A while ago, I helped chaperone my son’s school field trip to the Pasadena Museum of History (or, as I call it: A Celebration of Caucasians)…
We walk into an opulent mansion to find walls slathered in pricelessly framed oil paintings of smirking White people. We are instructed not to touch anything because it’s all too precious for our grungy hands. We stop in front of a painting of a White woman whose expression communicates “Nanny nanny boo boo.”
“Study the portrait. What does it tell you about the subject?” our guide clasps his hands behind his back, and waits for the children to share observations. My first impulse is to turn around and walk out. My second impulse is to tell the truth: “I see an overfed show-off who wants us to know what she has, and wish we could have it.” My third impulse, the winner, is to physically bite my tongue.
We White people don’t like to disturb the “peace” (I put peace in quotes because there is no peace when the screams are silent). So, even though my son is being dragged, for the third year in a row, through this oppressive museum devoid of any representation of people who look like him (yet is named Pasadena Museum of History) I keep my mouth shut. I stay quiet while they emphasize art and beauty, but surround us with depictions of White people. I shouldn’t make a fuss, right?
No surprise, the children are bored to tears, and struggle to focus. They chatter amongst themselves, and it’s hard for us chaperones to keep them quiet. Until a White mother turns to my son and some of his classmates, bends down into their faces, and screams at them like they just pooped on a doily. A hush falls over the group. The guide eventually clears his throat, and we proceed.
I don’t like that. Why did she pick the Black kids to scold? Why was she so angry with them? I know why. But I don’t want to know why. I don’t want to be witnessing implicit bias digging yet another chink into my son’s self esteem. But I am.
I’m already overwhelmed by the offensiveness of this racism holdover of a museum, and now I’m seeing real-time bias. My Caucasian head is spinning.
Throughout the tour, this mother calmly corrects the non-Black children, and unleashes her wrath onto the Black children. At one point, she even spews venom at my son for quietly discussing two paintings they are supposed to be looking at. I guess she can’t fathom two Black children noting the differences in realism and paint strokes.
She grabs my son by the arm twice. And I do nothing. Nothing. I do not help my son.
And I hate myself for it.
After school, I try to start a conversation with my son about the focus and contents of the museum. But he launches into a description of being yelled at, and grabbed. I don’t know if he remembers what he saw inside the museum, because his attention was diverted to being harshly reprimanded most of the time.
So, the White kids went home a little bored, but having seen people who look like them dripping in diamonds and lace. They saw art, they learned how to look at the art, they drew pictures, the saw dresses, crowns, and photographs of people who looked like them at the Tournament of Roses Parade.
The Black children went home frustrated and confused. They saw no representation of people who looked like them (unless they happened to spy 3 or 4 tiny photos (1st Black Rose Queen 1984)). They saw the same old White people dripping in luxury, and dangling it in front of us through oil paintings. They were distracted when they were repeatedly scolded for discovering an antique bicycle or discussing the differences in two paintings. They remember fighting back tears when they could no longer bear being emotionally hammered in front of their classmates. At least one of them remembers his wrist hurting after an adult grabbed him with too much force.
The Black children have to push through so much, and even emotionally recover before they can get to the learning experience of the trip. The White kids simply visited a museum and saw some paintings.
And the damage is solidified when I don’t know how to awaken the White mother to her biased behavior in a way that sparks discussion rather than rage. And the White mother doesn’t know how to receive the information that her behavior was unacceptable without threatening to sue me for defamation of character. Not to mention, I have no idea how to approach the school about scheduling tours at museums that reflect the students they are trying to reach.
How are we adults going to fix this and make it right? It’s an emergency. It’s happening every day at every school in every city in every state in our country. Making this right matters for all of us. Our country is badly broken, and it will eventually die if we (myself explicitly included) continue to prevent some of our most precious citizens from spreading their wings and thriving.