Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ashamed of being white?

I'm going to try and create a post here that is cobbled together from an email conversation I had with a friend. I thought some of the points raised were really key to this discussion.

First, from K:
Susan, I too am leaving a comment to let you know that I am reading your stuff and i guess, digesting it. I had a couple of questions - are you ashamed of yourself because you are white? are you ashamed when you participate in white privilege (like getting to travel, or taking your kid out of school to go abroad for 3 weeks or owning a house, or wanting beautiful cookware)? I am not ashamed of these things. (No I don't get to take my kid abroad 4 times a year, but that is because i have the luxury of making the choice to send them to the school of my choice - same thing, different verse).

Though, I am not sure how to live within the cultural and social class privilege that I and my children currently have. It seems (and you know i tend to polarize things because i am not good with nuances and unknowns and maybe not even very mature, but that is a micro, not a macro discussion) that that is the crux of my wonder at this point; how do you practically apply anti-racist parenting? how does it look?

one thing that struck me as very hilarious (just randomly saying stuff off the cuff here).
but when i saw that "got privilege" hat on one of the blogs recently, i laughed hysterically because who else but someone with privelege would spent their money getting that thing printed! it seemed like the pinnacle of privilege. Anyway, I am not meaning these things in a mean or " drive by" sort of way. i am just honestly giving your my thoughts about this entry in particular and then some other things that have come to mind as i contemplate how i am participating in racism.

7:36 AM

Susan said...

I have to out the fact that after you wrote this comment, you wrote me personally checking in to make sure I wasn't offended. I wasn't and am not. And there is a lot of stuff you say in here that I want to tackle. No, I'm not ashamed of my privilege. Shame isn't the right word - it's more that I feel a great responsibility towards it. My privilege doesn't feel individual, it feels part of a system, a greater whole and so it exists in direct relationship to the other parts of that whole. What that means is, like the chaos theory cliche, when a butterfly flaps its wings in Minnesota, a cyclone starts in Palau. Every action of mine has direct affect on the lives of many others, some I can know and some I will never meet. Acting within the ignorance of my privilege or not taking responsibility for it means causing cyclones that I will never know about. Even taking responsibility for it still means causing those cyclones - I don't think that awareness of this gives me any carte blanche to feel like I'm now separated or the good white person. It's like I've written about elsewhere, it's having to live with discomfort.

I also want to pull at something you said about the privilege of taking Luca out of school for three weeks to travel abroad. To me that isn't privilege so much as responsibility. Yeah, we can argue about what it means to gather the dollars to make it happen (the privilege is that Rocki's family can help us some) but if we didn't have other dollars, than this would be the only thing we saved for every year. Rocki's family lives in Brazil. They speak Portuguese. If we/I didn't support this to happen, then Rocki and Luca would not have a certain access to each other. I think that because it is Brazil they are going to, it sounds unimaginable or crazy or exotic to the US midwest when it isn't. It's like going to Iowa to see your family. You would never NOT go to Iowa to connect with your family, it isn't an option. I feel very strongly about my responsibility to support going to Brazil, even when, quite honestly, I would rather not. If you and I have never had the conversation about my own struggles with how Brazil and Portuguese configures in our life, I would be happy to have that conversation with you.

I was talking a few days before I left with a man I know from the Global Market. He is from Ecuador. He makes way less cash than I do. Every year, he brings his whole family to Ecuador because it is not an option to do otherwise. For him, his earnings go towards basic needs and the trip to Ecuador. All other things come after that. I would have to say that in my priority list of dollars, Brazil exists the same way. More important than the house or any of the other things we spend money on. More of a responsibility. And I do put the responsibility of Brazil in a different category than private school. Private school is a choice. Staying in close touch with Rocki's family is not. But that's how I draw my responsibility lines.

I think your question about the practical application of antiracist parenting is the crux. Vikki has also rightfully accused me of being too abstract. I am going to try and write a blog later this week on the white antiracist parenting website that is just about practicalities.

