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March 22, 2022
Stuck with Damon Young
Stuck on Sh*t My Dad Did

In This Episode

Damon talks to Nikole Hannah-Jones (and then his real actual dad) about all of the racial and economic factors impacting where he decides to send his kids to school.


Damon Young: So the worst dad in Black sitcom history was definitely Will’s dad on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He was a deadbeat, and then he came back in Will’s life with promises of lollipops and fishing trips, and then he left again, and then Will was like “Why don’t Ben Vereen want me man?” and then America was like “Yeah, Will Smith ain’t ever winning an Emmy.” 

It was easy to call a guy like that a bad dad because he possessed many of the qualities we associate with bad parenting. He was selfish, he was manipulative, he was irresponsible, he was a liar, and he wore skullies indoors. 


But consider the two jobs most similar to parenting–coaching and teaching. Coaches and teachers are assessed by outcomes.


And, if we consider Will’s dad through this criteria, he was actually…good. Because Will’s life was better in Bel Air and with Uncle Phil than it would’ve been with him. And isn’t that what parenting is about? Putting your kid in the best circumstance possible?


Okay, so I know that’s not necessarily the best example. But I’ve been a dad for six years, and I still don’t know what defines good parenting, so I perform it–compressing all the years of watching my parents and friends parents and TV parents–by creating a composite dad. And part of this performance is race-based. Cause I’m not just a dad–I’m a black dad, and that comes with it’s own expectations and realities. I feel like I got the black man thing down pat. Getting it, at least. Black dad, though? I need some help. 


Hey, what’s up everybody? This is Damon Young, author of What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, and columnist for The Washington Post Magazine. And welcome to “Stuck”–a show exploring, deconstructing, laughing at, and finding community in the tension between who we are, who we’re expected to be, and who we want to be.  


Basically, a purging of all the shit stuck in my head–stuck in our heads. And we’ll talk about sex, spiritality, mental health, money, and more. 


But today, we’re talking about my kids. Specifically, where to send my kids to school. And what that decision says about me.


[Music Transition]


Nikole Hannah-Jones: I always find these conversations very interesting because I feel like it’s like this therapy session where folks need to talk out why they’re going to ultimately make the decision that’s against their stated values. You know, these are, I’m the wrong person with which to have that conversation, because if segregated high poverty schools that were serving large numbers of Black kids were high achieving, it wouldn’t be a fucking problem. 


Damon: That’s Nikole Hannah-Jones. You know her as the creator of the 1619 Project. She is a Pulitzer winner, she’s won so many awards, I mean she might even win the fucking NBA dunk contest one day. And I reached out to her because we both have school aged children and we both have had to make very hard decisions about where to send them to school. And today’s episode, it’s just two parents talking about their kids.


Nikole: We moved to New York when my daughter was one, and if you are familiar with New York and I would imagine other deeply divided cities then you know the first conversation that people have when they find out you have a child is: where are you going to send your child to school? What are you going to do with your child? And uniformly the people we talked to, whether they were Black or white, the middle class parents we talked to said you can you know, you can’t put your kids in a neighborhood school. You have to get them into, you know, one of the test-in schools or private school. 


And I’m opposed to all of that. I don’t believe in screening kids out, testing. I don’t believe in talented and gifted, and I don’t believe in private school. So our decision, which I informed my husband of, that this is going to be our decision, was that we were going to put our child in a segregated high poverty school, that I cannot write about these things. I cannot argue that our system is immoral and then play my part in it. 


Damon: The point about not believing in gifted and talented. For me, I grew up, you know, understanding and accepting that there were distinctions, and those distinctions didn’t necessarily, weren’t necessarily based on race, or it was just, you know, people tested at a certain–but even as I say that to myself out loud, knowing how biased tests can be, who creates the tests? Again, to say that out loud actually makes a point about, you know, kind of throwing away the whole system. Who decides who’s gifted? Do the gifted students get the better teachers with the smaller classrooms, you know, and they’re segregated from the rest of the kids.


