Race and Raising Children

Last night we ate outside at a restaurant near our apartment.  It sits at the crux of miles of trail heads leading into the Taunus and the end of the rail line.  The outside deck is part eating area and part climbing wall.  The perfect place to take your over active 6 year old to dinner.  The evening started off well, she climbed and climbed.  But then she was frustrated by her surroundings.  Four Korean children were playing, well ruff housing.   This crazy wrestling looked like fun to her, but try as she might, they paid her no mind.  She smiled and stood next to them. Nothing.  She talked to them in English, knowing they probably went to Mama’s school.  Nothing.  Then she had had it.

“Dong ching fong wong ding dong!”  She yelled.  I was horrified and called her over.

“Sweetie, don’t talk like that, its not nice.”

“But that is what THEY sound like.”

“Well that may be, but don’t make fun of how they sound.”

It wasn’t until later that I realized she wasn’t making fun, she was just trying to communicate.  She was simply imitating what she heard.  After all she is bilingual, and it is not often that she is unable to communicate or understand.  Yet all of my mother and father’s training made me think that she was being mean.

Don’t stare, don’t make fun of people who look different.

Don’t judge people by the slant of their eyes or the color of their skin.

We are all equal.  We are like everybody else.

We are lucky to be growing up in the part of the country that isn’t racist.

Now granted, my parents didn’t say all of these things to me.  But these are the messages that I learned growing up and they are ingrained in me.  And really, these messages are harmless.  They made me look for the commonalities in my classmates rather than the differences.  However, I only saw Monique for what she had in common with me, I was not interested in what made her Vietnamese.

Recently a friend of mine drew my attention to an article on Huff Post called:  For Whites Like Me: On White Kids.    Here the author, Jennifer Harvey, a professor at Drake University, discusses the differences in how white kids perceive race in comparison to the other ethnicities she has in her classes.  What she realized was that the messages we whites seem to ingrain in our children really don’t make sense to our children, and maybe we need to change how we raise our children to think about race and gender.

I know “everybody’s equal” means “we all deserve to be treated with fairness.” And when we tell kids we’re all the same underneath skin, gender, sexuaity, physical abilities and other differences we’re trying to tell them we share human dignity and worth.

Obviously, I believe these things.

But, have you ever actually met a “generic” human? Someone without a race or a gender?

Well, guess what? Neither has your child.

And by the age of 3, our kids are aware of this fact, even though they don’t yet use adult categories to talk about it. If you don’t believe me, pick up The First ‘R.’ You will be stunned by what preschool children know and do in regard to race.

Assailed. Every day.

Platitudes are not enough.

One more “stat.” I read a study some time ago comparing white and black families. It found that on average, African-American parents start talking about race with their African-American children by age 3. White parents with white kids? Age 13.

So we whites teach our children to not see color, we teach them to not see gender, we teach them to see the commonalities in us all, yet never discuss what makes us different, unique, unequal.  We never discuss the reality of our world today.  We don’t discuss these things because it is hard.   It’s scary, and if I talk about race, really talk about it?  Will I sound racist?  If I talk with my daughter about her uniqueness, the things that make her special/different, aren’t I leading her to a place where she will feel superior to others?

Colonists pulling down statue of King George III. (c/o Library of Congress)

When I teach the American Revolution, I start with a picture of a statue of King George being torn down in a village square in New York.  I go through a series of questions with them, asking them to really analyze what is happening, and why these people might run out into the streets in the middle of the night to do such a thing.  One question I always ask, leaves my class a bit uncomfortable.  “How many different categories of people can you see in this picture?  Are there certain types you can point out?  List as many as you can find on your paper.”   My point is to try to show the students the different interest groups involved in the conflict.  It wasn’t just the educated white males that were involved.  It was also Native Americans, African freedmen and slaves, Quakers, Women, and Children.  Kids will usually list women, children, rich, poor, but they are afraid to write a word that indicates race.  When I point to the Native American and ask “What category would you put him in?”  Then kids begin to point out the other races and types in the picture.  Since we have always beat them over the head with the message,  “Don’t see color.  We are all the same.”  They begin to believe that if you classify someone by their race, for whatever reason, you are a racist.

What does this mean for my teaching in a multicultural classroom?  What does this mean for me as a parent?  Jennifer Harvey leaves me with this thought:

So, try this. Imagine the conversations that may have taken place between parents and their black or Latino/a children after Trayvon Martin was killed and George Zimmerman walked. I’d be willing to bet that pat answers were nowhere in site.

This thought experiment doesn’t give us the content, but it does show us the standard for the caliber of conversation required of us. If we want our white children to live in a world with more racial justice than the one we live in now, we need to figure out how to have conversations with them as real, thick, painful, resilient, strategic and authentic as the conversations those parents had to have. So that our kids can help build that world.

I don’t know where to go with all this, and either does she.  Yet I am left with a feeling that I must do something.  I must do more in my classes to help my students see and celebrate their differences.  I must do more to allow for tough discussions to happen during homeroom time.  I must not fear that I won’t have all the right answers to give to my students.   I will simply allow them to discuss openly their struggles and triumphs being whatever race they are.  And by doing that, maybe students from all races will see, we are essentially the same.  We laugh, we cry, we love, we hate.  But let us not hate someone for being different, let’s celebrate that.

And as far as child rearing…..maybe next time I’ll let my daughter do her rendition of Korean.  Maybe if she had kept trying, she would have started to really communicate with them.  And maybe if she still feels excluded because they speak a different language, we could talk about how her English friends feel when she speaks only German to other kids in the group.

For now, I will look for teachable moments.  I will look for avenues for students to share their qualities and inequalities.  I will pause during the hectic day to listen to my daughter when she encounters a struggle she cannot understand.

I will keep my eyes open, rather than turn a blind eye to the world around me.  We are not all the same.  We are uniquely different.

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