All mothers want to protect their children from harm, but as a Black mother in a White dominant society, protection against deliberate racist behavior is at the top of the list…
By Nimat Shakoor Grantham, Age 58
Benicia resident since 2003
We moved to Benicia just as my son was entering 7th grade. I knew that moving into a White dominant community in 2003 was likely to have special challenges. And although Benicia is a small town full of open and caring people, most White folks living in a relatively homogenous neighborhood aren’t used to being around Black people. There was bound to be some suspicion, fear and even animosity. That’s how many respond to unfamiliar populations of people, particularly when their primary experience with that group comes from television, learned behavior from childhood, or old racist carryovers. I prepared my son as best I could.
It came only a few weeks after he began attending Benicia Middle School. A boy called him a “Nigger.” This was not done in a friendly, joking way. It was deliberately intended to to provoke a reaction. The boy, who was White, called my son this name, while several of his friends stood by and laughed. My son didn’t even know this boy, so it wasn’t really personal, but it hurt - a lot. As I had taught him, my son responded with, “That word - it’s inappropriate and mean.” It happened again a few weeks later. This time, my son firmly told him, “This needs to stop - now!” When it happened a third time, my son went to the teacher, a middle-aged White woman. She acted concerned and said she would report it. For a few weeks after that, the boy left him alone. And then it happened again. The same boy and his crowd. The same word. Again, my son went to the teacher and one of the administrators, a White man, who was around 40 years old. This time there he was asked questions and his responses were written down. It seemed more official.
Each time this boy had approached him, my son told me about it. We were close, and at age 12, he still took my advice seriously. He asked me what to do if it happened again. I thought about it. He had done everything right, as far as I could tell. He did not respond with emotion. He tried to correct the boy. He went to the teacher and the vice-principal when he couldn’t stop it on his own. I am a firm believer in teaching appropriate, non-violent behavior, respect for authority, and building bridges between cultural divides. And I know that middle school kids can be mean. Sometimes, they experiment with bullying behavior to see what they can get away, to feel powerful, or to gain popularity. I didn’t blame the child for learned or experimental behavior, but he needed to learn more appropriate behavior before it became an uglier problem. “If it happens again, hit him,” I said. “Then the administration will have to deal with me.” A few weeks later, the boy threw the “N” word at my son for the last time, and my boy went at him. The two boys tussled until stopped by a staff member.
That afternoon, I got a call from the principal’s office. “We have a problem,” the man who was representing the principal said. “Your son initiated a fight, and I have to suspend him. We don’t tolerate any physical violence. And he told me that you told him to do it. Is that accurate?” Holding back on my response until I had more information, I asked what had happened. The man told me another student had called him a name, and that my son had thrown the first punch. Luckily, neither boy was seriously hurt. I asked what name the other boy used. He said that wasn’t important. I disagreed. “It’s very important. Was it a racist term?” The administrator admitted that it was racist and derogatory. I asked directly, “Did he use the word, ‘Nigger’?” Although the man didn’t actually admit that was the term used, he did act uncomfortable. “Is the other boy getting suspended, too?” I asked. He countered with, “It doesn’t matter what word the other boy used, calling someone a name is not the same as hitting someone.” I drew a deep breath. With all the patience I could muster, I said, “That word, used as it was, is the SAME as being hit.” I continued, “My boy has come to staff twice already complaining of being called a racist term - one so deep and hurtful that he felt it important to tell you. He showed respect and restraint, and nothing was done about it. Now you’re telling me that my son is getting suspended for defending himself and the other student is not?” I was furious. “Do I have to take this to the School Board?” There was a moment of silence before he said, “Let me get back to you.”
I didn’t hear anything from the school that evening. The next morning I called to verify whether or not my son was on suspension. “We’re expecting him at school this morning” was my answer. I never received an explanation or an apology. I had requested a meeting with the other boy’s parents, as I saw this as an opportunity to build relationships and learn from mistakes, but that wasn’t granted. Nor was there any further discussion on it. The taunting stopped, and my son’s discipline record remained unstained. Problem gone, but not resolved.
It still pains me to think about the humiliation and frustration my son had to endure as one of the only Black 7th graders in a new community, one that, at that time, still carried vestiges of systemic racism. My work today is cut out for me. As a leader in equity building, I do my best to understand the history and psychology of racism. It’s what motivates me to be part of the solution, rather than contributing further to the problem.