By Tiffany Bargeman
As our series on Black Sons Abroad continues, I had the pleasure of talking with two moms who are raising their young princes, both 4 years old, in the United Kingdom (UK). I chatted with Uchechi Eke, a very dedicated and passionate member of MOBB United for Social Change (MUSC) and Moms of Black Boys United, Inc., about her experience raising her son in the small town of Braintree, part of Essex, in the South East of England, UK. “He’s got a smile that lights up the world!” is how this Nigerian-born mom described her 4-year-old prince, Kamsi -- not the room, the WORLD. His full name in Igbo (the language of a Nigerian tribe and ethnic group) is Kamsiochi, which means What we asked God for, He granted. Uchechi told me that she and her husband wanted a son, and Kamsi is their resulting joy.
Also, I had the chance to chat briefly with young Kamsi, a train and car enthusiast, who just started school. I didn’t get much of his time, as he was about the business of squeezing in as much play time with his Legos as possible just before heading to bed at 8 p.m. But I did learn from his innocent lips that he believes police are good. “They catch bad guys, and they put them in jail,” he answered, when I asked for his opinion of police in the UK. When I asked how he feels when he sees police officers, he said, “I’m real excited because of their uniforms.” As I listened to him, imagining him squirming in mom’s lap anxious to go back and play, I thought about his innocence and how wonderful it is to be young and oblivious to the many dangers and injustices that plague society.
America is not the only place, of course, where prejudice, racism and police brutality are daily conversation topics. I knew this, but I was surprised to learned that it also is a problem in the UK -- on a smaller scale -- but a problem nonetheless. Though Uchechi expressed concern about her son learning about these unfair phenomena as early as secondary school as he approaches an age of accountability, she countered, “You can’t cage a bird.” She and her husband plan to use the power of affirmation to prepare Kamsi to function at his best self in society, filled with not only happiness, but joy, which overcomes the good, bad and ugly. My words simply cannot do justice to the conversation I had with Uchechi and her son. Please click here to listen to the full interview.
“My son brings unspeakable joy to our family. He loves trains and cars. We have high hopes he'll be an engineer. He dotes on his sister and is the apple of his father's eye. He is generous, confident, loving and adventurous.”
Just shy of 30 miles (72.4 km and less than 1 hour driving time) from where the Eke family resides live Bianna Ryan, her husband, and 4-year-old son, Noah. They are Americans living near Cambridge, England. Like Uchechi’s Kamsi, the youngest member of the Ryan family is too young to know much about the police, except that they take people to jail. Mom is not sure if he thinks the police are good or bad. He is their only child, and is therefore, very special to the family. Bianna describes him as a precocious boy who loves being outside. “He loves birds, and feathers, and picking flowers. He’s the light of my life. The joy of my world,” she said. She's not worried too much about him experiencing fatal violence at the hands of law enforcement. In fact, policing in Britain is so different; she’s never seen a police officer in her village. This isn’t a “gun country”, and there appears to be much less gun violence than in America. Mom said she may not be concerned about her son being in physical danger of such a bad experience until he's at least 9 years old. Right now, he’s learning to ride his bike and asking questions about nature; he’s just doing regular things that 4-year-olds do. However, people already seem to perceive her son as older than he actually is -- by about 2 years -- though Mom’s not sure why. There's something else on her mind these days concerning her son, and that's his experience in the UK’s educational system. This year, the Ryan family joined thousands of families all over the UK in sending their 4-year-olds to “Reception”, the British equivalent of pre-Kindergarten.
When Trayvon Martin was murdered, like the rest of us, Bianna was traumatized. When the verdict was announced, her son was only a few months old, and all she could do was cry. She wanted to take action to affect change, but she wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. One day, she saw a post by a friend in the private Moms of Black Boys Sons, Inc. Facebook group and was inspired to join. Bianna has found the community to be a helpful support system. Recently, she posted in the Facebook group about an experience with her son’s teacher at his school, which raised red flags. I asked her why she felt comfortable sharing such a private matter within this group of moms, most of whom she does not know. Her response: “I just needed someone to check my thoughts.” She welcomed the feedback that she received from the other moms -- not necessarily like minded, but with one thing in common: love for their Black sons. She had shared it first with her husband, of course, who reassured her that she'd done the right thing. But then, she wanted to know how other moms felt.
