There are a ton of words people have used to describe my son: handsome, funny, polite, and even a handful at times. To say that I was unprepared when I arrived at his daycare one Friday last year and was told that another parent had used the word "aggressive" to describe my son would be an understatement.
We first met Deacon when he was 4 weeks old and an unnamed foster baby in the NICU. Born at 28 weeks, we spent the first 97 days in the hospital where he underwent two surgeries before coming home as a healthy, happy 7 pound, 4 ounce baby right after Christmas.
As I stood in the office that day while one of the professionals told me that a parent had used this term to describe my child, thoughts of our little boy fighting for his life in that tiny incubator at the hospital ran through my mind. I thanked the professional for the information, signed a form saying I acknowledged the conversation, and picked up my happy, smiling 2-year-old and headed to my car. On my drive home, Deacon sang songs, asked questioned, and shrilled with glee when he saw a bus pull up next to us at a red-light.
That evening was just like any other. We got home, he played until it was time for dinner and a bath, and then I tucked him into his new toddler bed and kissed him good night. By this time, my shock had turned to concern and frustration. Concern because we know very little about Deacon's birth family medical history and are hypersensitive to his actions and emotions. Frustration because I didn't know exactly what had happened and knew I wouldn't get answers until Monday morning at the earliest. Had I failed as a father? Did I miss a chance to discuss emotions with him which lead him to the alleged "aggressive" description?
In my professional and academic career, I have completed and authored research so my mind naturally went to evidence-based facts. What I found armed me with information that helped me better understand the struggles that my son would face as an African-American. Throughout the weekend, I feverishly created talking points, gathered data, memorized cited sources, and did everything short of creating a PowerPoint presentation to prepare for the discussion I would be having with the Director of my son's school on Monday.
On Monday morning, I walked Deacon to his class and kissed him goodbye before heading up to the Director's office. I started the conversation by stating that the word "aggressive" should not be used to describe my son going forward and I wanted to be sure that it wasn't marked on any records for him.
Will with his son Deacon
I then went into the facts regarding the situation as I saw it:
"As the white father of an African-American child, I must be vigilant in protecting my son from bias that I've never had to personally face. I also have to balance bias from situations where Deacon does need to be corrected and held accountable. As my son's father, I know that he will be 3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than I was, based solely on the color of our skin (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2012).
I'm also aware that Black elementary, middle, and high school students receive disproportionate punishment for the same offense as White students (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015). Finally, research has proven that White students are more likely to be referred to the office for objective offenses like smoking or vandalism, compared to Black children who are more likely to be referred for subjective offenses like the expression of disrespect or threat (Skiba et al., 2011).
This directly correlates with the perception of racial stereotypes about Black people and that Black boys, in particular, are aggressive and dangerous. I tell you this to explain why the term "aggressive" concerns me. In the past, any report about Deacon's behavior has been objective and transparent, but suddenly we get a report that only stereotypes my son and doesn't offer evidence or reason."
Once I had finished my speech and provided solid evidence to support my concerns, I waited for the Director to respond. Ready to overcome any objection she may have, I allowed the awkward silence to continue while she gathered her thoughts. Instead of defense, the head of my son's school said, "Thank you."
She completely understood my concern for him and stated that we should always stand up for him if we feel that he is being treated different. She went on to tell me that she wasn't aware of all of the information I provided and guaranteed that she had personally witnessed Deacon in class and he was no different than any other 2-year-old at the school. Sometimes he got pushed down, and sometimes he pushed someone down. She guaranteed that Deacon was not seen as "aggressive" to his teachers or any other professionals at the school. She then explained that, as his parents, we had a right to know about any concerns another parent mentioned but that it was only an opinion.
Finally, she let me know that none of her staff members could label any student and that if there were any concerns, it would be a process that I, as his dad, would be a part of. I left his school that morning feeling better. Not because I had "won" or "proven my point," but because the process had helped prepare me for the reality of issues my son may face as an African-American male. With this knowledge, I will be able to identify bias toward my son and have conversations with him about how, just because of what he looks like, he may be considered "aggressive" when the reality is that he is like every other student in his class, only a different skin tone.