Those Kids, Our Kids

Nova Newcomer

It's not the overt racism that is keeping our kids (yes OUR kids) down, it's all the hidden and unseen beliefs that make people fear other people's kids.

In February of 2012, Trayvon Martin was gunned down in a gated community where his father's girlfriend lived. He was gunned down because he "looked suspicious." His very person elicited fear and hate in a grown man, a grown man with a gun. This young boy, with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, was taken from us, yes US. And the man who profiled him and stalked him and murdered him is a free man as of the jury's decision handed down on July 13th. Not guilty, the words rung in my ears and left me wounded, paralyzed by my own impotence. How could he be not guilty? How can someone be allowed to get away with killing an unarmed child? But this is not a post about gun control and it's not even about Florida. It's a post about race and it's a post about Portland. It's about the shadows we live with and accept right here in my beautiful home town.

Life here wasn't easy for my family — growing up around substance abuse, domestic violence and crippling depression brought down upon our family many added indignities and injustices. I remember I used to wait for my older sister to come home from school, looking out the window of our house on 13th and Prescott. My heart would leap when I saw her come into frame. I would race downstairs to greet her I was so excited to hear about her day. The next year, I would enter Kindergarten at Sabin Elementary School. My whole world opened up, even as life at home was deteriorating at an ever-faster pace. The only home I had known was taken from us and we moved far away from this school. My mom ended up enrolling me on scholarship at Trinity Lutheran Elementary School. I took the 75 bus from 33rd and Powell to 55th and Killingsworth every morning.

Trinity was a small school and spending 8 years there, you got to know each of your classmates pretty well. One girl I was friends with had what seemed to me at the time to be the perfect family. Both of her parents had good jobs, she had a brother just a couple years younger than her. They owned their house and had working cars. Their house was always immaculate and I always loved getting to hang out there or spend the night. Her mom was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever met and she had this fabulous job (Today I have to admit I don't even know what she did!) at Nike and when I look back now, I realize that she was one of my first professional role models — a mom who seemed to have it all. The cruel tragedy of my envy and admiration for this family, was that we at one point were living next door with a female friend of my mom's who was surely keeping my mom supplied with drugs. While my own family nightmare was playing out, right next door was what I thought was the American Dream incarnate.

What I never saw were the challenges that my friend or this family had. I just saw the perfection in contrast to my own situation. But in too many communities in America, including and especially ours (it's not just a Florida thing), my friend's family wouldn't be admired on sight. Instead, my friend's younger brother probably dealt with people finding him suspicious. My friend has probably been called an "angry" woman. And I wonder if her mom was suspected of having her fabulous job at Nike on something other than merit. You see, this family whom I admired so much was Black.

It may sound cliche, but school made all the difference for me — from my fabulous public Kindergarten in NE Portland where I learned to read to my humble Lutheran private school where I learned to use a computer, my public high school (Parkrose) where I gulped up any and everything I could learn or get involved in and my world-class education at Portland State where I gained a lifelong mentor and worked in Athletics to pay for school. Throughout my life, my community has lifted me up and opened doors for me. Every time I thought the final door was closed on me, a new one opened up. The only thing I can consistently point to is my access to a good education and my inherent privilege. I am white. I can easily hide the "otherness" of my childhood. In the right clothes, I looked like I belonged. Even though through the majority of my young life, I had to fake it.

I would sneak out of class early when the caseworker came to pick me up for my supervised visits with my mom. I would duck out from drop off without a word to catch a bus when I realized my mom had forgotten to pick me up from school. I would quietly ask the Librarian if I could add another Lipton's Cup of Soup to my "tab," because we didn't always have food at home to make a lunch. Some kids may not have noticed that I wore the same brown corduroy pants to school every day for weeks on end. I wasn't the worst off by any stretch, but as a kid, you don't have that perspective. Growing up on government food, being removed from my mother's home, being on scholarship at my school, I felt wrong. I felt dirty. I felt alone. I felt other. But I wasn't. I was white. If I was an other, I was still comfortable to the majority population in Portland. My skin color meant I was given the benefit of the doubt.

These childhood feelings all came rushing back to me a few months ago (yes, it took this long to write about it) when I was talking with another parent about the enrollment balancing process that the Jefferson High School cluster just went through. I live near my neighborhood school, Chief Joseph (now Chief Joseph Ockley Green), one of the schools that was part of this process and where I intend to send my son for Kindergarten next year. Over the past several months, there has been much angst within the cluster at EVERY school in the cluster about what would happen. Some schools are overcrowded, some are under-enrolled — all are underserved. Parents feel like they are at a breaking point. Well-meaning parents have been fighting hard to keep their children in their own school. But an ugly truth has emerged from this process. Not every kid, not every community gets the benefit of the doubt.

Playing at the park at dusk in my neighborhood, I was reminded that my beloved Portland which gave so much to me, still withholds much from "the other," which too often is exclusively reserved for people of color and particularly African-Americans. This parent and I were discussing the potential merger of Chief Joseph and Ockley Green and the parent said, "But isn't it (Ockley Green) ghetto?" I was stunned and hurt. What about me made it safe for her to say that in front of me? I guess I looked like someone who would agree. I stammered before letting her off the hook and replied with, "I'm not sure what you mean by that," and quickly found a way to remove myself from the conversation.

But I left the conversation feeling less whole. Why didn't I call out what I had heard? Why did she get to leave feeling comfortable and I had to leave feeling hurt? And it's because we in Portland are too silent. I am not comfortable writing this right now. I want people to feel safe to explore, safe to share, but not at the expense of kids. You see when parents spread the word that a school is "ghetto" or "less than," it's like a cancer. And there is a sickening silence that invades the system and it becomes "true" in everyone's minds. It comes out in a friendly statement like, "I am looking at all my options," and "I just want the best for my child," but the outcome isn't always friendly. And sometimes the words themselves are not even friendly. Sometimes, you can be hit over the head with prejudice and everyone in the room is polite about it, except those who are injured by it. And then they are overreacting or "making something out of nothing."

It's not the overt racism that is keeping our kids (yes OUR kids) down, it's all the hidden and unseen beliefs that make people fear other people's kids. "Those kids" aren't safe for my kid. Let me say this definitively as I missed saying it on the playground, "Those words aren't safe for our kids." Every time you criminalize a child with ignorant prejudice, you take away opportunities, you take away self worth, and you support a system that has failed the black community time and again. And as Dr. Cornel West says, in particular, the poor, black community — race and class being a particularly fatal poison in our beloved America.

You see, a true "other" has to prove him or herself before they can have access to opportunity or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a right to his very life.

In a recent interview with Martin's friend, Rachel Jeantel, who was the last person who talked to him, she was asked to tell us something about Trayvon that the world doesn't know. Her answer was illuminating and damning all at once. She said, "He was a person. He was a human. He had a heart. He had love. Stop judging. Get to know the person before you judge."

I am not sure when children became “our children” and “their children,” but I do know that a just society ensures the safety of ALL children. Next time you find me on the playground, be ready to use words that talk about community building and bringing people together, because I am not prepared to make it comfortable for you to tear down "the other" anymore.

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