K said:
i liked your comments on my comment. i think you took my comment about the privelge of travel/going to brazil the wrong way. i sort of said it off the cuff, quickly thinking of things that seemed like privilege in my life/your life our life. i get the differences between staying connected with a family and (your comparison) going to private school.

but, i am kind of glad that i didn't edit it out (like put in "luxury car" instead of "travel") because of this: i think it is great that you got it "out there" for anyone who is reading the blog to help forward the understanding of traveling as a part of privelge and traveling to stay
connected to your family. i also wonder (it is too bad that more people don't read this blog) about people who think that, for instance, "how does RK (one of the engineers at b's job - i don't know how to spell his name) afford to go to india for 2 months a year? b overhears complaints about that. of course no one would ever actually have a conversation with him about it - to further their understanding and make a connection with him. (of course b has conversations with him about it because of their shared love of food, but really that is the extent of it). ok stay with me on this one....which makes me think about how it is white people's responsibility to educate other white people. wow. that was a stream of consciousness......more streams. regarding private school. i will never in a million years take my kids out of lake country. we will only take them out when they kick us out for nonpayment. i am pretty ok with the luxury of my privilege. which is not to mean that i am not owning it, it means that i can understand how, for instance taking my kids presence out of public school probably has a ripple effect on someone somewhere (although our dollars aren't taken out and shouldn't be), but that isn't enough for me to remove them. i recognize that that is privilege and, well, i am choosing to live with the discomfort. even though....and i should be... but am not..... ( and god i wish i was saying this in person so you know that i am not as callous as i sound) that discomforted by it.

Susan said:
It's interesting - I think that a lot of if not most white folks who are progressive do have some shame about being white. I think it's more common that uncommon - or if not shame, then certainly guilt. I think it's a hard one, I wouldn't say I'm proud of being white, I would say that white is the neutral zone and to give it too much energy - shame, guilt, pride - is to move out of the work we have to do. For me, all of this is about a context and a systemic whole. White has intensity only because white privilege is propped up against and involved with the creation of racism. Try and undermine white privilege or separate white - a neutral state that doesn't exist any more than "of color" exists - from white privilege, and you are working for change. But what does that look like in the practical sense, right?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Whiteness: my inheritance

Since this blog is a space for us white people to discuss our pursuit of anti-racist parenting, I want to talk about what whiteness means. As I sit here, I'm just beginning this journey, thinking about the work I must do internally first. Acting against racism and white supremacy is an imperative, but I can't help but feel "underprepared" to take action. (Yes, discussion is my first and feeble attempt at action and I don't want to stop there.)

A part of that little procrastinator voice inside my head is just my own insecurity, part feeling overwhelmed with the largeness of the issue, part white privilege which allows me to sit on the sidelines, but a part of it is definitely ignorance. I know so little about the history of this country, and thus the history of Whiteness and White Supremacy. Reading about these topics is important, because this information contextualizes the anti-racist work ahead of me. It will help me perceive the systemic nature of racism and help me understand my collusion with the types of privilege and oppression benefiting me. All this awareness must not paralyze me. The challenge is to take all this information and use it to help dismantle the system of White Supremacy, though that process may take generations. We can start with our inner selves, but as Barbara Flagg, professor of law at Washington University and expert on Constitutional Law and Critical Race Theory writes, "Action [must] be directed at systemic social oppression. Individual and/or local action is not adequate to challenge either the material or the ideological reality of White supremacy.".This makes sense, but what can one do on such a scale that it will make a difference? These thoughts are a bit premature for me. Raising my own awareness and that of those around me is the first step.

I was not born or raised in this country. I came here as a teenager from Europe, the Czech Republic to be specific. It has taken me years to begin to understand this society. I live here now, and though I want to sometimes say these problems are not my problems; I am not from here, I do have to take ownership of the things I'm inheriting and benefiting from in this society as a white person and in relationship to the rest of the world as an American (and as a person originally socialized in Europe, the cradle of racism). This anti-racist work, after all, does extend beyond national boundaries.

