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January 10, 2007

Comments

JoVE

Well said. And more power to you in this difficult adventure. (and none of those academics said racism didn't exist, just that race is not a legitimate biological category; it sure is a cultural and social category)

unblacking

perhaps i fall into the category of race doesn't exhist. i think. skin colour clearly matters to many people. to everyone it seems. but that we have race. that i belong to a race because of colour i can't embrace. yes we'll share the same racist experiences no doubt. and what's with the hair thing? i had a store clerk happily tell me my daughter looked like the buckwheat kid. but culturally speaking i share nothing with the majority of african-americans. my "black" is zimbabwean. and the rest of me is dutch. i was born and raised in canada. it's impossible for me to embrace a oneness based on racist experiences. on racism. i can't do it. you and i have as much culturally in common (assuming you're not a dutch/zimbabwean living in the u.s.) as a polish person does with a brit. and if a polish person decided to unite with a british solely due to the colour of their skin they'd be branded a racist. at least i'd brand them that way.

well i'm totally digressing from the purpose of your article. the whole black people. that there is a people called black. it doesn't work for me. racism does a good job at joining human beings together. that saddens me.


Deb

My kids are 5 and 7. And at this point, the issue of "race" is absolutely outside their conceptual experience. We have a variety of hued friends, and the only sense in which my kids even notice melanin concentration is that Carli and Dario don't have to reapply sunscreen as often as they do. They notice the fact that Tatiana, Dario's mother, can wear orange well because of her olive skin, whereas their mom can't, it just clashes. They notice that Mom has dark brown hair whereas they have blonde hair just like dad.

Skin color is a matter of very low-key interest, nothing more, and certainly nothing that would have them think that any of it has any consequence to a person's personality. They have no idea, at their ages, that there is this terribly sad, outrageous blot on civilization's history concerning race. Slavery, and the resulting prejudice that continued afterward, are just too horrifyingly sad (as are things like the Holocaust, 9/11, etc) for them to have to deal with right now. Little kids need to experience the world as a safe place in order to grow up secure. They aren't equipped to deal with ugliness, yet.

So my girls don't think of people's race --it's a non-issue, the way it SHOULD have been if humanity had gotten it right at the start. My husband and I don't use the terms that group people on the artificial basis of race, at least not in front of the kids, because we don't want them to interpret it as something significant enough for them to notice, at their age.

On the other hand, if our friend's race-grouping or their ancestry is important to them, then it's important to us -- but that's an individual decision on the part of our friend. We prefer to highlight culture rather than race, because it's far more interesting and informative. To our Cuban friends, for example, who have a well-blended racial past (race seems to be much less important in Cuba, because so much blending has occurred, and a people's common suffering under Castro tends to further blur unimportant distinctions), race is *absolutely* unimportant...preserving the good aspects of their culture IS important, and we joyfully help them do this. We learn Spanish, and we eat pastelles de pollo.

As a matter of cultural literacy, I'm certainly not going to keep my kids in the dark about race as they grow up, that would be a disservice to them. But there is no way that at this time I think that they should somehow think of skin color as having any more significance than hair color or height. Home schooling gives me the advantage of being able to control this somewhat.

So the fact is, Missy, if your kids were part of our homeschool group, the last thing I'd be doing is trying to get my kids to be friends with them "just so they'd have some black friends." (I learned to loathe this attitude growing up: My sister, a white-guilt leftist, would say that she *loved* my brainy best friend Casper, which was ridiculous because Casper was just like all of my other brainy friends, whom she hated. She just thought she should admire him because he was black, and the salutatorian.) Even back then, though, I really couldn't care less what people look like, I care what they ARE like. But by the same token, nowadays I don't hesitate to ask Christy how she is able to get Carli to sit still enough to braid her hair so elaborately, because boy would I love to get my Ella to sit still for just the three minutes it takes me to get the brush through her hair.

So at this point, while *I* am celebrating Martin Luther King Day, my kids aren't. Gradually, they'll learn more, and we'll all mourn together the circumstances that made his courage necessary, and celebrate his legacy. But not now.

Tell me if somehow I've got this wrong, I really want to know.

missyridgecarter

Deb,

Where I live, and in most of the US, it's a luxury not to *notice* race. I'm white. Growing up, race wasn't an issue to me. It wasn't an issue because it didn't impact me, it didn't affect my freedoms or my choices. My husband and I started dating in high school, and we graduated from different Historically Black Universities and I learned that, in class, our discussions would always circle back to race because, in the lives of my classmates, race was a constant. Every time they left campus or turned on the television or read a newspaper, the world would remind them.

