My Daughter, Her Hair, and the Seattle School District
A Few Thoughts About My Daughter Getting Ejected from Her Class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary Last Week
Some people were all on my case about something I wrote for Slog, The Stranger's blog, concerning a Chinese girl found wandering the streets of Vancouver, BC, two weeks ago with a blond doll. I was thought cold for taking too much notice of the racial difference between the girl and her doll. But in my world, race is still a real and hard fact. It is not something that I have a theoretical or intellectual distance from. It is immediate. It is there all of the time.
For example, just last week, my daughter—who is 8 and happens to be the only brown person in her Accelerated Progress Program class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary—was ordered out of the classroom because her teacher did not like the smell of her hair. The teacher complained that my racially different daughter's hair (or something—a product—in the hair) was making her sick, and then the teacher made her leave the classroom. My daughter was aware of the racial nature of this expulsion not only because she was made to sit in a classroom that had more black students in it (the implication being that this is where she really belongs, in the lower class with the other black students), but because her teacher, she informed me, owns a dog. Meaning, a dog's hair gives the teacher less problems than my daughter's human but curly hair. Most white people do not have to deal with shit like this. Shit that if not checked and confronted will have permanent consequences for the child.
Over the weekend, KIRO-TV ran a story on its evening newscast about the situation. The news segment showed the hair product that my daughter used, Olive Oil Moisturizing Hair Lotion, and brief interviews with her mother and lawyer. The lawyer smelled the hair product and claimed it was harmless; her mother expressed distress about the whole situation. The story wrapped up with a reporter standing outside of my daughter's school in the Central District, explaining that he could not get a response from the teacher or the school's principal because the school was closed for the long weekend. That was all you learned from the KIRO story.
What was significantly missing from this report is that my daughter is black American (the only black student in that teacher's class) and the teacher who forced her out of the classroom is white American. The reason why this racial dimension was not exposed or addressed in the KIRO report is understandable: My daughter and her teacher were not interviewed. But my wife was interviewed—and she is white. So it follows that viewers would assume that her daughter is also white. But if the public had seen that the little girl has brown skin and curly hair, and her teacher has white skin and straight hair, then it would have been impossible to exclude race from this story.
If a white teacher—a person who is supposed to have a certain amount of education and knowledge of American history, and who teaches at a school named after the man who successfully argued before the court in Brown v. Board of Education for equal opportunities for racial minorities in public schools and went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice—removes a black student from a predominantly white class because of her hair, it is almost impossible not read the action as either racist or expressive of racial insensitivity, which amounts to the same thing for someone in that teacher's position.
When we, her parents, were later informed of this incident, we also learned that once my daughter was removed from the class, the teacher felt much better. We were also told that the teacher had experienced something like a fainting spell because of our daughter's hair. Feeling the seriousness of this situation, we decided not to send our daughter to school until the teacher had medical proof that our daughter's hair or something in her hair was to blame for the nausea. (The last thing you want to happen to your daughter is for a teacher to faint or vomit at the mere sight of her.)
Days passed and the school took no action. This unresponsiveness left us with no other choice than to turn to a lawyer. The whole thing is a mess. Getting entangled in a racial dilemma is something most black parents do not want for their children. It's just not worth the trouble. Then again, like I said, if not checked and confronted, the incident will have permanent consequences for my child.
So, yes, I have a very good reason to be sensitive to the image of a Chinese girl carrying a blond doll. Not to have that kind of sensitivity would in my case be a form of parental neglect.
Seattle Public Schools declined an interview request from Charles Mudede because he is the father of the student in question, but a school-district spokesperson agreed to be interviewed by The Stranger's news editor, Dominic Holden, just as this issue was going to press. Click here to read their response.