Nikole: See, I don’t even–you can do your own self therapy now. I’m like the guru. I have moved you onto the path of enlightenment. I’m opposed to it on two different grounds. One, it’s just a fundamentally unequal system. The idea that you measure giftedness one way, that if you test well, you’re gifted, if you don’t, you’re not. Understanding that we have a completely unequal system where you’re testing advantage, you’re not actually testing intellect or giftedness. And what about a child who is gifted in art but doesn’t write well or doesn’t test well? I just think you can look across, and the rise of giftedness has, you know, been tracked largely to desegregation, that the more racially diverse a school district is, the more gifted the white kids seem to be. Suddenly, you know, 40 to 50 percent of the population of white children is gifted, but an all white community, that’s not the case. 


So fundamentally, it’s just a tool of inequality. And to ensure that you’re providing a top tier education to white kids at the expense of Black and brown kids, or higher income kids at the expense of poor kids. For instance, in New York City, you test into talented and gifted at four years old. Now at three years old, you start getting, if you’re middle class, you start getting emails and fliers about test prep for the gifted test. Which leads one to wonder if it’s measuring innate giftedness, how can you prep for it? 


So it’s very clear what talented and gifted has been used for. But my other opposition to it is in a public system, every child is worthy of that education, whatever education. You somehow think that those who you consider to be your quote unquote brightest students deserve, your neediest students deserve that, if not more so.  


So I just fundamentally don’t believe in a public system that you offer some kids a top tier private school caliber education and those who we have not deigned to be smart enough or talented enough or motivated enough, just get something regular. I’m just opposed to that in general. It’s funny because it’s probably the only thing in my life where people feel I have this strange optimism or belief. But I fundamentally believe in the idea of a common good, that public schools are about a common good. And if that means that my child will not go to a school with 24 AP classes because the only way to have equality is to offer ten at each school, then get the ten right. Like why? 


Anyway, I just, I think talented and gifted shows how little we think of so many of our kids. That at four years old, you didn’t test high enough, and so you are unworthy and I have spent enough time talking to those kids who can’t test in and who see the difference in education that their peers are receiving and how utterly damaging, that is to their psyche to think I’m just not good enough for that. I just don’t think that little of our kids.


[Music Transition]


Damon: Considering the decision that you made, do you have any regrets about that, or any, maybe regrets is the wrong word, but just I don’t know, how do you feel about that? 


Nikole: So, no, I absolutely don’t have any regrets because I did not go into this circumstance with a sense of naivete. I write about these types of schools for a living. I know exactly what the struggles were going to be in making this decision. 


My school choice for my daughter was not how do I put my daughter in a position to go into the world and become whatever it is that she wants? My decision for my daughter was what is the best thing for our community? And how do I put my daughter into a circumstance where she will learn to be a great citizen? Where she will learn to live in the world that exists, not the artificial bubble that I can create for her. I don’t have, I clearly want my daughter to be able to fulfill whatever dreams that she has. And I understand that I can provide her whatever academic, social, cultural supports that she needs to do that no matter where I placed her in school. But to me, what was important was that my decision is not just about my child, that my decision is also about other people’s children. And that’s how I chose the school. 


Damon: Yeah, and that’s, and it’s funny, you know, that you mention like the I guess the fundamental difference with the framing. This really is a test of your politics, my politics, and also the integrity of them because before we had children, I felt the same way. Like, you know, Black families of means sent their kids to private schools or sent their kids certain charter schools or sent their kids to schools in more affluent districts were–I’m not going to say selling out or anything like that, but… 


Nikole: That’s kind of what you’re saying,


Damon: Yeah, but I’m not going to say that because I’m talking about myself. So I’m not selling out, but it’s on the spectrum. And so I have my own children and that has complicated things.


Nikole: Of course. 


Damon: You know, and and also too, again, I can’t just negate the fact that I live in Pittsburgh. And in Pittsburgh we just don’t have as many choices. And that the schools, the public schools in the city that are predominantly Black in Pittsburgh are some of the worst performing schools in the state. 