When I started teaching, I saw the impact of race in schools that had only been integrated for one generation before. I saw people's responses to me change abruptly after they met my husband. And, unfortunately, later, my daughter saw adults turn their backs on her, very deliberately; she saw parents, on more than one occasion, literally snatch their children away on the playground, and she was told by two little girls that their mother wouldn't let them play in our yard. One of those same little girls later asked me why I married a "blackskin".

And this was all before she started school.

We simply don't have the luxury of not seeing color.

Most of my white neighbors and friends would say that we don't live in an outrageously racist area, because those incidents don't happen to them. Most comments or actions motivated by racism sweep past them unnoticed because it doesn't affect them.

I see nothing wrong with noticing differences in color or in culture--it's the response to those differences that matters.

Deb

Missy,

So do you think I can take advantage of this luxury for a while longer, with my girls? Their non-response to race should be the right one, don't you think? They interact with people of so many backgrounds, we live in a university town and my husband is a professor. They find it kind of interesting in their friends whose parents look very different from each other to see how different physical traits get expressed in the kids -- but that's interesting as a genetics lesson, nothing else.

I feel strongly that my girls have plenty of time to learn how stupid and narrowminded people have been and can be, and maybe we can hold off on some of that for a couple of years. Of course, *I* don't have the luxury of pretending that shameful incidents don't exist. But don't my girls have the luxury of innocence about this for a while?

It would be really strange and limiting for them, a 5- and 7-year-old, to think of degrees of skin pigmentation as being meaningful. My 7-year-old is really sensitive, it would horrify her to think that somehow her friends who look different from her might sometimes be treated differently by others just on that basis. She tends to take on others' shame, and this would just be a bad thing for her to do, to feel ashamed of herself just because she's lighter-skinned than others.

My own stupid sister has this patronizing white guilt attitude about protecting minorities' feelings, which in itself I find offensive. My friend Casper, now a PhD in materials engineering, has always found her well-intentioned protectiveness insulting and amusing by turns. I have to find the right way to gradually introduce my kids to the idea of racism as they get older, so that they see groups of people as "stupid" vs. "not-stupid" rather than in the artificial grouping of skin pigment. The idea of their mentally grouping themselves with stupid people just because they happen to be white and so are we...well, that's meaningless and something I really want to avoid.

Here's another way I can put this question to you: Do my kids have exactly the attitude you want your kids' friends to have? Or am I falling down on the job in some way?

Deb

missyridgecarter

Deb,

I've been thinking about how to answer your comment all day, because the ability to delay that knowledge is so far removed from my own parenting. Given the awareness I have now, it would be impossible to not talk with my children about the ugliness of racism and of slavery and the subsequent oppression--because it's still very much a reality throughout this country.

My own 7-year-old is extremely sensitive and reactive. I've had to answer some very difficult questions because he thinks about everything. He knows not just about slavery, but about the laws that followed. He knows his grandparents went to segregated schools and he knows that those schools offered far fewer resources than white schools. He knows that, in very recent history, in this state, that Mommy and Daddy couldn't have gotten married.

He knows about Martin Luther King and his death, and why he--and so many others--died.

When my daughter was seven and still in school, she got into an argument with her classmates about George Washington. They saw him as an infallible hero who couldn't possibly have had slaves; she maintained that he did. The teacher never intervened to say that she was right. But she knows. My son knows. We've seen the slave quarters and their burial grounds. It's not ancient history, and it's so greatly connected with the laws and discrimination that have impacted their family and touched their own lives.

I can appreciate that your children--and you--wouldn't define a relationship, a friendship, on color. That's important to me. At the same time, I worry that a lack of awareness would lead to an inability to distinguish that subtle racism, the kind that doesn't smack you upside the head with its glaring intent. And not having those defenses allows systemic racism to seep in, unnoticed.

I understand the desire to maintain innocence. We all want to protect our children as long as possible. It's just not something that we can do, and I can't honestly predict the ultimate result of those efforts.

Deb

Missy,

Your thoughtful replies are wonderful, thank you so much for taking the time.

Here's what I'm having trouble with. You say:

"At the same time, I worry that a lack of awareness would lead to an inability to distinguish that subtle racism, the kind that doesn't smack you upside the head with its glaring intent. And not having those defenses allows systemic racism to seep in, unnoticed."

