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With Just 3 Words, A Boy At School Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About Myself

The author sitting on a cannon at Gettysburg Battlefield, age 11.
The author sitting on a cannon at Gettysburg Battlefield, age 11.
Courtesy of Matthieu Chapman

I was taught about race when I was 9 years old.

My family and I had just moved from conservative West Virginia to supposedly more liberal Pennsylvania. Perhaps because I was younger, my first- and second-grade classrooms never stood out for their racial composition — we were just kids, and as a first grader, I even had a Black teacher. But my new school in Pennsylvania struck me because, as Beverly Daniel Tatum would question in the title of her 2017 book, I found myself asking, “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”

As an overweight child of mixed-race parentage, I struggled to fit in at my new school. I was too Black for the white kids and too white for the Black kids. I found myself the victim of bullies from both races, although the worst of these was by far a white boy named Tom.

Tom was a troublemaker. He was often in physical fights with the other students and verbal with the teachers. He made himself at home in detention and, on occasion, would cross the line where he would spend his school days at home, suspended.

Tom would often pick on me the way children do. This is not to dismiss the trauma he inflicted ― quite the opposite. Children often lack awareness of the potential consequences of crossing the established boundaries of behavior, and as such, Tom’s bullying was brutal. He made fun of my name. He made fun of my weight. He made fun of my family, my school work, my clothes. Nothing was off-limits to Tom.

When I brought this bullying to the attention of my white mother, she offered advice in line with her white liberal fantasies. “He just wants to be your friend,” she said. “Why don’t you invite him for a sleepover?” Even at 9 years old, I was skeptical of this advice, although it wouldn’t be for another 20 years before I could articulate why. So instead, I followed her lead, inviting Tom for a sleepover.

“Perhaps if we teach race in school, my daughter can learn about her Blackness in a way that will not traumatize her, like learning about race traumatized me.”

Much to my surprise, he accepted. Even more to my surprise, we actually had a good time. We stayed up late playing video games and trading basketball cards. We smiled and joked and laughed. We were not one white kid and one Black kid — we were just two kids.

When I returned to school Monday, I found Tom holding court with Derrick and John and more of the white students in the back corner of the classroom. When I entered, they all began to snicker. As I approached these boys who I thought were to become my friends, Tom pointed and said three words that changed everything I thought I knew about myself: “There’s the halfbreed!”

Halfbreed.

He used my race. He used it not only against me, but also to strengthen the bonds within his all-white community.

I was 9 years old when Tom taught me how much race mattered.

The author and his daughter, Roar.
The author and his daughter, Roar.
Courtesy of Matthieu Chapman

Now, I am a parent, and I see states from Texas to Oklahoma to Mississippi attempting to ban the teaching of my history and my race to protect the feelings of white children. These laws have taken any mention of the white violence that created my Blackness and stamped it with the boogeyman label of Critical Race Theory. However, the flaw in reasoning that reveals their true intention is the assumption that children are only taught about race in school. That children will never learn about race unless a teacher assigns works by Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asian authors.

The truth is that children are taught race at home every single day. Children are far more observant and inquisitive than we like to give them credit for. They notice when the vast majority of police officers and politicians they encounter are white. They see when all of their teachers are white. They certainly notice when everyone Mommy and Daddy bring to the house looks like them. And unless we talk about why, these white children risk growing up believing that they are inherently better and inherently more deserving than their nonwhite counterparts.

By not teaching the history of race, we are still teaching race. By not teaching these children about America’s history of Black slavery and Indigenous genocide, we are teaching them that their privilege is deserved. By not teaching them about systemic inequalities that continue to influence a person’s life based on their race, we teach them that they are inherently better. By not teaching about how redlining and broken treaties and eminent domain destroyed the potential for generational wealth for nonwhite people, we are teaching them that their wealth is purely earned and not also a product of their skin, history, and luck. By only exposing them to the results of America’s history of race without teaching them the history of race, we risk teaching them that the onus for Black disadvantage lies with Black people.

Now, I am a parent of a 2-year-old girl. Like me, she also has mixed-race parentage — a (half) Black father and a white mother. She has very light skin and light brown hair. She has central heterochromia, which has given her two beautiful, blue-green eyes with a sliver of copper around the iris. If you were to see her alone, you would swear she was white.

I dread to think how she will learn about race.

How will her white friends respond when her Black dad shows up at school functions? How will their white parents react when they find out their daughter’s friend is Black? Perhaps if we teach race in school, these children can fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for my child, that she can be judged only by the content of her character. Perhaps if we teach these children about race in school, they can help educate their parents, who were denied the opportunity to learn about a larger community of humanity.

Perhaps if we teach race in school, my daughter can learn about her Blackness in a way that will not traumatize her, like learning about race traumatized me. And if the banning of race is about “protecting children,” don’t Black children matter, too?

Note: Names and some details have been changed to obscure the identities of individuals in this piece.

Matthieu Chapman is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY New Paltz and a memoirist, playwright, theorist, critic, dramaturg, director, and father of a beautiful 2-year-old girl. His memoir, “Shattered: Fragments of a Black Life” is forthcoming from WVU Press in Fall 2023. Follow him on Twitter at @matthieuchapman.

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