Nikole: That’s a given. That’s kind of the point, right? That’s the easiest decision in the world for any family, but particularly Black families, is to put their child in a high achieving school. But the fact of the matter is, we know that that is not the education that those kids are receiving in those schools, and that is where the moral imperative exists. So, you know, you don’t–want to say, I would love to if those schools weren’t so bad. It’s really–defeats the whole point. 


Damon: Yeah. 


Nikole: Of what we’re arguing, because what you’re then arguing, and let me just be clear, like I’m not pretending this is an easy decision. It’s easy to have values when you don’t have to live them. And that I was also confronted with that reality that I was very certain of what I would and would not do before I had a child. And then I had a child and I moved into New York City in one of the poorest Black neighborhoods in New York City and I’m confronted with a different reality because now it’s not some abstract concept. And it is the most natural thing in the world for a parent to want to protect their child and provide their child with the best, and particularly for Black parents. When I understand it is a huge ask to say, you are the first person in your family to have reached a level of financial security where you can actually give your child some advantages, that generationally black people have been deprived of the ability to seek out the best for their children. And now that you finally achieve that, I’m saying don’t do it. I get what I’m asking. I know how hard that is. 


But on the opposite side of that is, who’s coming for the rest of our kids? Who’s saving the rest of our kids, like if we won’t come for our kids, if we won’t throw our lot in with our folks, who will? And so ultimately, what we have to decide is, are we, too, going to accept this two tiered system for most Black kids? And just play our role in that system and take what we can, or are we going to reject that system and say, actually, I could leave, but I’m going to stay and fight? And whatever little privilege I have managed to get, I’m not going to hoard that for my own child. And I guess fundamentally I’m saying everyone is going to make the choice that he or she makes. But then you’re going to have to understand, there’s not clean hands in that choice though. 


Damon: See, I think, back to my dad, my parents and the shit that they did, you know. I started school early where I was always the youngest in my class. And then when it came to middle school, I was all, you know, I also was a hooper. And there was this private school in the suburbs that had this really like excellent basketball team. And so when I went to that school, I repeated a grade. So I was with the people the same age and, you know, that gave me a bit of an edge athletically and academically and socially, too. And then when I get to high school, I end up going to Penn Hills, which is, you know, it was a racially mixed suburban high school, you know, outside of Pittsburgh. But we lived in the city. And someone on the team, someone’s mom or dad or whatever, told about me living in the city. And so I had to leave school, finish the rest of that school year and the whole next year at this neighborhood school, Peabody. And then my parents moved out to the suburbs and I finished high school out there. So I guess what I’m saying is this isn’t new. You know, these machinations that we have to go through to figure out and decide what we’re going to do for our children. And my dad, you talk to him now about all the lying and the forging of documents and he has no regrets because I ended up getting a scholarship to college, basketball scholarship, and that that was his ultimate goal. 


Nikole: But the difference. So my parents entered me into this voluntary school desegregation program, I was bussed into white schools starting in the second grade, and actually a girlfriend of mine just sent me a picture from I think it was my third grade yearbook and I’m one of two Black kids in that class, which, of course, comes with its own horrors. My parents were like working class folks who, if they could get me into a good school, that was the only advantage they would ever be able to get me. That’s not true for us. 


When I think about my daughter’s school, my daughter’s school has probably one of the smallest attendance zones in the city. It literally the attendance zone is drawn around a housing project, or at least it was until the recent rezoning. So the poverty rate in the school is extremely high. And this year was the first year where what was happening in the classroom really tested my resolve because there has been the type of non teaching and rigor that I normally see in these types of schools. It was the first time I had that experience that at this school. And I really had to, you know, so the way that I addressed it personally is, you know, my daughter’s getting tutoring. She gets tutoring twice a week. I can provide that for her. My parents could not. And none of the parents in my daughter’s school can provide that. 