The fact is, I just can't imagine how this could be, or what it would consist in. In order for systemic racism to creep in, my girls would first have to see some distinction between people of different skin colors, they would have to group people in their minds. Otherwise, racism that is very subtle would go right over their heads and remain unnoticed (and certainly not adopted), and racism that is blatent would be met with wide-eyed incredulity, the same way they will meet all blatent stupidity.

They won't see these distinctions, though, not for several years, if I can help it. So there's no way they could adopt subtle racism in this time between now and when they are, say, early teenagers.

My theory is that they'll learn, gradually, that other people have made assumptions on the basis of race, and some still do it even though it has no basis in any intrinsic fact (which makes it a DUMB thing to do). As a sociological exercise that we'll do when they're oh, teenagers, we'll see where we can pick out where racist assumptions might be embedded (say, in politician's speech, or in advertising, or what have you). They'll become gradually sensitized to the issue in a philosophically appropriate way, as an exercise in other people's bad logic.

When they do encounter suble racism on the basis of skin color, it will seem just as ridiculous to them as if it were on the basis of hair color. It will be contextually understandable so it won't be shocking, because by that time they'll understand the history of the bad idea...but I am convinced that they will see it as ridiculous.

Under these circumstances, I just cannot imagine any systemic racist assumptions leaking in to their own ideas and actions. I mean, *I* don't have any, and that's mostly because I thought my way through my own assumptions, examining my own ideas ruthlessly from the ages of 18-24 (although I was also brought up by non-racists, so I had a good start).

See, my husband and I have the habit of mental rigor: of absolutely understanding why we do what we do, why we think what we think. My husband, a mathematician, is an exacting logician (and I'm not so bad at this myself)-- bad logic in our house could be colored purple with a neon green blinking sign, because it really is pointed out immediately. When the kids use poor reasoning, we really do (mostly gently, unless they're using it to pick on each other) lead them through proper reasoning, we don't just smile and nod and pretend what they've said is reasonable.

Sorry I've gone on a bit here, but I wanted to give you the background for why I just can't imagine how this could happen, under the circumstances I've outlined.

I could be wrong. I suppose I'd have to be convinced of the psychological/epistemological process of how subtle racism gets adopted before I could see how it might actually apply in our family's case. It's so stupid that I'm pretty sure it's done by nonthinking, noncritical people (although I have seen countless examples of how WELL-MEANING people can adopt it). We sure are well-meaning, but we're also good thinkers who are sensitive to bad reasoning, and so will our kids be.

Missy, please do respond with more thoughts, if you have anything to add. I am finding this extremely interesting and important, and I hope you feel the same.

Deb

missyridgecarter

The thing with systemic racism is that it creeps into all of us, regardless of how aware we think we are. You cannot NOT be affected at some level. It's in the media--in newspaper, television, movies, billboards and other advertising mediums. It's in our body language, in casual exchanges that we simply observe--and then internalize. In order to recognize it, you need to have a knowledge of racism.

My children's awareness of racism is a defense against a mindset that could crush them. The few anti-racist white parents I know have slowly and naturally introduced even young children to racism, through books and movies and discussion, because, armed with that awareness, they begin to recognize and actively deflect the racism that most of us don't even see.

Have you seen this video, http://www.mediathatmattersfest.org/6/a_girl_like_me/? It was done by a 16-year-old, replicating a study that was done in the 1940's for Brown vs. the Board of Education. Things really haven't changed as much as we want to think.

Marjorie

Interesting discussion and way beyond me. I would note that you cannot keep your children color-blind. I know I was in school when I heard a racist joke and I didn't understand it, my mom explained to me why the person said it (she didn't find it amusing either) -- you cannot be certain your children will not be exposed to racism elsewhere.

My daughter's first exposure to institutional racism was in the books I'd read to her about the underground railroad and slavery at age 4 or 5. There are plenty of excellent picture books about the use of quilts in the underground railroad. I later heard her trying to pick out the slaves based on skin color while watching a TV program. I had to explain a bit more to her. She's now 6 1/2 and has at least caught on to the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation and I wonder if she understands the racism behind slavery, I suspect she doesn't.

Racism is unavoidable, from seeing dolls and puppets that are on sale because they are black while their white counterparts are full price, to wondering where the black Disney princess is. I'm not sure how to combat it, other than trying to be color-blind in our home and correct misunderstandings as they occur.

Andrea Hermitt

I hardly know what to say... I have been struggling with this issue in my own blog... wanting peopel to think about race, but afraid to be in your face about it. This blog is well done. I have lived every circumstance you have mentioned.

