203. A Paintbrush Dipped in Privilege

Graduation happened. It was a farking hot day, and we sat on climate change bleachers, making sure to lurk at the very back so that my mongo umbrella wouldn’t obscure anyone’s view. There is something particularly heinous about expecting a bunch of mothers around my age to be outside in such appalling weather, and attaching that constructed reality to showing up for your kid’s rite of passage. Even pre-Covid, outdoor graduation was the norm, and I won’t lie–I thought for years about skipping it. This year, when they sent us a Zoom link in case we chose to stay home and watch it, I gave it serious consideration. But we all know the cameras would be focused on the central happenings, while most parents mostly just want to gaze with pride at our own kids.

Which is what we did. R was unusually, demonstratively excited, and we roasted and beamed. After that, we watched fondly as the kids poured with sweat and took photos together, legs and necks and everything in between burning in the unrelenting sun, synthetic grad robes sticking to their armpits.

On a Facebook page for summer haters like me, a bunch of people confessed they had skipped their own outdoor graduations, and it made me feel less alone in how painful I found the physical experience.

As a high school kid, I remember skipping as many outdoor events as I could get away with, barely enduring the ones I could not, and even venting to an understanding teacher: Just let me be your vampire student who shows up to the indoor stuff, and don’t assume I lack school spirit just because being outside is intolerable to me! She knew I danced at every school event I was asked to, and saved my behind by coding her language: “Show your face at the next one, and I’ll mark you present.” So I did. It was a boat race. I showed up at Singapore’s stickily humid waterfront, waved to a few relevant teachers, making sure they saw me, and disappeared to a nearby mall ASAP for a cold drink before heading gratefully home. Seriously, if you give teens some space, they will show up for you in ways they can handle, and they’ll have their beautiful, smiling faces on. Assume goodwill.

The actual ceremony that R was part of was very well organized. I couldn’t relate much to all the song lyrics the various speakers quoted, but I did particularly enjoy the short speech given by the head of the school board, who bluntly told the kids to vote because the rights of the less privileged are under dire attack, and basically made it clear that he saw civic consciousness as a necessarily disruptive force. Since we rarely see white folks use their many positions of power to say impactful things that de-center their own interests, that made me happy. Hopefully by the time A graduates, people will have taken their own advice, and will have disrupted their own tendencies enough to abdicate said power to the historically underrepresented. Am I betting on this outcome? No, I like money, and will be holding onto mine.

FYI, the school did manage to give R one last kick on his departing posterior right before graduation. Gather round, friends, for the tale of how marginalized people actually experience institutional power. Are you comfortable? How could you be, in this current heatwave. Meh. Why should you rest easy while teenagers take injustice on the chin for your edification?

Quite fittingly, this tale transpired on the day schools were meant to be closed for Juneteenth. Grad rehearsal was conducted on that day, after which R was asked to go see the art teacher. He went. Now this class was one that had worked on a mural. Because so many students were in remote learning mode, they had to work on their sections at home, then assemble everything at the end of the semester. They had all decided that the collective theme would be the pandemic year, and R chose as his subsection the Black Lives Matter movement. He had already submitted his work several days before, and teacher met him this day with the news that an unnamed someone had mentioned that it was offensive not to include white people in the depiction of BLM protests. To earn his final grade, R was encouraged (aka compelled) to change some of the painted figures from Black to white. INCLUDING some of the leaders of the marches, who were in front of the crowds.

Do you see? It is so easy to tell marginalized people that these things shouldn’t matter, they are “merely” symbolic. Well, if symbols don’t matter (demonstrably false), then why ask your POC student to violate his own artwork and ethics? There was one other person in the room, someone who clearly wanted to be an ally, but was too afraid to speak up. Which a) should serve as a reminder that what people expect BIPOC to face daily, and also push back against with magical courage, white folks are scared to do themselves; and b) is horrifying, because how and why are youngsters supposed to do battle in the face of such power differentials?

Incidentally, the other student was asked to change the descriptive language of his part of the mural, which was about the appalling Jan 6th insurrection. He was made to change “insurrectionists” to “protestors.” (But yah, we see how easy it is for BLM to be called “rioters.”)

There are so many ways to barter with graduating seniors. Behave, and you’ll graduate. Turn in your projects, and you’ll graduate. Do credit recovery, and you’ll graduate. Show up for grad rehearsal with your Chromebooks, or you won’t get the caps and gowns your parents already paid for. And now, we can add Make white people look good in a BLM mural, and you’ll graduate.

R had to sell his soul so he could GTFO of high school. As he picked up a paintbrush and dipped it in white paint, he told his teacher that he was not surprised this was being asked of him, since the town and school are racist, but want to be seen as woke. Clearly stunned by such a blunt statement of how he was not violating his artwork willingly, teacher stuttered that she was often scared to let her son wear a yarmulke in public, so she understood.

I will leave you to parse the complexities therein.

On graduation day, the principal made sure to tell the other student that he was on his side, but that not causing offence was also important. Again, this is a common statement of faux solidarity made to BIPOC when acts of racism occur–I’m on your side, but let’s make this a covert handshake.

I am PROUD beyond belief that my kid spoke up. But. he. should. not. have. had. to. And that, my friends, is a perfect encapsulation of his past twelve years as a multiply marginalized person.

We want underrepresented people to grow up respecting themselves in a world that treats their bodies, experiences, and self expression like utter crap. And when terrible things happen, people do the usual round of “it wasn’t that bad,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “let’s tally the ways in which you grew from the crap that was flung at you.” SHUT UP. FOR ONCE.

So if one of you walks into the school building, and sees that mural, now you know what really happened. People literally forced themselves into the picture.

My beautiful kid graduated. What are you going to do with the stinking dung heaps you all keep nurturing, though? I’m sure as long as they are labeled “organic,” they will always be cherished.

But go on and keep on with your Hate Has No Home Here signage.

Radha.

5 thoughts on “203. A Paintbrush Dipped in Privilege

  1. Massive congrats to R, and nothing but contempt for the people who forced themselves into a picture that wasn’t for them in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awful, just awful. I can not say I am surprised. Come on, is there an overseer of murals in the district?
    What policy dictates guidelines about students’ artistic expression and point of view? The board
    should know about this, shit like this needs to be aired publicly. The hypocrisy is infuriating.

    Like

    1. Thank you Theresa! Congrats to J as well. Our kids are so grown up….
      We’ve talked to R about whether he wants to pursue any sort of action. I suppose one bright spot would be that we would finally not have any flak to deal with because he’s graduated!

      Like

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