Was She Suggesting I Monitor Friendships by Race?

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

This happened 13 years ago, but I still think about it, because I believe it says something about how white Americans, myself included, tend to think about race.

Juliet was a kindergartener at what some of my friends laughingly called a “hippie dippie” school, where all the female teachers wore long, flowing skirts and Birkenstock sandals, all the toys were wooden, and the children concocted fresh vegetable soup and whole wheat rolls — from scratch –for their mid-morning snacks.

One noontime, I stepped into the classroom, smiling at the usual rough-and- tumble of more than a dozen four-and-five year olds scrambling to get their sweaters and coats on for pickup time, when the teacher, Ms. X, asked if she could please speak with me for a moment.

I figured she was going to tap me to volunteer at a booth at the annual winter festival, so I smiled and said “Sure.” We stepped outside the door (Juliet, coat already neatly zipped, was happily occupied dressing a doll in the “housekeeping corner) and the teacher got right to business. And that business had nothing to do with selling handmade toys at the winter fair.

“I am concerned about something I have seen going on with Juliet in this classroom during free play,” she said.

“Oh, goodness, what’s going on?” I asked. “Is Juliet not doing a good job sharing with her classmates?”

“It’s not that,” she said. “It’s who she is playing with: Bella and Liliana. I see those three little black heads bent together over toys all the time!”

Like Juliet, Bella and Liliana were born in China and were adopted by Caucasian families in the United States. Like my daughter, they were – and still are, of course – Asian.  In fact, the three girls were the only Asian children in a class.

I felt my temper flare, as if I were a match and had just been dragged along a strip of flint.

“Um, Ms. X, do you also happen to notice when three little blonde or brunette heads are bent together over toys?” I asked, biting my tongue so I wouldn’t say something I might later regret. “You’re saying that you noticed the girls because all three of them are Asian: you mentioned their ‘black heads.” So I am wondering: when you see Paul and Susan and Cory (three white kids) playing together, do you take their parents aside to talk to them about it?”

Ms. X blushed furiously, and took a step back from me. Clearly, I sounded more vehement than I thought I had.

“Are you calling me a racist?” she said.

“I’m not calling you anything,” I replied. “I am just pointing out that you notice when kids of color play together, and apparently not when white kids do. Maybe you should think about that.”

I went back into the classroom, grabbed Juliet’s hand, and walked away. The teacher and I never discussed it again.

To be fair, I don’t think Ms. X was a hateful person who was consciously prejudiced against my daughter or other kids or people of color.  To my knowledge, she was a very good teacher to all the children in her charge and treated them all warmly.

But what I now think of as the “Three Little Black Heads” incident remains in my mind as a clear example of how white people (including myself, sometimes) perceive race. The teacher didn’t think there was anything noteworthy about six white kids playing together in a corner, but when three Asian kids did the same, she noticed it. Why do you think that is?


  1. judymayer says:

    Beautiful descriptor for how racism is born in those unconscious perceptions of difference. I bet you opened that teachers eyes in new ways.

  2. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    judymayer, thank you for saying that!

  3. Lisa, thank you so much for writing this. This story is different from the usual because it’s showing a really subtle reaction, one some parents might not even pay attention to (or repress). It’s good that you were so aware that it caused it to stick with you because it no doubt has kept you even more wary of racial stereotyping. I like those doors at the Holocaust museum in LA–one for the prejudiced and one for those without. Only the latter doesn’t open.

  4. I can completely see why this incident stuck with you. I am white, but lived in other countries while growing up, and went to schools that had students of many races, and nationalities. Yet even despite this, I know that over the years I have thought things or made assumptions, that in hindsight, I realize were subtly racist. I don’t consider myself racist, and would like to think I am not ignorant, but I think some of these thoughts really were ignorant, and came from a lack of understanding of what racism is, especially when it is subtle. I think we all need to continue to be vigilant in fighting racism on every level that it exists, within ourselves and others. Hopefully you helped open that teacher’s eyes, she probably found it hard to be confronted with racism within herself, but who knows, it might even have been one of those lessons that she still remembers to this day….

  5. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    I truly appreciate these comments and insights. I honestly felt a little bad for the teacher, because I could tell she was quite shaken/taken aback by my asking her whether she noticed when white children gathered. As I said in the essay, this lady was a wonderful teacher who was great with all of the kids. But like all of us (no matter what color, ethnicity, gender or national origin), she had her blind spots.

  6. Wow, that’s quite an incident. Ms. X was “concerned” about which children your daughter was playing with! And you called her on it. Why is it a worry when three children of Asian descent play together and not a worry when three kids of European descent play together? Ms. X seems to have had a sort of integrationist mindset, not a colorblind mindset. Thanks for sharing this essay.

  7. As a white father of both a white child and a chinese child I can fully appreciate this post. This is a classic racial microaggression – most white people won’t even recognize it, but it happens to POC all.the.time. I think you handled it quite well and likely gave Ms. X something to think about.

  8. Lisa DeNike says:

    APDad, thanks for reading. I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about it being classic white behavior — and probably quite unconscious.

  9. I can tell by your description that it’s a Waldorf school you’re speaking of, and Waldorf schools are not known for being enlightened when it comes to race. I hope your message was heard loud and clear, and you may want to think about asking them to tackle diversity training or addressing white privilege…. It doesn’t fall under the teachings of the almighty Rudolf Steiner, though, so I hope your school is more progressive than some. 🙂

  10. Lisa Ercolano says:

    tiffani, yup, it was a Waldorf school and we removed our kids very shortly after we came upon Steiner’s writings about race. I couldn’t abide leaving a child of color in a school where young children were not allowed to use brown and black crayons, because those colors are not deemed spiritually appropriate for kids. When I asked how the kids with brown skin and dark hair were supposed to draw themselves and people who looked like them, I was told the teacher would show the children how to rub various colors together to make brown and black. We were done.

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