Monday, June 14, 2010

My Kids Don't Know They're White: Trying and Failing To Be a Race-Free Family (11.21.08)

After swim class at the YWCA, my daughters and I stopped to look at a bulletin board display in the hallway. Hand shapes cut from construction paper each held the name of a holiday wish-list item for women at the domestic violence shelter.

"Where is my name?" asked my five year old, Mia.

"These aren't actually names," I explained. "The mittens are listing things we can give to women who can't afford Christmas presents."

"Are those the colors of their skin?" asked Mia.

Before she asked the question, I hadn't noticed that all the mittens were cut from earth-tone colored papers. Wow. Suddenly this had turned into a teaching moment.

"Yeah, I suppose so, Mia. What a good observation. See, this woman asks for a make-up kit. That helps us remember that there's not just one kind of makeup."

We moved on to the vending machine. The moment was over. When I thought about it later, the words I chose seemed the right thing to say. I couldn't think of any other good way to respond to my daughter's question. Then why, for a split second before I spoke, did my brain whirl? Maybe because this was not the kind of question I would have asked when I was a child. We didn't talk about skin color in my family. Issues of difference left us stiff and inarticulate. It wasn't color-blindness so much as color-evasion.

Stacey York, the author of Roots and Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs, writes that ignoring our children’s questions about the differences they observe among people can be harmful to them.

“Children learn to see but not acknowledge the difference between people. This is because, time after time, children’s honest questions are met with responses meant to silence them: ‘Shhhh.’ ‘Don’t say that.’ ‘It is not nice to stare.’... When children sense adults’ uneasiness with talking about physical differences . . . they gradually become silent. They stop asking about people and other races.

"On an individual level, the process allows white children to deny their own racial identity and it stunts their normal growth in terms of noticing, identifying and classifying human differences. It also prevents them from exploring, understanding and questioning the social treatment of people based on their skin color. White people, including children, are shielded from the effects of racism on people of color. This allows them to adopt society’s denial of racism. White children learn: ‘We are all the same’… But in the United States, the reality is that the color of your skin does matter.” (2003, p. 44).

I do want to answer all my children's questions about human difference honestly and earnestly. But I may be guilty of what York calls "(allowing) white children to deny their own racial identity." Because I don't want to believe in race as a valid way of identifying people. Although saying this makes me feel like the kid yelling about the emperor's nakedness, to me, the dividing of people into "races" is an antiquated social construct that has little use in daily life.

"Ethnicity," "color" and "race" are often used interchangeably, but they do not all mean the same thing. I don't want to identify myself as belonging to a "white race." The word "white" is wildly inaccurate as a descriptor. My skin color is pinky-peachy-tan. My ethnicity is Lithuanian, German and Polish.

When I tell my five and three year olds how excited and happy I am about our new president, I say, "This is the first time our president's Daddy came from Africa." I don't use the words "black" and "white."

"Whiteness" has been used as a means and symbol of oppression in this country. I want to leave its use to the historians and the statisticians. And maybe Chris Rock. And the Stuff White People Like guy. But in day to day conversation? As an actual way to describe yourself or your children?

I'm not convinced that my children have anything to gain by learning that race is part of their identity. I see white as a statistical necessity, as an historical position of privilege, but not as anything to be proud of. I find pride in our ethnicity, yes, of course. I find pride in American achievements, of course! But I admire John Adams for his leadership, his political acuity, his fidelity and partnership with his beloved wife Abigail. Not for his race.

And yet, I recognize that his race (and his gender, but that's another post) made his achievements possible.

When Illinois ranks 49th in education spending and the majority who suffer are children of color, we have not moved beyond race.

When busloads of Chicago schoolchildren need to skip the first day of school, travel to my town and fruitlessly enroll at the excellent school where my children will attend for free, we are not living in a race-free world. When those children are given little more than a bottle of water and a wave goodbye, there is something wrong with the way we think and act about difference.

When African-Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at rates grossly disproportionate to their numbers in the population, we are not living in a race-free world.

When Chicago's worst polluters spew their toxins over the largely Latino neighborhood of Little Village, we are not living in a race-free world.

When the unusual name of a brilliant and qualified man was given as enough reason not to elect him to office, there is something wrong with the way we think and act about difference.

I may want to ignore race, I may recoil at the term "white," but my ability to pretend that race does not matter comes from my presence in a position of privilege. Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege" quiz asks whites to think again about what they consider "normal."

I will continue to talk to my children about their ethnicity, about skin color, about difference and diversity. But our discussion of race will wait for a time when they are developmentally able to process the concepts of injustice and prejudice. And I want to delay that a little bit more. Even though I know I can delay that lesson because the injustice and prejudice on a societal scale that is familiar to their brothers and sisters of color is unknown to my girls. Because we are (oh how it sticks in my throat) white.

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