guatemala, and didn't speak or understand a word of English. Daniel was used to hearing other languages; more than half the class spoke Spanish, and he had many relatives who spoke only Tigrinya. But since his Spanish-speaking classmates also spoke English, Daniel had no experience with people who couldn't understand him when he spoke.
As Daniel's love grew, so did his frustration at being unable to communicate with Natalia. On the yard before school each morning, he would babble joyously to her and run in circles, hoping to entice her into a game of tag. But when she didn't answer his questions, he'd glower and air-punch, sometimes shouting as he stomped away from her.
I tried reasoning, scolding, and running interference, but the outbursts of frustration continued. He'd apologize to her, I'd translate, she'd shake his hand in forgiveness, and it would happen again after the next recess.
And then one day, Daniel was on a laptop, practicing math. When I leaned in to check his progress, he cried, "Look! This website shows me the words in Spanish! I'm learning Spanish! 'El joo-go!' That means 'the game'! Now I can talk to her!"
There was pure elation in his shining eyes. After teaching him to pronounce "el juego," I congratulated him. Daniel, eight years old and bilingual English-Tigrinya, had learned his second phrase in Spanish. His first, weeks earlier, had been "Lo siento."
On the morning after Donald Trump was elected President, my twenty-six students and I sat in a circle on the floor. Carlos clutched the small stuffed hippo.
He said, "I know why Donald Trump won. Because all the white people don't like Mexicans."
The words circled in my head: "All the white people."
My students were staring at me, their white teacher. The word "sponges" flew through my mind, and it occurred to me that my words, whether soothing or piercing, clarifying or confusing, would be absorbed.
But before I could think of the best words to say, I blurted out the ones burning inside me. Pointing to my own face, I said, "First off--it's not all white people. It might feel like that, but it's not everybody."
Did the distinction matter to anyone but me? My eyes fell on Natasha, who is Black. How many of these conversations would she have in her life?
Mostly, I was thinking about their young hurt feelings, and I needed them to know that it wasn't every white person who was against them. But I was also thinking about myself. I felt the impulse to make sure I was cleared in their eyes of wrongdoing, to ensure they knew that this white person wasn't part of the faceless white mob that blamed them for being who they are.
Many more words poured out of me then, and though these children were only eight and I was a woman in my late fifties, the words I gave them are the ones that helped me begin to make sense of it all.
I told them that some people grow up only around white people, and they don't know Mexican people or anyone from other cultures. Or maybe they don't know gay people, or anyone from other religions. I told them that if human beings surround themselves only with people just like themselves, they can get uncomfortable when they are around someone who's not the same. And that when kids are lucky enough to go to school with children different from themselves, they learn early on that people are just people. And that's an important thing to learn.
A teacher can sense when she is speaking the words her students can grasp. As I realized that my explanation was just right for third-graders, the rightness of it also reverberated within me, the knowing that my words expressed exactly what I believed. I felt things slip into place inside, like pieces of a puzzle.
Then we stuck our arms into the circle, admiring the varied shades of skin from beige to the deepest brown. We called out the countries of origin of parents and grandparents-- Guatemala, El Salvador, the Philippines, Portugal, Mexico, U.S. They tossed the hippo around some more, and then we told each child in the class a trait we appreciated in them. Most of the compliments were voiced in English, but the kids spoke Spanish to the little girl who'd recently arrived from El Salvador. They didn't need me to prompt them. They wanted her to understand.
For several days after the election, the words that echoed inside me in a never-ending loop were the most heartbreaking ones, statements of children who felt hated, who wondered why they were hated.
But now I find myself returning to something that Joseph said that day. Early in the year, he'd been chosen by the class as a recess peace-maker; he was accustomed to using words to understand and help solve conflicts.
That day in the circle, Joseph had furrowed his brow and said, "I'm curious why he wants the wall. And I hope it doesn't happen. Because if it does, then kids might go, maybe even some of our kids from our class. And we would miss a lot of our friends."
At first, I tried to analyze why I found those words so moving. Then I stopped, and just let their sweetness rest in me. It might not be true forever, maybe not when these now-eight-year-olds are someday in high school, maybe not even next year. But right now, today, with all their differences of language and ability and body shape and religion and race and orientation and temperament--right now, they are each other's friends.
In early 2015, three American students were shot in their North Carolina home, murdered by a neighbor in an anti-Muslim hate crime. Just after the 2016 election, the physician-sister of one of the students said this in a Ted Talk:
Dr. Suzanne Barakat
Ted Radio Hour
December 16, 2016
I listened to the program three times. I'll probably listen to it again. What I keep thinking about: though her voice broke with grief, she still believes in hope.
I still feel fear and anxiety in this, the era of Donald Trump. I still worry about what will happen.
But still, I have hope.
I hope that Zayd, now in his late thirties, remembers that when he first came to this country and understood not a word of English, an African-American boy named Dominic reached out to him in friendship.
I hope that Natalia can't recall the sting of Daniel's frustration, and that she instead remembers that a little boy had a crush on her when she came to the U.S. as a refugee. That he tried to learn to speak to her. I hope that Daniel is still learning Spanish.
I hope that the fear and worry and heartbreak expressed post-election by my students will prove transformative for them as they grow, inspiring them to be inclusive and to celebrate differences, to be brave defenders of those who are targeted.
And I hope that in clawing and scratching and scraping to understand how we got to this place where a Donald Trump could be elected, we refuse to let it happen ever again.
I sit in this Berkeley café, biting through the crispy crust of a warm falafel patty. The Middle Eastern owner smiles broadly at a customer and her baby. The Spanish-speaking barista waves at the customer and emerges from behind the counter, her arms outstretched as the customer hands her the giggling baby boy. Two men sit to my left, conversing in what I presume to be Japanese. To my right, a trio of young women all wearing loose ponytails manipulate laptops, tablets, and phones, their conversation unceasing. One is Black, one is white, and one is biracial. The young woman at the register looks boyish, and gives a friendly smile to each person placing an order. An elderly Black gentleman reads his newspaper, silently sharing his table with a middle-aged white woman with long green hair. Scattered throughout the café are a dozen other varied individuals, hovering over laptops while Motown harmonies compete with the hiss and whine of the cappuccino machine.
And what I feel is hopeful. At rest. This place feels like the way things should be. The Bay Area is not immune to racism; discrimination and bigotry live here, too. Some people even say that it's worse here, because it can hide, submerged, camouflaged by the liberal reputation of the area.
But here we are, side by side. It's a beginning.
I nibble some more falafel, crumbly and fragrant. When I was a kid, I'd never heard of falafel. And the falafel here--it's delicious.
Sue Granzella’s writing has been recognized as Notable in Best American Essays. She has won the Naomi Rodden Essay Award and a Memoirs Ink contest, and was runner-up for the Bechtel Prize with Teachers and Writers Magazine. She judges the Humor category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Masters Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Teachers and Writers, Full Grown People, Gravel, Ascent, and many other journals. She is searching for a publisher for her collection of essays about teaching. Contact her at www.suegranzella.com