And I understand that the easiest thing to do in that situation is to run is to say, you know what, I don’t need, I don’t have to put up with this for my child. I’m leaving. I’m going to put her in a different school. But then what happens to the other 32 children in that classroom? What do they get, what do they deserve? And if these things can happen with a New York Times reporter who everybody in the fucking world knows writes about school inequality and segregation. Then what happens when I’m not there? And so to me, the duty is to bring whatever little power and resources I have into correcting that situation, not just for my own child, but for all of those kids, because that is the reason why we have to go into those schools. 


As Black people, particularly, we’ve never been able to separate our individual fate from the well-being of the collective, that has not been our experience. And here we are in this generation where we have more freedom than any other generation, and do we use that freedom in a way that helps our community or hurts it? 

And we can tell ourselves all kinds of rationalizations while, you know, I write about our people, so I’m helping or I donate to the Blacksonian or whatever it is that you do. But in the end, if we’re not throwing our lot in with our folks where it matters most in a way where maybe we have to give up some of that advantage in order to help our people, then we’re not actually really, really doing the work.


Damon: Thank you. Thank you for all of that, really, not just for the podcast, but just like for me. 


Nikole: That’s alright I’m gonna check in with you in a year.


Damon: Ok. 


Nikole: And we’ll do another podcast and see–as the old civil rights song said, what side are you on, my friend? What side are you on? 


[Music Transition]


Damon: What’s your name? 


Zoe Young: Zoe. 


Damon: Ok. 


Zoe: My name is Poopy Zoe! 


Damon: Poopy Zoe? That is not even a funny joke… that doesn’t make any sense. 


Zoe: Knock, knock. 


Damon: Who’s there? 


Zoe: Potato chips. 


Damon: Potato chips who? 


Zoe: Knock knock. 


Damon: Wait you’re supposed to… you’re supposed to say who’s there. You’re not supposed to 

start a new joke again.  


Zoe: Ok. Knock knock. 


Damon: Who’s there? 


Zoe: Potato chips. 


Damon: Potato chips who? 


Zoe: Potato chips… poop on your head! 


Damon: Potato chips poop on my head? 


Zoe: Hahahahahahahahaha 


Damon: OK…. 


[Music Transition]


[phone rings]


Wilbur Young: Hello?


Damon: Hey. 


Wilbur: Hey, Day, what’s up? 


Damon: What’s going on? 


Wilbur: Not much. 


Damon: So that’s my Dad. You can try calling him Mr. Young, but he would correct you and tell you to call him “Weeb,” which has been his nickname since he was a toddler. His real name is Wilbur but again, Weeb. And I was calling him because I had some questions about the decisions that him and my mom made when making whatever moves they made to decide where to send me to school when I was a kid.


Weeb: Well, you know, we were not of the private Catholic school genre, you know, neither one of our families. Ok? And even though I grew up with kids who had gone to private Catholic schools, but your mom was a little you know, she wasn’t too enthused about it. Ok. 


Damon: Why not? 


Weeb: Well, I think she was just, you know, what’s wrong with the Pittsburgh school system? Well, what I had to explain to her really was you were, you were coming along as a young basketball player. And you needed to be in a program where you could develop your skills. The public school system did not have that type of program for a young athlete in your age group. However, the day that we walked into St. Barts for the interview, your mom and I were sold right there. In the lobby, the entire lobby had a Black History Month display, and there were about how many black kids in the school at that time? Maybe what, 10? 


Damon: There was probably a few more. Let me think it was K through 8, I’d say between like 25 and 30. Still that’s not a lot of black kids at all. Yeah.


Weeb: Right. You were still the minority, and the St. Bart’s had gone all out for that display and it’s like, wow! 


Damon: So the Black history month, the posters, MLK posters swayed you. 


Weeb: Pictures and everything I was like wow, ok. 


Damon: I mean, they could have just put that up there, just they knew, they knew y’all were coming, let’s get these pamphlets, let’s get these pictures, MLK and Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. 


Weeb: Yeah, and take them down the next day. I was really impressed about that. And then once you got into the system, obviously, you know, they had a superior educational system. Yeah. That was one of the best moves your mom and I ever made, enrolling you at St. Bart’s. 