On this blog, I would like to share what I learn about Whiteness and White Supremacy.

In this posting, I will just share this definition of White Supremacy by the Chicana activist and writer Elizabeth Martinez:

"White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege."

And a little bit of history as written by Martinez:

"The first European settlers called themselves English, Irish, German, French, Dutch, etc. -- not white. Over half of those who came in the early colonial period were servants. By 1760 the population reached about two million, of whom 400,000 were enslaved Africans. An elite of planters developed in the southern colonies. In Virginia, for example, 50 rich white families held the reins of power but were vastly outnumbered by non-whites. In the Carolinas, 25,000 whites faced 40,000 Black slaves and 60,000 indigenous peoples in the area. Class lines hardened as the distinction between rich and poor became sharper. The problem of control loomed large and fear of revolt from below grew.

"There had been slave revolts from the beginning but elite whites feared even more that discontented whites -- servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the property-less, soldiers and sailors -- would join Black slaves to overthrow the existing order. . .

". . . Their solution: divide and control. Certain privileges were given to white indentured servants. They were allowed to join militias, carry guns, acquire land, and have other legal rights not allowed to slaves. With these privileges they were legally declared white on the basis of skin color and continental origin. That made them 'superior' to Blacks (and Indians). Thus whiteness was born as a racist concept to prevent lower-class whites from joining people of color, especially Blacks, against their class enemies. The concept of whiteness became a source of unity and strength for the vastly outnumbered Euroamericans -- as in South Africa, another settler nation. Today, unity across color lines remains the biggest threat in the eyes of a white ruling class.

". . .In the mid-1800s, new historical developments served to strengthen the concept of whiteness and insitutionalize White Supremacy. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, born at a time of aggressive western expansion, said that the United States was destined by God to take over other peoples and lands. The term was first used in 1845 by the editor of a popular journal, who affirmed 'the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.'

". . . Manifest Destiny is a profoundly racist concept. For example, a major force of opposition to gobbling up Mexico at the time came from politicians saying 'the degraded Mexican-Spanish' were unfit to become part of the United States; they were 'a wretched people . . . mongrels.' In a similar way, some influential whites who opposed slavery in those years said Blacks should be removed from U.S. soil, to avoid 'contamination' by an inferior people (source of all this information is the book _Manifest Destiny_ by Anders Stephanson, Hill & Wang, 1995)

". . . The doctrine of Manifest Destiny facilitated the geographic extension and economic development of the United States while confirming racist policies and practices. It established White Supremacy more firmly than ever as central to the U.S. definition of itself. The arrogance of asserting that God gave white people (primarily men) the right to dominate everything around them still haunts our society and sustains its racist oppression."

So, how where do I stand in relation to this history? I live in the Pacific Northwest, an area where not so long ago Europeans settled, committing unspeakable violence against the Native peoples of the Northwest. Those that came before me on the Oregon Trail paved the way for me to live on this plundered land rather comfortably and effortlessly. And what a beautiful corner of the world this is! I think about the violence that occurred here often and it is so painful. I not only think about he violence done against the people here, but also against the earth. The magnificent forests that were here once, the streams that are now buried or polluted with industrial waste ... all of that rips my heart apart.

I want to close this post with something that I remembered unexpectedly. It surprises me how I get from point A to point C or X or Z sometimes. Here is a quote from a man whose book I read and whom I saw speak once, Martin Prechtel, a man who lived in Guatemala amongst the Mayans as a shaman:

"Our ancestors weren’t necessarily very smart. In many cases, they are the ones who left us this mess. Some of them were great, but others had huge prejudices. If these ancestors are given their due, then you don’t have to live out their prejudices in your own life. But if you don’t give the ancestors something, if you simply say, 'I’m descended from these people, but they don’t affect me very much; I’m a unique individual,' then you’re cursed to spend your life either fighting your ancestors, or else riding the wave they started. You’ll have to do that long before you can be yourself and pursue what you believe is worth pursuing.

