Caden was a 7th grade Black boy in the program I run. He was a sweet kid, one-on-one. With other kids, though, Caden’s behaviors were exasperating. I was constantly pulling him aside to talk to him.
Caden’s mom was awesome and supportive...toward him and us. She let us know that she was a single parent trying hard to make sure he had male role models and good influences. I felt like we had a good relationship.
A few months into his time in our program, Caden’s behavior and attitude seemed to get worse. Several girls were complaining about inappropriate (and very graphic) comments he made to them. I spoke to his mom. She was understanding and concerned.
When the behavior continued, I addressed Caden directly. I tried to help him understand that what he was saying to girls was inappropriate and could really get him in a lot of trouble. However, my conversation with him didn’t change anything. My co-worker, who was Black, agreed to talk to him. I thought she might be able to connect with him in a way that I couldn’t. She had a very direct talk with him as well, but the behavior continued.
In my mind, his appearance had started slipping as well. He had always dressed neatly, but now he seemed to be more unkempt. He was wearing old t-shirts and jeans and his hair looked bushy and uncombed. I wondered if he might be using or selling drugs.
Not sure how to help, but really wanting to, I decided to try to appeal to his teenager side and use lingo I knew teens used. I wanted him to know I saw him and was noticing what was happening. I expressed my genuine concern and then pushed a little harder... “Your hair isn’t combed and you look like a crackhead. Is there something I should know?”
I guess I thought this would help him open up because he would feel like whatever he was dealing with wasn’t getting past me, but it didn’t happen like that. Instead, a few days later his mother confronted me. Caden had told her what I had said because he was hurt and offended. At that point, I realized I had not only damaged my relationship with him, but with her as well. I would like to say that I apologized (which I did) and everything worked out (but it didn’t). My words had added insult to injury. Caden’s behavior didn’t change and his mom became distant.
There is no doubt Caden was struggling. His behaviors were definitely cause for concern. But as I look back, I realize my own behaviors were also cause for concern:
Caden was a teenage boy. Why didn’t I find a guy to address those behaviors?
Caden’s “uncombed” hair was actually a current style that many NBA players were wearing. What if I had paid attention or educated myself more on Black hair...especially considering that I had Black kids in my program?
I had a good relationship with his mom. What made me sidestep her and figure I could solve a problem she couldn’t?
If I was concerned about him using drugs, why didn’t I bring that to her attention?
What if I had asked his mom how she would like me to handle it instead of jumping in without her knowledge?
As Caden’s behaviors worsened, what were my underlying assumptions about his mom that caused me to keep her out of the loop?
I would like to say this was early on in my career, but it wasn’t. This incident happened after about 15 years of working in Black and Brown communities, of doing a lot of reading and research, of listening to and learning from people of color and attempting to do anti-racist work. What’s even more egregious to me is that until I spent time writing this, it didn’t occur to me that my offense was not only against Caden, but actually against his mom as well...and maybe more so.
White privilege makes me believe that I act/react because of someone else’s actions and overlook my own egregious behaviors. White privilege makes me believe that I care more than someone who may be closer to the situation. White privilege makes me feel like I am absolved of all responsibility because I am simply acting out of care/concern.
What I need to realize is that my actions in this situation were a series of microaggressions. What I also need to realize is that I have been conditioned to be this way. We all are. The conditioning is nothing I can help, but the way I pay attention to it and adjust my behaviors is.