The Nation, October 2021
An African-American friend describes the following scenario: “My son L. was invited to a neighbor’s seventh birthday party. When we arrived, the neighbor child introduced L. to the small circle of other children, all of whom were white; he did so in hushed tones, seemingly so that adults wouldn’t hear. ‘This is my friend L.,’ he whispered. ‘He’s Black!’ He said it with giddy pride, as though L. were an exotic prize, an unusual triumph, a trophy specimen.”
What struck my friend most was not that the children were marveling at Blackness as something they had seemingly never encountered, but that the young host whispered it. “He was self-conscious,” she said. “He lowered his voice as though he had learned that he shouldn’t say it aloud, that it was a kind of secret—if in plain sight.” He had somehow learned that race shouldn’t be seen, and that the conspicuity of Blackness imposed a burden of comportment.
My friend was caught short by it at the time, but after thought and discussion about what she might do in the future, she concluded that the situation required something simple, like an adult in the room who might have calmly intervened and told them that they didn’t have to whisper. Why were they acting as though it were a secret? The tougher question, of course, is for the other adults: Why might this have been the first time their children had seen a Black person? Children point at, whisper about, marvel at what they don’t know. But the point of an integrated education is to get to know one another in generally welcoming ways.