Racism Isn’t the Eradicated Plague: Kids at Camp in Tahoe City Get a Rude Lesson
On the last day of June, while still percolating over a Boston Globe article in which white author Jeff Jacoby claimed that “America’s racist past is dead and gone,” my family headed north to attend a camp for families that have adopted children of color. That our route to Lake Tahoe included a quick stopover in Placerville—aka “Hangtown,” due to its lynching history—was ironic.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” —W.E.B. DuBois.
Hosted by Oakland-based Pact, An Adoption Alliance, the camp is a heady experience. Yes, there’s a campfire, S’mores and a dance. Yes, the kids put on a final show for the proudest parents you ever will see. But Pact is a deeply serious organization with the deeply serious goal of serving the child as primary client. Unlike any other adoption agency, Pact provides lifelong support for children and their families, including both adoptive and first families. At its core, Pact believes education “about the pervasive power of race and racism as they affect our children, our families, ourselves and our society” is essential. There is work to be done.
I’ll be honest: It can be grueling. Families—more than 80 this year—from all over the country gather to support each other and discuss, with painful honesty, the difficult realities facing our kids. And while the kids are free from the ubiquitous “Why don’t you look like your parents?” question, they, too, are addressing difficult stuff. It is a profound experience. Many boxes of tissues are used. Meatballs this is not.
You can imagine, then, how everyone was grateful for an ice-cream social on the second afternoon. It’s hard to find a better antidote to emotional upheaval than strawberry, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, plus chocolate sauce and caramel and sprinkles!
The kids loved it, except for the 13- to 18-year-old set, who were in workshops that afternoon and didn’t get to partake. As an alternative, they opted to go into town with their counselors on the last night to get ice cream.
And so, following an intense workshop in which they and their parents shared their biggest fears, and during which the parents read letters they’d written to their children (I wasn’t there, but I was with a few of the parents after who couldn’t hold back tears as they relayed the experience)—off they went, kids and counselors, into Tahoe City for ice cream. It was the 4th of July. What could possibly be more American than children, ice cream and Independence Day?
Well, it could be this: A group of mostly brown, adult-looking kids and their mostly brown adult counselors walking down a sidewalk in Whitesville when a white man says, “It’s the 4th of July, but it might as well be Halloween, seeing as how all the n*****s have come out.” Apparently, he doesn’t read the Boston Globe.
It should be noted that the man didn’t bother to use any asterisks when speaking; that’s my edit. (For those who may have wondered where my line is, now you know.)
And it should be noted that a white sheriff’s deputy subsequently dismissed the possibility that the word—the whole phrase, in fact—had been uttered at all. Surely, he didn’t say that. You must have misheard him, he said to the group, discounting their collective experience, defending the lone perpetrator and living up to their every expectation of police. This is exactly why I teach Ruby not to trust them. It’s why I’ll one day give her the little ACLU wallet card that the teens had been given the day before, titled “Your Rights and The Police.”
For some of the kids, this was the first time they’d been called the N-word; for others it was just another day. Either way: Painful. Thankfully, they’d spent the preceding days immersed in all-too-pertinent discussions and were in the company of superbly trained counselors who kept things from escalating. Hurt and angry, they finished their ice cream and returned to camp.
The kids chose not to let the ugly incident ruin their night, and they had their dance party. At the same time, a group of parents met; we wanted them to see us gathered in solidarity. While deciding our plan of action, one parent called the Placer County Sheriff’s Department.
“I have no patience for delayed gratification,” the parent told me the next morning, when, to our surprise, a deputy showed up to apologize, first to the teenagers and then to the entire group. His words were not unappreciated, but many of us remain skeptical as to whether there will be follow-though with the promised sensitivity training within the Sheriff’s Department.
The incident didn’t particularly shock my husband or me. But it underscored the irresponsible route we’d taken in avoiding the N-word discussion with our child. So, we woke up on that last day of camp, and—before the deputy showed up, before the teens and counselors read some seriously breathtaking, wholly pertinent spoken word they’d written—we lifted the veil. Because in another six years, our child’s adorable little-black-girlness that is so oohed and ahhed over by the white world, will be long gone. To the America that likes to pretend race issues are tidily resolved, she’ll be just another black kid walking down the street trying to buy some ice cream with her friends.
Say what they will, but that there is a pretty menacing sight for the Jeff Jacobys of the world.
Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.