“I Had No Idea…”


Yep…I heard it again! While listening to a news segment talking about a town meeting with residents of Ferguson, MO and how they proceed from the tragedy of the shooting of Mike Brown, Jr. I heard one of the White residents say that her son was friends with a young Black man and “she had no idea” that the young man’s mother gave him specific instructions about how to conduct himself when he rode his bike over to visit her home. “When my son goes out to ride his bike I admonition him to watch out for traffic. I didn’t know his friend’s mother talks to him about how to respond to police and White people he might encounter… I had no idea!
I heard this same phrase after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin when Black parents were interviewed and explained how they instructed their children, especially their sons, about how to respond if they are stopped by police officers. I can appreciate the veracity of their statement–“I had no idea”– but I do wonder where on earth they have been all of this time to have no idea how dangerous it is for Black people to encounter Whites–whether police officers or citizens–in environments where Whites wield authority like roads, streets, or predominately White neighborhoods.
Twenty-five or so years ago when the world witnessed the Rodney King beating I heard White students say they had “no idea” that Blacks were subject to ongoing police brutality. Thirty years ago when I was raising my own sons in the Palo Alto, CA area we were explicit in telling them where to go and how to respond if they were stopped by police while riding their bikes and later while riding in cars with their friends. My White neighbors and friends claimed to have “no idea!”
Almost 60 years ago when Emmitt Till was brutally murdered, his body mutilated, and his killers exonerated in less than an hour, there were northern Whites who “had not idea.” Last year when director Steve McQueen brought Solomon Northrup’s story of being sold into slavery to the big screen and revealed aspects of how horrific American slavery was I heard White friends and colleagues declare they “had no idea.”
Is having “no idea” an excuse for permitting injustice to continue? Whose responsibility is it to educate people with “no idea” about the realities of life for people who live their American lives inside a darker skin? Once you have learned of an Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown, Jr. what is your responsibility to teach others about what happened?  How can we permit school districts to ban the teaching of the Ferguson incident when we know we will raise yet another generation of uniformed, naive White students who will grow up to say yet again, “I had no idea?” What do you think we should be doing? How can we break this cycle of ignorance and help the entire community become more aware of the terror that awaits some people just for being who they are? Tell us what you think!

Stay Black & Smart!

4 thoughts on ““I Had No Idea…”

  1. Yeah the ” I had no idea” is not excuse. Perhaps we should open a hot line for kids ( and teachers) to call if they want to talk about Ferguson and other race related incidents. I am sure like a suicide hot line, it can save (and inform) lives.


  2. People are a product of their upbringing. If you grew up in a safe, diverse and welcoming community your expectations are different. When no one has been murdered in your memory (which for my folks was 15+ yrs) and other physical altercations are VERY rare, you may not think about safety nearly as often as you do anywhere else. If you don’t experience racism personally or see it happen to a friend, you have no idea. No one looks at Chicago murders or LA gangs and thinks ‘this is going to happen in my suburb tomorrow.’ Yes, racism exists. Yes, the world is a dangerous place. I didn’t experience that until Junior/Senior year of HS when we visited NYC the first time.

    We were blessed to live in one of the safest cities in the country. We were fortunate that our classmates were a beautiful mosaic. We were lucky that our parents would have said ‘I had no idea’ if one of OUR neighbors taught their son/daughter to speak/act different with a cop in OUR city just due to the color of their skin.

    I don’t think its a sign that people don’t care. I think its a sign that people want to world to be safe and they have trouble thinking other people would deliberately hurt someone else based on race. I don’t think its an excuse but a reality. They don’t want to frighten their child or live in fear themselves. Call that silly or naive but personally, I’m glad they live in that reality – because they will raise their children to treat others as they want to be treated. They won’t be told big black men are a reason to cross the street. They won’t be told a black cop might rape you as a white woman. They will grow up thinking safety is normal and people should live by the golden rule.

    Just a different perspective.


  3. I don’t think we can keep training White, middle class, female teachers who are not prepared for students in the classroom unlike them. To me, it is educational malpractice to keep putting White teachers in classrooms who “have no idea” because they have not developed their White identity in relation to other, multiple identities. Although Kevin Kumashiro would caution me not to blame teachers, I feel that teacher education just does not prepare the majority of White first year teachers adequately. In addition, graduate teacher education is not holding accountable a similar sort of identity development for future faculty, administrators, and school district professionals. Therefore, the neglect to complete multiple identity development processes is reproduced throughout the university. Pre-service teachers and graduates (in-service, school district professionals, administrators, future faculty) leave their program of study half-baked. There are very few university faculty prepared to move that student from cognitive dissonance (“I didn’t know” and “now I feel really bad”) to allyship (“I stand with you” and “I will do everything I can and within my power as a privileged White person”).

    Classroom teachers spend more time each day with children than parents spend with children (something like 5 hours compared to 2.5) and yet young White adults (traditional-aged college students) and White adults of all ages seem to believe and state, repeatedly, that we are in a post-racial era simply because the U.S. has a Black president. From my point of view, overt racism has actually increased since the election of President Obama in 2008. It seems like Whites think they can now just be as racist and mean and cruel as they like anymore. And progressives who voted for Obama seem to think that the “work” of creating and maintaining a multicultural democracy that values pluralism is finished. We have barely put our toes in the water.


  4. Sounds to me, after reading the blog and accompanying comments, that more people need to “get the idea”! You can’t just talk the walk, one MUST walk the walk! It’s so easy to sit in your upper class white neighborhoods and say “they ought to do something about that.” Do you ever go into the ‘hood? Do you have a clue how it really is? I taught for 42 years in a culturally diverse, very low socio-economic school. If nothing is being done to help, and you are pointing fingers, remember that three of those fingers are pointing back to you!


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