Here's her original post:
Am I overthinking this?
We are Americans living in England. The school system here is very different. We also live in the middle of England NOT London. There is little to no diversity here. I have not seen any other black children in the school. Nor have I seen any black staff. I have counted two Asian children. Today is my only child’s third day in Reception (American Pre-K). So, he’s only 4 years old. Day One: the lead teacher tells me he has not been listening and he’s being defiant. This is not really a surprise as my son will test you. You have to be firm with him at times. I personally do not think being defiant is necessarily a bad trait when channeled into determination but I TOTALLY understand how this can be disruptive in a classroom. Day Two: The assistant teacher shows me a note from the lead teacher that is used to “document behavior to determine patterns.” The note said another teacher/bathroom monitor saw my son walk up to another little boy and kick him without provocation. I was very upset about this. So, I told the assistant teacher I would like to speak to the lead the next day. This morning I expressed my concerns.
Momma: I saw the note about N and I am concerned about him being watched and monitored for what you think is anti-social behavior and that behavior being documented. The documentation is what bothers me the most.
Teacher: We’ve had a chat with the class about deliberately hurting others. Right after that N walked up to another boy and kicked him. We try to teach our little ones not to hurt others. You would be very upset if N was hurt by other student. <-- This last comment was beside the point but I let her cook.
Momma: I am bothered that my son might do something to hurt other people. I understand that harming others is not how he should behave. Aggression is really not like N. He’s always been a gentle soul. I am also concerned about him being singled out or stigmatized as a problem student. I think it’s very early for that and the fact that you’re documenting his negative behavior and not his positive behavior leads me to believe this may be the end result.
Teacher: It is standard practice for us to document student behavior both negative and positive. (She explains the Honor System for documenting and rewarding positive behavior). We document negative behavior to see if we can determine patterns and work together with parents to diffuse the behavior. I’ve found N to be a gentle as well and one who’s eager to please. He’s a lovely boy and we’re happy to have him in our class. I had a chat with N after the incident yesterday. He was immediately remorseful. He was very upset about being put on the black cloud.
Momma: What is the black cloud?
Teacher: This is a system we use in the class to make students aware of their behavior. It is a rainbow. At one end is a white cloud and at the other is a black cloud. If a student exhibits bad behavior they’re on the black cloud.
Momma: 😠😠😠 I don’t like that. He is Black. I am Black. The message is Black is bad and White is good.
Teacher: Oh! I never thought about it that way.
Momma: There is no reason you would. You’re used to seeing the world through your lens of whiteness. I am Black and this is the first thing that came to my mine. N is Black and things like that teach children that black is bad. So, N is bad. N’s mommy is bad.
Teacher: We can definitely change that. I want to assure you that we do not discriminate. That was not our intent.
Momma: I’m sure this was not intentional but the negative association with blackness is clear. You’re not outwardly saying being black is bad but you imply this by making a consequence for bad behavior being placed on a black cloud. You also imply that white is right and therefore superior to black because the child wants to be on the good white cloud and not the bad black one. I look forward to seeing the changes. What about gray?
Teacher: I like gray. Maybe I’ll do under the rainbow and over the rainbow. Mrs. Ryan, I want to again assure you that we don’t discriminate and we’ll change the board. I’d really never thought about it that way.
I could see that she was honestly troubled by what I’d said.
We went on to speak in more detail about N and positive discipline.
I don’t think I overreacted but I have to admit I do care that I upset her. I know this is my fatal flaw. I don’t like to upset people but when it comes to my baby I have no problems letting people have it. I will always be an advocate for my son and children everywhere. I do think “subtle” suggestions like this can be where discriminatory thinking starts. Again, these kids are only 4 years old.”