"The Mayan way of dealing with this is to give the ancestors a place to live. You actually build houses for them — called 'sleeping houses' — and put your ancestors in there. The houses are small, because the ancestors don’t take up any space, but they do need a designated place, just like anything else. Then you feed your ancestors with words and eloquence. We all have old, forgotten languages that our languages are descended from, and many of these languages are a great deal more ornate. But even with our current language, we still have the capacity to create strange, mysterious, poetic gifts to feed the ancestors, so that we won’t become depressed by their ghosts devouring our everyday lives.

"If we can get past the prejudices of the last ten thousand years’ worth of ancestors, then we can find our way back to our indigenous souls and culture, where we are always at home and welcome.

". . . People’s longing for each other and for the terrain of home is so enormous that, if you do not weep to express it, you’re poisoning the future with violence. If that longing is not expressed as a loud, beautiful wail, a song, or a piece of art that’s given as a gift to the spirits, then it will turn into violence against other beings — and, more importantly, against the earth itself, because you will have no understanding of home. But if you are able to feed the other world with your grief, then you can live where your dead are buried, and they will become a part of the landscape in a way."

And so perhaps even weeping and recognizing the pain of our inheritance is a form of action that in a spiritual way may help undo the violence our people have committed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Comfort and discomfort

In my first blog posting way below, Tereza commented by focusing on one of the lines in my blog:

"Our job is to try and teach her to be critical of whiteness, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable"

and broke it down. In particular, Tereza, you raised points about how comfort is a privilege and that white privilege protects our comfort, that there are far too many knee jerk skills we have perfected that allow us to coast back to comfort in the area of race when discomfort comes up. You said a lot more that is smarter than that.

As an exercise in trying to be more practical and more concrete about this: I want to think about this comfort in discomfort thing and how it comes up with Luca. Luca is a whiner. Meaning, when vulnerability comes up, she doesn't respond aggressively by lashing out, acting out, being pissy. No, when she is vulnerable, she gets whiney. It's so annoyingly gendered, but it's true. Of course, I do the same thing. Anyhow, I have that mama thing that when she is tired or hungry or sad or whiney, my arms open wide and I gather her up and comfort her.

Lately, when she's been crabby or whiney or a butt head, she's started to say, "Don't you understand, even when I'm crabby, what I really want is for you to just cuddle me. Stop talking and cuddle me!" And usually when she says that, my partner Rocki and I say something like, "Luca, if you want to be cuddled, then you need to ask for cuddles rather than getting whiney or crabby or mean. You need to ask us for what you want so that we know. It isn't fair to make us just guess." So here we are, focusing on teaching direct communication, asking for what you need, all of that. Good emotional skills, right?

But I can't help but think about this within the context of this wider conversation of comfort and discomfort. Some of the ability to be comfortable with discomfort that we're talking about is a kind of state of awareness that rests on a strong foundation. At least, that's what I think it is. I think that part of the life gift that Luca will have is a strong sense of self and a security that there are people who love her who are happy and willing to cuddle her. The ability to sit with discomfort would rest on top of this, wouldn't it?

