The Problem We All Live With Isn’t Back; It Never Went Away

Nedra Martin saw her daughter (Mah’ria) freeze [on the way to the podium to defend the desegregation of Francis Howell High School in Missouri].  She thought about Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.  She’s the little girl guarded by US marshals in the famous Normal Rockwell painting called “The Problem We All Live With.”
-Nikole Hannah, This American Life, Episode 562, “The Problem We All Live With”

by Mark DiBella, CEO

I do not understand racism. I cannot understand it. I am not talking about an intellectual understanding of the concept of racism; I am talking about being able to empathize with something that I have never experienced firsthand as a white man. And yet, as the Superintendent of YES Prep Public schools where 97% of our students identify as people of color, I can no longer remain silent and complacent. I must wrestle with bias, build my cultural awareness, and strive for empathy. I have no choice. It is the problem we all live with.

I graduated from a small private school in 1994, the same school that I had attended since Pre-K, and in those thirteen years I do not have a single memory of interacting with a person of color. Not one. This is not to disparage my school or my hometown. It is a fact of my childhood. My childhood was segregated. I am embarrassed to recall telling my parents inappropriate jokes about black people, though—to their credit—they never laughed. Not once.

My freshman year of college, everything changed. I met my best friend, a biracial woman I would later marry—a woman who was conscious of race and difference in a way I was not, a woman who had asked daily: What spaces can I occupy? Am I white?  Black?  Both?  Neither?  Sometimes one?  Sometimes the other?  All while I had the privilege of a life without once thinking about the color of my skin.

Once, in the college cafeteria, I worked up the courage to ask her a question—not the question—a question: “Why do all the black people sit together?” She paused just long enough to make me feel uncomfortable and then asked me, “Why do all the white people sit together?” With her question festering in my mind, I purchased The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell from a poster sale in that same cafeteria.

Years later, I carried that same poster with me to my classroom as a Teach For America corps member. My naïve optimism allowed me to believe that a poster, especially that poster, on a wall could solve this problem that we all live with.  But then I changed schools, the poster came down, and it never made it back up. Despite the fact that I was a white man primarily teaching students of color and married to a biracial woman, my privilege allowed the problem that we all live with to go dormant in me for a decade.

Then there were Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sam DuBose, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel Lee Simons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Sandra Bland. About the same time that I became aware of how our nation was being ripped apart by rampant, violent, and institutional racism, my daughter was assigned a family history project. When she asked me why we did not know where Granddaddy’s relatives were, I tried to explain slavery to her. The problem we all live with, the problem that had been there all along, the problem I had the privilege of ignoring while others couldn’t breathe under its weight, was back; and it was not just close to home. It was in our home.

One night not long after, my wife pulled into the garage and sat in her car. When she finally came in to the house, her eyes were wet, having just listened to “The Problem We All Live With” on This American Life. She encouraged me to listen to it. Immediately. I did, and when I finished it, my eyes were wet too.

Our daughter is in the third grade, and we have started to think about where she will go to middle school. My wife and I both work at YES Prep Public Schools and, naturally, we have been considering whether or not we will send our children there. Should we take away the spot of a child who, without YES Prep, may not have access to another high-quality school?  Would our children—who were privileged enough to attend strong public elementary schools—be too far ahead of their peers who’d been zoned to failing schools?  Would we be brave enough to have our daughter—who is biracial, but appears white—start the process of desegregating a YES Prep school? What are the long term impacts of such a decision?

These are real questions that keep parents up at night.  If these questions are troubling an interracial couple who work in education and who feel so passionately about racial reconciliation, these questions must be especially jarring to the parents from Francis Howell High School, recorded on that episode of This American Life—many of whom had experiences similar to my childhood. When these parents learned that students from the majority-black Normandy High School would be bussed to their school, they stormed the podium at a town hall meeting, asking about metal detectors, discipline records, plummeting test scores, and accreditation. When you listen to the podcast—and you should listen to this podcast immediately—you will be tempted to judge those parents.  I certainly did.

But the problem is not that they are asking these questions. The problem is not that they are trying to protect their children.

The problem is that they are not asking the right questions. The problem is that they think that the way to protect their children is to isolate them.

My wife and I are still asking questions, lots and lots of questions, but since listening to the podcast, we are asking different questions. How might our daughter’s interaction with children who look different from her and who may have had a very different childhood experience help her grow into a woman with a heart bent towards justice?  What could our daughter bring to YES Prep? How might EVERYONE—our daughter, her classmates, and their teachers— be better for having been challenged by the complexity of a desegregated education experience?

These are the questions that I am wrestling with now as the husband of a biracial woman, the Superintendent of YES Prep Public Schools, and the father of a little girl who will too soon be in middle school.

In the podcast, Nedra Martin wrestled with her own thoughts as she watched her daughter, Mah’ria, walk to the podium during the town hall meeting at Francis Howell High School: “We’re still dealing with that [problem] today. I kept telling myself, as if I was talking to those parents who were not embracing this decision [to desegregate Francis Howell High School], my child may be the doctor that saves your life one day. My child may be the lawyer that defends your child one day. How dare you?’

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