Bianna spoke of what she thinks was genuine ignorance on the teacher’s part about the message she was sending to her class with her black cloud/white cloud behavior tracking system. She was surprised, first of all, that Bianna came to her directly with her concern. Mom thinks this may be due to her observations during the 2 years she and her family have lived in the UK that the citizens are less candid than Americans. They seem to be “polite to a fault”. Secondly, the teacher seemed shocked at this mom's concern that because she was teaching her class of 4-year-olds to believe that the color black is bad and white is good, she ultimately was conditioning them to think that Black people are bad while White people are good. There are very few Black children in this school; actually Bianna has not seen any others, as she mentioned in her post. Because there are not many Black people in the surrounding community as a whole, the teacher may very well never have considered that the behavior system using colors had such a negative connotation, until Bianna intervened in her son's behalf.
The good news is that the teacher expressed genuine remorse about the misjudgment; she owned up to it. The very next day, she changed the system in her classroom to reflect white and grey storm clouds instead. Not only was her class being taught to pre-judge based on color, but the rest of the students were too, since it is a school-wide behavior tracking system. Unfortunately, children who started attending this school at 4 years old have been conditioned through 5th grade to believe that black is bad and white is good. The teacher took Bianna’s concern to the head teacher (equivalent to the role of principal at the school) and reported back that they system had been changed school-wide.
When I read Bianna’s post, immediately, I was reminded of the concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. Situations like this one, left unaddressed, tend to usher Black boys into an unfortunate pattern of labeling through biased documented incidents that can follow him through school, practically setting him up for failure. But I believe that Bianna’s intervention, via this very frank conversation with her son's teacher, stopped that demon in its tracks. Left unchecked, the psychological impact of such an experience on Black boys can be detrimental. Direct conversation is just one wise way that moms of Black boys must advocate regularly -- from pre-K through college -- to protect our sons’ futures. Her post also reminded me of how important it is that we affirm our Black sons so that they know their own worth. Starting at an early age, we should tell them that they are special, they are loved, they are handsome, that they'll be successful if they work hard, and that they are no less important than anyone else. Both Uchechi and Bianna expressed how important this is; affirmation from loved ones helps prepare our sons not only to navigate a racist society, but to survive in it. Bianna “nipped this issue in the bud immediately”; however, she is not sure whether or not her young son has already made a connection between the bad black cloud and his race because of this experience. Regardless, she and her husband have the priceless opportunity to continue pouring into their child's self-esteem before he encounters any overt racism. When she was pregnant, she admits that she was a bit worried about not being prepared to raise a black son in a racist society, but her husband reminded her that simply loving their son is the answer.
If Bianna had a chance to speak to President Donald Trump about her son, she would try to appeal to him as a parent, since he has children of his own, including a young son. “We both want the best for our children, but the way he is leading America is making it hard for us to give our son the best future,” she said. She feels her son has a target on his back and is being stigmatized. She added, “America is made up of all kinds of different people. We are all intertwined. This means my son’s future is connected to your son’s future, and vice versa. So, if we want to, as you say ‘make America great again’, then everybody living in the county should be living a great daily life. If you have a system of inequity, America can’t be great because some people aren’t living their best life.” If Bianna could speak to Britain’s Prime Minister, she would ask her to understand that because the world is becoming so much smaller, it would benefit the UK to treat all citizens well because it can only benefit Britain in global relationships. Lastly, she encourages moms to step outside of their comfort zones and have the difficult conversations that are necessary to advocate for our sons.
So, we've been to Beijing, China (virtually), and learned of 15-year-old Bryson Berry’s experience living abroad. Now we know what it's like for two moms and their young sons in England. Where to next? Japan maybe? Stay tuned.
Moms of Black Boys United, Inc., the 501c3 sister organization of MOBB United for Social Change (MUSC), works hard to change negative perceptions of Black boys and men. Much of this work requires financial resources. To date, our organization has been completely self-funded; but to grow and expand, we need your help. Please consider donating to Moms of Black Boys United, Inc. this month at mobbunited.org/donate. Also, please learn more about fundraising plans and what else you can do to help.