Or are there some things I need to do right now? Sometimes this strange little matron in me wonders if, when she gets all limp and whiney and boneless, if part of what I need to do is stand up all stiff and just make her deal with it. I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine, years ago when I was first pregnant. This friend, African American Muslim man, grew up hard, still has lots of family members living hard, is a kick ass father, has (I believe) six kids, etc. He was tripping about me becoming a parent because that wasn't how he saw me. But then he asked, "So, are you going to be one of those white liberal folks who won't spank their kids?" Wow, big step back. "Yes," I said. "I am. I don't believe in it." We had this great conversation about where we come from and where we expect our kids to go. This friend is a peace loving stunningly kind man who does some pretty hard core diversity training with organizations that really shifts those organizations. I have seen him touch groups and make change in a way that is very different from a lot of "diversity training" which stays in the superficial. And in our conversation, his point was that, he is raising Black kids, most of them boys. As they grow up, the world around them isn't going to be looking for ways to be kind. Quite the opposite. His kids need a kind of strength, of toughness, that is going to carry them through when their surroundings (people, place, social context) deny their humanity or individuality. As we talked, I reflected that for my white child, a kind of anti-violence bent is probably important. If they are the inheritors of social power, it would make sense that they have spine but that their instinct is towards the collective, away from the individual. We talked about how, if we were raising our kids to be strong folks in a move towards social justice, strong and powerful within their social positions, we might well be raising different kinds of kids. Taking that conversation five years ago and applying it to day (and so I'm paraphrasing a friend and this might not be exactly what he meant( his kids are guaranteed discomfort (within the context of race and racism) and will have to learn how to hold on to and find their own comfort. Kids with white privilege will have the skills of asserting and demanding their own comfort (within the context of race and racism) and asserting their own normal and will have to learn how to hold on to their own discomfort.

And are the skills to do those things the same or different? And is this even a right way to think about it?

Sitting here now, about five years later, I'm not as sure about any of this. Or, I want to hear more perspectives - on raising all of our kids white and of color, within the context of race and racism. Like I wrote earlier, I'm not sure what this means about raising my child - on a day to day basis - or how to raise Luca so that she can sit within discomfort and stay present, keep moving, and resist the desire to hide or go away.

And as an aside, oh the rashness that I write this as though I have the extant of control implied by my words.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

anti-racist parenting 101

Okay, yes, I started this blog. But I'm scared to post any of my thoughts on the subject of anti-racist parenting. Hmmm...interesting thing to notice. I'm afraid of sounding foolish, dumb, ignorant, trite... But I have to just go for it and post anyway. Otherwise, I'll just be living inside my head and never getting feedback and thus never growing. This blog is supposed to be a safe place to discuss unlearning and challenging racism, so, here is a posting from another one of my blogs where I write about all things trivial and not so trivial related to motherhood.


I've been thinking a lot about how, as a white parent, I should go about raising my child to be a person who harbors no racial prejudice, and whats more, becomes a person who fights racism when he's older. It's easy to forego thinking about race and racism as a white person. That is, afterall, one aspect of white privilege. I do have the choice to NOT devote any energy to this topic. But precisely because I am white and aware of the existence and gravity of racism in this society as perpetuated by whites, I feel compelled to do something about it. And with that urge to challenge the racism instilled in me and my immediate surrroundings comes fear.

The safest thing is to think and read about the topic. Then it's inside my head for just me to mull over. And yes, the learning phase is an important and ongoing phase. But, there comes a point when one has to take action, whether it's through discussing the issues with others in or outside one's circle (i.e. on this blog) or in other ways. That is where things get scary.

My biggest fear is feeling shame, rejection and hurt. As we grow up (and I'm talking about white people here), we learn what is socially acceptable and what is not, which of course varies somewhat depending on our communities, but overall, any discourse about race is pretty much taboo. But, I should hope that this is true, we are naturally curious about all kinds of people, especially as children. However, our curiosity is often squelched because it's just not socially acceptable to, for example, ask out loud about people's skin color or hair texture. So, we get instantly hushed or shamed. That is not a good start. Immediately we learn that certain types of differences, in this case "racial" differences (racial in quotes because "race" is really a biologically unfounded social construct), are taboo. Something to perhaps ponder silently, but to never speak about. This is how any discourse on "race" is extinguished from the start.

What I just described is the level of communication where a parent can start. Instead of shushing a child who is naturally curious about people who look different from him, the parent can encourage the dialogue and explain to the child that yes, people have different degrees of pigmentation, etc. and make sure the subject doesn't get tagged as taboo in the child's mind.

