OCT 22



Ann Arbor racism: alive and well


Read below for Anuja’s November 2013 column in the Ann. The Ann is the informative, critical, and inspiring magazine distributed monthly in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and annarbor.com.  



“You’re darker than I am so you are my slave,” the taller boy, “Eric,” barked at my nimble 7-year-old after shoving him earthside at an after-school sports practice at the start of the school year.

This declaration was the culmination of the boy’s chastising. It started the week before with him cutting in front of my little guy in lunch line and successfully pushing him out of place in practice so that each time my son hung his head and headed to the back of all the boys.

“But Mama,” my little guy contemplated as he confessed to me about the “color slave” incident that he was too embarrassed to bring up to the coach, “why did Eric say I was his slave but he played with Joe? Joe is darker than me!”

I took a deep breath and assuaged my son that what Eric said and did was completely unacceptable regardless of pigment.

Had Eric seen or heard this behavior and categorization at home and unfortunately thought it was OK? I idealistically hoped Eric had simply learned bits about our harrowed history and not contextualized past pitfalls with current culture and laws. Several conversations later – coach, teacher, school principal, Eric’s mom – I felt assured that the principal and Eric’s family were equally concerned and working together to teach him the truth before archaic assumptions were set in stone. A few weeks later, Eric and my son seem to have a collegial acquaintance and, thankfully, there have not been repeat occurrences.

When my son came home a couple of weeks ago and told me about another similar exchange at school, my sappy mommy smile shriveled. This time another 7-year-old, “Carter,” told my guy he wanted to be friends with him. “Zack,” a smaller kid in the same grade, heard this and in front of my son told Carter, “You shouldn’t be friends with him, he’s black.” Upset but bolstered by each other’s presence, Carter and my son promptly paraded to the teacher and proclaimed what happened instead of holding it in. Zack denied he said anything but the teacher, when he called me that evening to express concern, told me he believed Carter and my son’s concurring complaints.


I wonder what these incidents mean about my son, the school and society. Are they worth being upset about or just kids being kids? Whether we label these incidents as bullying, racism, ignorance or insignificant (what’s really the difference – each of these terms to me reflects not seeing ourselves while at the same time seeing our biggest fears of ourselves in others) they are creating a slowly simmering shock and shudder within me and the few friends I shared them with.


The fact that this is happening in Ann Arbor, which many consider a utopic oasis in America, unbroken from bias, feels naively strange. If this happened twice already in this school year, we wonder how many more kinders are playground perpetrators or victims of slurs and shoves in districts that do not have Ann Arbor’s egalitarian reputation.


I know (well, really hope and pray and will do everything in my power to make sure) that my son will be OK in the long run. There are many lessons for him, including how he can defend himself if someone is physically violent or speaks such scathing words to him again. I hope he also remembers how it felt to have a human being treat him this way and to always show compassion for other children, regardless of pigment or size.



Yes, of course I will always worry for my son’s safety and self-security.  But I worry more about the kids no one has the energy to snuggle and support, whether they were bullied or the bully.  I anguish about the 7-year-olds whose juvenile ideas may permanently jade if left unchecked by schools, families and communities.