Lucie

Dear Missy,

I just want to thank you for your powerful post. We need more of these type words to help everyone.

I have seen, experienced, and probably been guilty of some of incidents you mention. I KNOW my kids are not growing up in a colorblind society, they know it, we try, but sometimes it is hardest to know exactly what to do or say and how to "correct" a moment that you see, experience, or even cause.

When we lived in the South, it was so blatent. Here in the Midwest, it is more subtle...which is almost scarier.

Thank you,

Lucie

Wendy

Thank you for the post. Subtle racism is difficult to weed out and explain to young children. I hope that as my children get older I will do a good job of discerning how to confront the racism and explain that all people judge others unfairly because of their looks.

I am living in the South and racism is one reason I believe I will continue to homeschool. The homeschool group here is more diversified than the Christian schools and I don't want my children to get the impression that a school should be judged by the ratio of one race to another. One of my children is another race and my two biological children are Caucasian. I hope to give them a love for all people, but I hope it to be a thinking love. One that understands when someone is being slighted unfairly and is able to speak as gently or boldly as the situation needs.

Cindy

I have a lot of random thoughts as it pertains to the conversation going on in the comments. I'm still sorting out my own thinking, and I'm not sure if there is a "right" answer or not.

We adopted two bi-racial boys, but society will and does treat them as African-American. Living it helps reveal the subtle racism. I now "get" how racism occurs as I've seen the parents "subtley" teach their children, and how it changes those children.

Something for Deb, I read a book (a lot of books!) about a black boy adopted by a white family . . . one of the first mixed adoptions ("Black Baby, White Hands"). The white family wanted him to know that they were "color-blind", but it made him feel invisible all his life. When he got older, he wrote this book about his feelings. He went back to his white family and placed them in front of him and said, "What do you see?" They just couldn't say they saw black, but you DO! Not that it was important to them, but when you don't "see" color, then it's as if you are trying to erase something about who they are by not outwardly acknowledging it. Does that make sense?

Why is it that we hesitate to use skin color as a desciptor when we are pointing someone out to someone in a crowd, when we are trying to be "non-racist"? If skin color is like hair color, why do we think about it so much before using it to describe? I think because racism DOES exist based on color and not hair.

I do like what unblacking was saying about how racism has combined a group of people by color and it disregards who they are through culture, experiences, perspectives, beliefs, etc. so that one brown-skinned person can be literally worlds apart from another brown-skinned person, yet they are grouped together . . . interesting point.

My oldest son also grew up in the university atmosphere of many melted cultures being seen everywhere, and he is sensitive, but we talked about the cultural and racial impacts of various people he knew and what they lived, whether from their own country or from ours. I think it was easier to discuss these topics, actually, in that setting, because he was so comfortable around various cultures and colors. (It was amazing that once we left that environment, how quickly he became uncomfortable, and it confused him . . . but we talked it through.)

We were taught in our multi-cultural parenting class, which I had agreed with, that we can't "protect" our children, but we can "prepare" them. There are age-appropriate ways to do this. I also got books on that, and typically, children don't understand "race" until about 7 years of age, thus, why an African-American little girl may still refer to herself as being "brown-skinned", not "black".

Alright, those are some miscellaneous comments . . . I'm open to this discussion especially for my own personal benefit to my boys :-)

-Cindy

missyridgecarter

"A thinking love". Wendy, I really like that. The implication within those words is so strong and so appropriate.

I have enjoyed reading through the comments. Cindy, your perspective was very interesting. I went to college with a girl who was adopted into a white family and she struggled so much with her identity because her family never discussed race or racism; they never acknowledged that she was black, and she never felt that she understood who she was or where she fit.

One of the best books I've read about parenting black children was "Different and Wonderful--Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society". There is so much institutional racism in school, so much bias in the curriculum, and so many systemic assumptions...I really think that, by homeschooling, we're able to give our children so many more opportunities, to raise their social and cultural awareness so much more naturally and completely.

I appreciate the thoughtful responses. Thank you.

Suze

"The number of African American homeschoolers is growing rapidly. They made up around 3% of the homeschool population in the mid-1990's; now, roughly 10% of homeschoolers are black. Which, statistically, implies that--in a group of 300 kids--my kids are it. In our experience, that's pretty accurate."

So . . . you have 30 kids???

;)

missyridgecarter

Suze! You weren't supposed to notice that!

Seriously, it should have said 30 kids, not 300. We've very rarely (if ever) been at anything with 300 kids. Most of our activities have between 20 to 50 kids.

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