The other way that as a mother of a toddler I can begin the journey of anti-racist parenting, is by exposing the child to people that look different in very ordinary circumstances - play groups, books with photographs, etc. I know that sounds overly simple and trite, but it is a way to start. And I emphasize start.

I am, of course, already worried that I'm failing in this regard. I do go and socialize with random groups with my son, but he does not see people that are all that racially different. This is just because of the way our city's demographics happen to be. But I do question my choices of the places where I take "Jay". Do I choose the places according to my own comfort level with the families that frequent these particular community centers and libraries?

The children with which Jay interacts are mostly white and Asian. To illustrate my fear that I am failing anti-racist parenting 101, let me share with you a brief anecdote. The other day we went to the store and our cashier was a very dark skinned black man. At the point when I separated from Jay and stepped closer to the credit card reader and the cashier pulled the shopping car with Jay in it slightly behind the cash register to begin unloading the groceries, Jay suddenly had this freightened look on his face and began to cry. The man gave Jay a sticker and told him he was his friend. Jay stopped crying and became more comfortable. But it was interesting to observe my own reaction to the situation. I was pretty certain that Jay became scared of the man because he looked so different from the other people he was used to seeing. I noticed feeling paralyzed and unsure of what to say or how to react. Should I have said, "Oh, Jay. Look at this nice man. Say hello to the nice man?" (I want to thank a friend of mine here for suggesting I rephrase more positively my original response which read: "Oh, Jay, don't worry. Look at this nice man. You don't have to be scared of him.") Of course, Jay is too young to understand a sentence like that, but he can understand emotional tones. Instead of saying anything, I let the cashier deal with the situation. How lame of me. That's what white people tend to do. Stay paralyzed and let people of color navigate the uncomfortable situation for them. And that too is racism.

So, now I've publicly processed this encounter and have hopefully learned something by "thinking aloud."

That's it for my first installment of my thoughts on anti-racist parenting.

- Tereza Topferova

Writing white

I think I am going to be posting back and forth from my personal blog to this blog. I am eager to see more people join the conversation.

Last night I went to a reading and discussion surrounding the book Outsiders Within, an anthology written by transracial adoptees. There were about 25 folks who attended the event, most of them white and many of them with children they had adopted from outside the US or children of color adopted from within the US. In other words, many of them were the parents of transracially adopted children. A few were in the process of adopting. Most who had children already still had very young children.

Transracial adoption is such a complex subject and it's one that I have big emotions around. I know many many adult adoptees who are very articulate about their struggles, identity conflicts and confusions inherited from being adopted by white adults without the skills to teach them about racism, their birth country, or their specific identities. For the most part, I fall in the same camp as the anthology contributors: I believe we should work hard to make sure that parents all over the world have access to their basic economic needs and human rights and that no parent should ever have to give up a child in order to guarantee their own survival. I look at Luca and she is the same age as some of the adoptees were when they were adopted. She already has such a full life, full of so many relationships, I can't imagine her needing to uproot that completely and "become" someone else just like I can't imagine the emotional struggle involved in having to give her up.

But that isn't the point of this blog. During the discussion, a lot of questions were asked. A LOT of questions. It's clear that many of the white parents were hungry for suggestions from adult adoptees on how they can raise their children with compassion and integrity. It was clear that some of the questioners were used to talking about race and racism and some were a bit more awkward in their language. It is also clear that people were there because of how much they wanted to learn, to be good parents, to do the right thing.

At various points during the discussion, I got angry or frustrated or cynical. I was frustrated with what I felt was the ignorance of some of the white folks, the reluctance to look at racism as a system or to look at our collusion with white privilege and the way that this collusion continually props up racism. I wanted more direct conversation about our responsibility and accountability as white folks. I quoted a Cheri Register piece I read ages ago in which, in discussing her adoption of an African American child, she talked about realizing that while, on the one hand, she had "saved" her child from poverty and the foster care system, on the other hand she had burdened this child with her ignorance, put this child into a vulnerable position by not being able to give her (I don't remember if it was a son or daughter) the life and survival instruction and support for living in a profoundly racist nation. I was so moved by Cheri's willingness to sit within that place of contradiction, refusing to consider "giving up" her child, this piece of her life, yet also refusing to deny that her parenting would by definition bring some harm as well as some good.

