By Becky DeOliveira — On my first day of first grade, back in 1978, a girl came to our Seventh-day Adventist K–10 school wearing a pair of gold stud earrings. The teacher asked her to remove them— in accordance with the dress code. The six-year-old girl did not comply, for whatever reason. It is quite possible that her mother had warned her never to remove those studs. Who knows? At any rate, minutes later the new first-grade class was treated to the sight of our teacher, a woman who appeared very old to me with her 1950s-styled grey hair and brown homemade polyester pantsuit, chasing the little girl around the classroom with a broom, swatting her bottom every chance she got. The girl was fast; the chase took the pair outside at one point and I can’t remember now how it all ended. Presumably, the girl was caught and punished.
The next year we were a combined first- and second- grade classroom. There was a boy in first grade who struggled to read and was often sent into an adjoining room with either the teacher’s aide or another student, one who was caught up on his or her work. A wooden paddle went into the room along with them. If the boy made a mistake or failed to cooperate, he was paddled. I remember seeing him often with fat tears rolling down his cheeks.
My elementary school was in the suburbs of a large city on the West Coast of the United States. It was supported by three constituent churches. Two of them were predominantly white churches located in the suburbs. One was predominantly Black and located in the city center. That church had purchased a bus that carried a load of kids across the bridge to the Christian school every day. Would it surprise you much if I told you both the kids, I observed being physically hit in the first and second grades were kids who arrived every day on that very bus? Black kids?
What would you guess as the probability that yours truly would have ever been hit by a teacher—or by a student acting on the teacher’s behalf? Let’s put it at p <.001—pretty low. They would have called my parents.
I’m ashamed to say it, but at the age of six, I didn’t question the disproportionate corporal punishment doled out to the Black kids. I assumed they must be bad kids, must have done something to deserve it. Now I think about their parents, living across the bridge, walking their children to the bus stop every morning and putting them on a forty-five-minute or maybe even hour-long commute to a Christian school where they must have hoped—as all parents do—that their children would be nurtured, treated with kindness, cherished. Loved. It kills me, thinking about it.
I’ve gone on in life to experience many more situations where I am shielded from unpleasantness while others—often Black others—face it. Walking through customs at Heathrow airport, as I used to do on at least an annual basis, it was always interesting to observe the people who had been selected for special screening. At least 90% Black. And dashing through airports with a Black Canadian friend on a journey to London a few years ago reminded me yet again of my privilege. He was stopped at every security checkpoint. Every single one. He, a mild-mannered and unassuming gospel singer. We joked about it, but it wasn’t especially funny. Not really.
That Black church, the one that sent the school bus over the bridge? They stopped sending it just a few years later. There was a disagreement with the school principal regarding the discipline of some of the church’s kids. The white point of view was that the Black church was being unreason- able. Me? I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know their story. No one ever talked about it. That bus stopped crossing the bridge and maybe everyone just forgot about those kids. It would have been an uncomfortable thing to confront, there is no doubt about that. No one likes to think they are behaving unfairly or acting in a way that could properly be called racist. But sometimes people are. And rather than pretending this isn’t happening, to make ourselves feel better, maybe we should acknowledge the inequality and do something about it.
There is a car that blasts through my neighborhood painted in full “Blue Lives Matter” colors. That’s quite a commitment to a statement that seems more about refuting Black Lives Matter than it is about anything else. Yes, we know that blue lives matter. You know how we know? When one of them is extinguished, the punishment is swift, certain, and severe. I knew that my white life mattered back in elementary school. How? Because no one spanked me for a trivial reason. I know it now. Why? Because no one stops and frisks me at the airport. No one pulls me over in my car to ask what I’m doing. No one wonders why I’m jogging through my own neighborhood. As a society, we can do better. We can do better as a church too. We have to.
–Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods at the University of Northern Colorado. Email her at: [email protected]