The conversation that started it all

Image of boy staring over his left shoulder

I was so tired. My feet were hurting and I was thirsty. “Just one more door,” I thought to myself.

At the time I was walking and knocking doors on behalf of Jackie as she ran for Norfolk Public School Board. We had roughly 8,000 doors to knock in a few months with a small group of volunteers.

On this particular day, I walked up to the small, house and stopped at the porch. Sitting on the porch was a young African-American boy about 8 or 9 years old. He was happily munching on a bag of chips, looked up at me and smiled.

“Are your parents home?” I said. “I’m here on behalf of Jackie Glass, who is running for Norfolk Public School Board.

“What’s a school board?” he asked.

“Well a school board is a group of elected officials responsible for the provision and maintenance of your schools.”

“That’s cool!” What’s a school board do?”

The conversation went on like this for a good ten minutes. We went back and forth with him asking me all kinds great questions about running for office, voting, and politics. I was impressed.

This interaction completely made my day and helped me forget how tired I was. I was excited to see a such a young kid take a genuine interest in civics.

I ran home to Jackie’s house to tell her all about my story. When I got back Jackie and I sat in the kitchen and I relayed my story back to her.

“I just had the best conversation,” I said. “I met the cutest kid and he was so interested in the school board and he was just so articulate!”

Picture of Christina looking confused

There was a pause in the conversation and I knew Jackie had something important to say. She proceeded to tell me about the word articulate and the African American community. She kindly explained how calling an African American boy articulate was offensive.

I was shocked! All kinds of thoughts went running through my head. “What is she talking about?!” “I was just trying to give him a compliment, I meant he was articulate for a young kid.”

It was hard for me to slow down and listen to her explanation.

The word articulate is offensive because I said it with a sense of shock, as if I hadn’t expected him to be smart in the first place. There were also so many other things I could have said instead of articulate.

At first glance, it may seem that saying articulate to a black child is a minor infraction. And in some ways it is. But, words really do matter because they impact the lived experiences of people of color.

For example, according to a Roots article, “researchers have found that when African American students, prior to taking a test-have to fill in demographic information-including their race, a stereotype that black students are less intelligent, can be internalized, causing black students to under perform.

By the end of the conversation I had worked through my feelings and was able to learn and grow from the experience.

Jackie graciously pointed out that there’s no way I could’ve or even should’ve known this term was offensive. I’ve spent most of my life around white people. I had never ventured into my neighbor’s hood. (like the way I snuck that in there!)

That’s the conversation that started it all.

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