Within a few days of each other, all three of my children shared with me similar experiences at school.
My children go to a public charter school here in the City of Buffalo. Like most city schools its student population is a mixture of racial groups. Our kids classes are almost half black, and half white, with a smattering of other ethnic groups mixed in. Like most city schools, the staff population is almost completely white, and overwhelmingly female.
My kids came home talking about the way the black kids and the white kids act, and how they act different from each other. They came home talking about the way the teachers treat the black kids and the white kids, and how they don't get treated the same. They also came home talking about how some of the black kids accuse some of the teachers, and white classmates, of being "racist."
This is, of course, a wonderful opportunity for us to engage our kids, to talk with them, and to help them gain some tools to use when they are adults. In particular, we are trying to help them understand the following:
Your culture is like the rules to a sport. Everyone on the team knows where to be and what to do to participate. Once you learn how to play the game, you never really have to discuss the rules anymore. You just play.
When people engage across cultures, however, its like a group of two dozen kids playing together; except the first dozen think everyone is playing soccer, and the second dozen are trying to play basketball. They have different expectations, and don't have a common language to use to explore those different expectations. There is pain, offense, and confusion, without any real understanding as to why the other kids won't just play by the rules.
But in spite of the oftentimes painful results nobody is actually doing anything immoral.
Bad Behavior Exists
Sometimes people break the rules, and they know full well that they are breaking them, they just don't care. This is true for white kids and black kids. Sometimes they just do bad things. This also applies to bigotry. Sometimes people just mistreat people because of their race.
Neither one of those things is okay, and no one should get a pass because of their skin color, no matter which color it is.
Institutional Racism Exists
The simple truth is that our school, and most schools, are run by white people. The power dynamics aren't just. Its hard to see if you are white, but painfully obvious if you are not. What is more, those power dynamics are the product of a really painful history. While the events that caused the pain might be generations in the past, the pain of those events, and the institutions created by those events, persist into today.
This means that no one is presently doing anything immoral, but the immoral actions of people from the past, are still doing damage today. It may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility to change it.
Finally, its really important that we help our kids discern the difference between these three things. Cross cultural interaction can be beautiful, but often its like someone stepping on your toe and breaking it. Then the question becomes, did they do it on purpose? or on accident? Or maybe, just maybe, its my fault for putting my foot where it didn't belong!