This is what I wanted, practical direct conversation that starts with an assumption that white privilege exists and it informs our every action.

And so I got annoyed and then, yes, fell into the "better white than you" trap of white privilege. Meaning, I felt for awhile like I "got" it and "they" didn't and I wanted so desperately to talk with other white folks who "got" it and not with these people.


This morning I did the first group of a Mindfulness Politics course. And halfway through, I sat there cross legged on the floor and wept. This is not who I want to be, hard hearted, angry, self-righteous. Race, white privilege, this core of injustice, these things have been on my front burner for most of my adult life. This is the work I want to do. Last night, I forgot HOW I want to do this work. I forgot that sometimes, when sitting in the midst of that conversation, being brave means having compassion.

I am so hungry for conversations about all of this, not just the talking analytical conversations or the mental masturbation as Vikki called it last night, but the scary practical conversations and strategies that help me think about how to parent and how to be as a white person.

This is something I am going to write about a lot more here - and on the antiracist white parent blog. I am also trying to drag the other adults and parents that I love into this conversation, asking them to do their own writing. And more than that, I'm going to use my daughter as a guinea pig. Meaning, I have never parented before. I haven't yet found any practical parenting books about raising white children and yes, I know there are books out there about taking your kids to multicultural events so they know that a diverse world exists, but I am talking about something very different from that. I am looking for help.

Susan Raffo

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why this blog?

Thank you, Susan Raffo, for being the first contributor to this brand new blog! This is the start of a conversation I have been longing for for some time now.

There is so much that rushes through my mind as I think about my hopes for this new online community. Why a blog for white parents, you may be thinking? And, what's this anti-racist stuff anyway?

The idea is to form an online affinity group of white parents who are dedicated to raising their children with an anti-racist outlook. That of course means that they, or we, are committed to recognizing and challenging racism in our own heads and our surroundings.

Do I really know what it takes to be an anti-racist parent, and what's more, do I dare call myself one? At this stage, perhaps I'm more of a wannabe. My desire to get out of my head and start taking action led me to starting this blog. My hope is that we can bounce ideas off each other; that here, we can vent our fears and frustrations without bogging down people of color, from whom we may be wanting approval, lessons on racism or whatever else they just might happen to be sick of being asked to give us. We white people need each other to put things into perspective better, to understand the issues better, and to be better equipped to join in action and dialog with other groups cross-racially.

As Beverly Daniel Tatum, the author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria says: "Affinity groups [are] separate 'spaces' that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. . . The shared goal in making affinity groups available is to interrupt the cycle of racism. For white people, this might involve processing their reactions to racism: typically, shame and guilt. . . Affinity groups also help individuals participate in larger, blended groups. They are good for overall community-building."

With that said, I want to invite others to participate in this discussion. Whatever thoughts and insights you may have, related to the journey of anti-racist parenting, are welcome, as long as you write with honesty and respect.

Thanks for stopping by and come back to talk again.

- Tereza Topferova

The Privilege of Looking Back

To start off, I'm going to post something here from a past blog. My partner is Brazilian and my family went to live in Brazil for six months. The goal was to have my daughter and I strengthen our Portuguese. Luca, my daughter, became fluent. I got better.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006
The Privilege of Looking Back

We head back to Minneapolis in about three weeks. I can't believe how quickly - and how slowly - these six months have gone by. My partner, Rocki, and I were admitting to each other the other day that we are, indeed, both proud of being here. Even before I got pregnant, we made a commitment to spend significant time in Brazil so that our child would grow up bilingual.

