By NICK CHILES
Offering continued evidence that this nation is badly in need of some serious discussions about race, history and stereotyping, a white second-grader and his parents in Colorado finds themselves in the midst of a roiling controversy because of his decision to portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—the historical figure that was assigned to him by the teacher— on his class’s “wax museum day.” Most of the outrage has stemmed from the family’s decision to cover the boy’s face in black paint to complete the portrayal. Now the family of the little boy, Sean King, is asking school officials to apologize to him for being “mean” to him when they told him he had to wash his face.
So many of the issues that we address on these MyBrownBaby pages in the end are about poor judgment and degrees. When it comes to parenting, it seems that most everything we do comes down to judgment and degrees: When your kid screws up, it might be okay to send him to his room, maybe in some households to swat his behind or make him stand in the corner—but punching him the face with a balled-up fist, making him sleep outside or denying him a day’s worth of meals would all be considered punishment that is many degrees too far. A parent who used those methods would rightly be accused of exercising poor judgment. The parenting decisions fly at us at a rapid pace. Some of them we get right; some we get wrong. Sometimes, our judgment feels like the only tool we have at our disposal.
So when a white child, given the assignment to portray King at a school function, decides to put on the blackface, it would be in poor judgment for the school to react as if the little boy had come into school covered in a KKK robe. Instead, it would be a fabulous opportunity for school officials to engage the entire class—and apparently the parents, too—in the history of racial stereotyping in the U.S., and how whites used blackface as a way of entertaining each other with cruel, racist depictions of black people. That’s what’s called a teachable moment. It wouldn’t even take that long to do. Everyone would walk away better educated about the evils of racism and you could be sure no white kid in that school would ever wear blackface again.
But assuming that the second grader is strutting into the Colorado Springs school with the intent of using his costume to offend African Americans just seems to be a ridiculously wrong-headed approach—particularly since it was the school that assigned him MLK in the first place. It’s all about judgment. Matters of degree. Common sense. In an interview with a local television station, the little boy said he didn’t understand why everyone had been so mean.
“I like black people. It’s just a costume and I don’t want to insult anybody,” the boy said.
He said he likes black people. I take the second grader at his word. I just wish school officials would learn how to use these situations to actually TEACH, rather than to overreact. Black people are sophisticated enough to understand the difference. If they had handled this the way it should have been handled, we wouldn’t have ever heard of Sean King and “wax museum day” at Meridian Ranch Elementary. It would have been another valuable lesson for a class of second graders—and their parents. Then they could have moved on to recess.
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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You have nailed this on the head! TEACHABLE MOMENTS indeed. If I assigned that, I would go over with the class options/expectations for depicting skin color for the wax museum assignment. The child was apparently meeting the criteria of the assignment to the best of his understanding. And now what is he going to take away from this experience? I really appreciate this piece. Thank you.
The outrage should be at assigning students to dress up like wax museum statutes – how else was he supposed to look like MLK??
The parents called the media, thats why you heard about this incident. The school told the parents to wash his face. They didn’t suspend him and try to draw more attention to the kid. His parents did that.
I think the parents missed a moment here to teach empathy.
In reality MLK’s blackness was integral to his role in society. In contrast, the role of Obama or even Bush is not dependent on skin color, they could both do their job as well with any skin color, but MLK would not have had the same impact if he had been white. Perhaps the boy meant to do this out of respect? A white skinned MLK just seems ironic, absurd.
i’m with you. a missed teachable moment. how can the school be so foolish as to not understand that the boy created his costume out of the context of the history of black face (esp. since they apparently didn’t teach that)? i get so frustrated when educators can’t use common sense.
The main controversy I see here is the difference between meaning offense by your actions and someone else taking offense by your actions. It is law here (in New Zealand) that, for example, sexual harassment is defined by the victim feeling harassed, not the intention of the perpetrator. Even if we do not mean any offense by our actions, once we become aware that we have caused offense we need to apologize and change our behavior. I think the parents were perhaps stuck on the idea of their good intentions, the school focused on changing the outward signs of the offensive behavior, and the little boy got stuck in the middle. A bit of history, philosophy and trusting in people’s good intentions would go a long way. It is good for us all to have these discussions, just a shame that a little kid got caught up in all of it. I think that if the boy had the history and offensiveness of black face explained to him, in terms he could relate to, that he would have chosen to wash his face himself. One learning opportunity missed, but many more opened up.
I know this happened a few weeks ago now, however I just wanted to point out one thing. Take away the history of black face and look at this from the kid’s perspective. This young white kid who lives in a predominately politically and socially conservative area had absolutely no qualms about depicting MLK Jr. to the best of his ability. He had no issue with making his skin darker so he could be more realistic. He wanted to BE MLK Jr. He meant absolutely no offense. I’d say that attitude of not caring about making his skin darker so that he could be MLK shows how far we’ve come and that his parents did something right in that regard.