Damon: What were the social and academic benefits?


Weeb: Ok, another advantage Damon, another reason for taking you out of public school. It just wasn’t, I didn’t feel it was all that safe. I didn’t feel comfortable at that time. Ok, you know, at that time with, you know, the Crips and Bloods and, and all of that, and you know this carried over into the schools as well. Ok, and I just didn’t trust the public school system at that time in terms of security. 


Damon: So that, and that’s a part that I never thought about. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about that aspect of it. We’re talking the early 90s, 90-91, and this is the time when gangs started getting very, you know, very violent in the city. 


Weeb: You know, you and I have talked about you’ve mentioned all that time that we spent together during that period in your life. And that was the main reason, Damon. That was the main reason, you know, I wanted people to see that you had somebody around, Ok, you know what I mean? You had a protector, Ok? You had somebody. I was afraid. I was afraid every time you stepped out of the house, Damon.


Damon: When we’ve had conversations about, you know, the decisions that you made about my schooling, I didn’t, that part was never a part of the conversations that we had about it. But it makes sense because of the time we lived in, because of where we were living to, you know, even though I still came home every day. But just to be able to get me away from there for, you know, a few hours every day, though, and it’s something that I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about before either is like, you know, I got my racial awareness or consciousness from you, a mom. 


When I talk to other people, you know, who talk about their experiences of their parents, and sometimes you hear their parents maybe pressed them to to assimilate or to flatten their identity, flatten themselves or to code switch or to do all these things to like all these sorts of behavioral deodorants that you can apply to appease white people. And you never did that. Did you consider the racial implication or the racial like effect of you removing me from a neighborhood school with, you know, a lot of Black kids into a school where I would be one of the only Black kids? 


Weeb: No, I didn’t have a problem with that because in terms of your identity, in terms of who you were, ok, you got that at home. What you needed most and what kids need most, they get at home, and you got that at home. Ok, now in terms of what I talk about identity, I mean, in terms of being an African-American, we had to have that conversation. Ok, you know, I grew up in smalltown USA. In the north. Always in the minority. And I went to school in the south. An HBCU. And my whole outlook changed overnight, Ok, it changed overnight, it really did.


Damon: So going from, coming from Newcastle PA, and going to Knoxville College in Tennessee, how, I mean I can imagine, but like what changed?


Weeb: First of all, I’d never seen so many Black people assembled at one place at one time. And these were just freshmen, from Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee and North Carolina, you know, Florida, mostly Southern kids. And one of the things I realized in my freshman year was how far behind I was compared to them, those kids who had gone to segregated black schools. Ok, they were actually further ahead of me, not in terms of academics, but their social consciousness. Ok, and it was my roommate John Gilmore, who broke this down to me, he says, 

Weeb, when you were going to school in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and you were being in a basically mostly, you know, 90 percent white school system. He said those teachers were telling you everything that you couldn’t do. And my teachers in Athens, Georgia, who were Black teachers, were telling us everything that we could do, and that was the difference. That was the difference. When Stokely Carmichael came to our college and spoke one Sunday afternoon in the gymnasium, it was packed. When I walked out of that gymnasium that day, I remember saying to myself, I am no longer a Nigga, I am no longer a Nigga, I am not a Nigga. I am not a Nigga. I am a proud black man.  


Damon voice over: I wanted to pause for a minute because my Dad just used the wrong word. When he said that he was no longer a nigga, what he meant to say was nigger with a hard ‘r’. Beacause my dad is definitely a nigga–in fact, he’s the one who taught me how to say it. But not a nigger. 


Weeb: Yes, I was affected, I had an inferiority complex when I was young, growing up in the type of atmosphere I grew up in Newcastle. I didn’t have a Black coach until I went to college. I didn’t have a Black instructor until I went to college. 


Damon: You know, and hearing all that, you’re talking about you experiencing this like this racial awakening, I do come back to the choice of taking me out of a school with more Black kids and putting me into a school that is predominantly white and all the teachers are white. 


