Is My Son Racist?
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Is My Son Racist?

Jan Faull, M. Ed, answers a parent's question about the disturbing theme of her 12-year-old's art project.

Q. My son got an "F" in art last year. For a class project on ancestry he painted a picture of a plantation with the white people sitting on the porch and the black people working in the fields. This picture doesn't reflect our ancestry at all, which I explained to him. Our mostly Irish ancestors were poor sharecroppers, who were just as likely to be working in fields. My son says he was just trying to be funny. He is 12, and I do think he was trying to push his teacher's buttons. I wonder if he needs therapy, or is this something he will out grow. He had to do summer school for art, but still does not seem remorseful. The picture is hanging in his bedroom.

A. When a child shows a misunderstanding about any topic, it's a sign he's crying out for clarification. The picture shows an interest in pre-civil war America but clear confusion about how it relates to his own ancestry. There's lots of opportunity here for learning. His interest is piqued. But tread lightly, don't shove the issue down his preadolescent throat, approach the issue with a low key determination, keeping open his interest in the topic.

On top of the fact that he thought he was drawing something funny that isn't funny at all, he didn't understand the assignment. He needs guidance from a teacher or tutor with respect to completing a project and following directions as assigned by the teacher.

Rather than summer school for art, he probably should have been required to take a history course about slavery in America. Since he's young and naive it's time to raise his sensitivity surrounding the historical implications of slaves working in the fields while white folks sipped mint juleps on the porches for their Southern mansions. Rather than go to an art class for summer school it would have been more beneficial for him to read books on slavery and view films on the topic. A discussion of the books and films with a teacher accompanied by a report on slavery and the resulting civil war would have been a more valuable use of his time.

Since he was not given this opportunity in summer school, make reading and watching Gone with the Wind, Roots, and The Color Purple part of his end of the summer homework. If possible, read and watch these books and movies along with him. Engage him in a discussion afterwards.

In addition to learning about slavery in America maybe you or a cleaver teacher can help him see similarities and differences between black slaves and his own white skinned share cropping ancestors. He needs to eventually realize that his picture is not hysterical at all, but a depiction of a historical period in America which caused wounds that we as Americans continue to lick and that are easily reopened even today.