The Necessity of Teaching Blackness to a Black Child in Southern Oregon

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

On Friday, December 7, Ashland’s local newspaper, The Ashland Daily Tidings, published a short editorial praising the police force’s response to the wrongful arrest of a young Black man.

“In the end, he lost only 10 hours of freedom. It could have been worse,” the editorial staff wrote.

This is a true statement. Few amidst the clamoring noise that is local and national politics disagree. Elsewhere in the country, Black men die in such encounters.

His mother, a Black woman, stated such at a parent support group meeting inside the Ashland High school Wednesday night, Dec. 5. She made her statement while the Jackson County Radio recorded it and Lieutenant Hector Meletich listened. The other mothers eyes were wet with tears, as they could easily envision themselves living out her nightmare.

It is that emotional bridge, how to keep their children seen, heard and safe in the Rogue Valley which brought the twenty together. The meetings are only a few months old. A “Black/African American Student Success” group was created as a direct result of an Oregon Equity Grant awarded in the middle of 2018. D.L. Richardson, former SOU journalism professor, facilitated the meeting.

A Brother became passionate in the face of white women mothers telling stories of their scared pre-teens running from the police.

When it came to articulating solutions, the issue centered around teaching the Black youth how to survive police encounters. However, fear of police or white persons is not a conducive trait to instill. Running from police is not productive. Neither is freezing up and refusing to calmly reassure the officer you are no threat to him or the community. This conflict begs for more communication and positive planned interactions between the youth and police officers.

After the meeting, the Brother’s passion to impress this idea into the minds of the White mothers inspired a question in my mind. What were the White women mothers of Black boys teaching them about Blackness?

“I’m White,” Jean Whalen said. She continued her answer, “My son is Black. He’s never met his Dad or his Dad’s side of the family.” Her parental situation is no different than many Black women.

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The Whalens: Jean and Jude

“My son knows about institutional racism and that he has to behave differently than whites in regards to police interactions,” Whalen answered.

For the last 41 years, Whalen has called the Rogue Valley home, arriving at the tender age of six. She is a product of the educational system, earning a BS in sociology from Southern Oregon University. Eleven years ago, she gave birth to a ten pound Black baby boy. He attends Walker Elementary.

Whalen admitted, “I worry about raising him in a predominantly white area, but I’m trying really hard to prepare him for the realities of living as a Black person in the U.S and have a strong sense of identity.”

 

Such a statement can receive strong pushback. Meaning, everyone in Ashland – the majority of the 22,000 – doesn’t agree with such a frame. They aren’t racist or “white,” whatever that is.

Whalen does appear to have a sense of “whiteness”; a sense of possessing race, just like her son does.

“Well, I parent very intentionally,” she said. “I take raising a Black child seriously.
Through my education at SOU and RCC [Rogue Community College], I was able to build a solid foundation of critical thinking skills, formally learning about race and ethnicity issues (as well as gender and sexuality) and was exposed to people I never would have otherwise met. When I encounter something in regards to “whiteness” and feel uncomfortable , I sit with that discomfort and realize I have something to learn. I feel that is key to being a good parent to Jude.”

She continues, “My son understands the concept of ‘white-washing’ so he knows to question U.S. History, how Blacks and PoC are represented in [the mainstream] media, and why U.S. culture is white-centered. He can recognize cultural appropriation and micro-aggressions.

I try to teach him about Black leaders other than Martin Luther King and Obama. He loves Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. At SOU, I was a member in the BSU (Black Student Union) so that he would have an opportunity to be around other Black folks, particularly men. Because of that, he had the opportunity to meet [transgender activist] Laverne Cox and [Black Panther Party co-founder] Bobby Seale, so Jude’s a big fan of them.”

Being Black myself, and impressed by her educational efforts, I asked about cultural offerings in the area. Is there a Juneteenth celebration or Kwanzaa?

Whalen replied, “As for Juneteenth and Kwanzaa, those have been harder for me to participate in with him. I work full-time and June is not a good month for me to take time off and even thinking about celebrating Kwanzaa is overwhelming, but he knows what both of those things are.”

When it comes to the complexity upon how Blackness is received in society, Ashland and beyond, “I teach him about avowed racists, blatant racism. I also teach him about inherent racism and implicit bias. That U.S. society and institutions are inherently racist.
He understands that I have my own biases and that I benefit from white privilege.”

I do not imagine Whalen’s answers are the norm. Her confidence arises from over a decade of lived experience with the impact of race and racism. Jude appears to be thriving, so her mother wit must be doing something right.

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