Weeb: But when I went to predominantly white schools, kids weren’t bringing weapons to school. No, that was never a concern. The only people who were afraid of when I was a kid weren’t even real. The Wolf man, Frankenstein, the creature from the Black Lagoon, I think those are the people who I was afraid of, but just regular people. I wasn’t afraid of them. 


Damon: You weren’t afraid of white people?


Weeb: No. No. You know why? I wasn’t afraid of white people, Damon because I had all these Black people behind me. 


Damon: Yeah, that’s–Let me reframe that question. You were aware of white people and what white people were doing and were capable of doing. And so did you feel any sort of like, I don’t know, anxiety or whatever, being black in a predominantly white school within a predominantly white city? 


Weeb: No, no, no. Well, no, no. I never felt, I never felt like I was under any threat or anything. Ok. Number one, Damon, I had a big family. I had all these brothers and cousins and uncles and so on. And I knew that I had all those people behind me, ok, so I wasn’t afraid of anybody, ok? I wasn’t afraid of anybody because I knew that, well, you know, if you, if you’re coming after me, you know, those all these people right here behind me, you’re going to have to deal with them too.


Damon: Well, that I mean, you know, as we know, we get to that time when we are going to make the decision about where Zoe and Levi go to school. I mean, we’re not rich or anything like that, but we can afford tuition and we could send them to private schools and we could do all of that. So what would you do if you were in our position? 


Weeb: If I were in your position, if I were in your position. I would send them to the school where you think they would be, that would be most advantageous to that child. And at this point, at this point, Ok? I would be leaning towards a private school. 


Damon: Why? 


Weeb: Well, I think it would be more advantageous to them, really. I think it would be more advantageous to them in terms of the school atmosphere. 


Damon: Thank you for that and thank you for this, for this conversation. 


Weeb: I enjoyed the conversation. Ok, I’ll be talking to you. Wear your mask. 


Damon: I got my mask. Alright, love you. 


Damon: Love you, too. 


Weeb: Bye bye. 


[Music Transition]


Damon: Adult life is a never-ending festival of interconnected micro conflicts. A circus of plain choices–of easy choices—made hard by simple and complicated desires. And the more I choose the things I believe I should do, the more adult I feel. The more grown. 


But what makes this conflict about where to send my kids to school so fucking incomprehensible is a lack of clarity. An absence of lines. I don’t know what I should do. 


But I know what I’m going to do. Nikole made a compelling case for the integrity of our politics. I just don’t agree. I will continue to scour the city for a school that provides my children the best of both worlds. But if one doesn’t exist, and I have to choose between high performing and predominantly white, and low performing but predominantly black, I will choose the high performing school. I don’t know what that says about my commitment to my culture and my community. But you know what? I don’t think I care. Because it’s not about me.  


[Music Transition]


Zoe: Knock, knock.


Damon: Who’s there? 


Zoe: Lizard, lizard. 


Damon: Lizard lizard who? 


Zoe: Lizard poop on your butt and potato chip poop on your butt. 


Damon: Lizard poop on my butt and potato chips poop on my butt. That doesn’t even make any sense. 


Zoe: Hahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahaha


Damon: This is, this is not funny at all, Zoe. I don’t get it. 


[Music Transition]


Damon: Stuck with Damon Young is a Spotify Original Podcast from Gimlet and Crooked Media. It’s hosted and written by me, Damon Young. 


Ruben Davis is our Executive Producer. Our producers are Ashley Velez, Morgan Moody, Carlton Gillespie, Priscilla Alabi, Stephen Hoffman, and Corinne Gilliard.


Mixing and Sound Design by Jesse Naus, Charlotte Landes, and Veronica Simonetti. 

Theme Music and Score by Open Mike Eagle.


From Crooked Media, our Executive Producers are Tanya Somanader, Sarah Geismer, and Katie Long. From Gimlet, our Executive Producers are Rosie Guerin, Krystal Hawes-Dressler, Collin Campbell, and Lydia Polgreen.