So, besides me and Luca speaking better Portuguese, I am thinking about the other goals we had for this trip. Getting rest - well, that has happened. Our sleep reserves have reserves themselves. When I hear about the lives of those I love with small children, I am chomping at the bit to get home, cook for them, and take their kids for overnights. Not that I don't have my own selfish reasons for spending time with them.

The other big thing I said that I wanted to do while I was here was to focus on a project about privilege. In particular, I wanted to record and reflect over the ways in which Luca, my four year old daughter, becomes white. How does a blob of baby without culture or conceit learn how to inherit the tools of privilege and power? What do we as parents and the community at large do to foster this social role? I wanted to do something other than what I find when I look for research on raising white children: introduce them to other cultures, bla bla bla.

It's funny - in trying to watch how Luca becomes white, I am continually struck by the way that race is the USA's class system. Her privilege, at its root, is really about a kind of class privilege that her whiteness gives her carte blanche to use. I think there are other specifically racialized moments that will come up as she ages, but in this preschool four year old period with six months spent in Brazil, the most obvious privilege is class. Some of the racialized children's moments - the color/race of dolls and toys, children's television shows, etc - happen differently here.

It is a strange thing to talk about Luca's privilege while living here in Rio. Her privilege is in sharper relief than it is in Minneapolis. Here, the basic rights of her privilege (having enough food, a safe place to sleep, a safe place to play) can sometimes mask the subtler signs. In the States, there are certainly people without enough food, a safe place to sleep and a safe place to play, but they don't live next door or around the corner. Class/race in the US can be so ghettoized - intense poverty kept to some neighborhoods and not others. Here, everyone lives next to each other - rich, poor and in between. It is always in front of you. Part of having privilege in the US is that you DON'T have to see it. And sometimes, unless you play tourist in communities where you don't live, it can be hard to see it.

In Brazil, Luca's "whiteness" is tied up with her "American-ness" and even more, her English. To speak English here is a huge privilege, one that opens the doors to work and education. Her literal whiteness - as in her coloring - gives her the power of the exotic. She isn't that light in a midwestern US context, but she stands out in Recreio. She gets a lot of attention when we wander around just because she is attractive in a less typical way.

To try and get past my own usual thinking about privilege - I have done a lot of reading in biochemistry and neurology - wanting to understand behavior from a completely different angle. I learned a lot - and it was damned interesting - and one book in particular - Us and Them - gave me some deeper understanding for why we create boundaries between folks we decide are "like us" and folks we assume to be "different." But the only thing they gave me towards understanding this project on Lucaness was to remember that yes, the way we parent Luca and the world that Luca lives in will do a lot towards determining what kind of a white person she becomes.

It's funny how you have to learn and relearn the same things over and over again. This would be an example of that. All of this thinking, this reading, this watching did, at some level, was to get me back to an awareness that I have had in the past: privilege is. It can not be given away or denied. Instead, it has to be tempered. In other words, what is the best way that Luca can be raised within her privilege to be someone who seeks to change, who sees other people for whom they are and not for who she assumes them to be, who knows how to live within the context of seeing herself straight up compared with those around her. What is the best way for Luca to be raised to understand that every moment of her life, she lives in community and to then understand her fluid role within those moments of community? How will she learn to make choices so the context surrounding them is visible?

This is just where I started, but now there are more nuances within that sentence. And what I realize is that I can't create a strategy all laid out with perfect steps and situations. Instead, Rocki and I just have to respond to situations as they come. Which means we have to watch ourselves. Not just as parents, but as people in the world.

So it gets back, again, to what I already believed. The reason why working against whatever social category you're talking about is so difficult, is that it is about responding in unexpected moments, not about knowing the right thing to say or the right way to behave. It is about being sincere and trying to pay attention every day and when you screw up, not getting lost but taking a deep breath and starting all over again. There are and will be moments every day where the fact of who Luca is - her skin color, her ethnicity, her culture - is reified by her surroundings. That is going to happen her whole life - even when she notices how she is different (bilingual, binational, child of queer parents), her racialized self will most often be experienced in her unthinking moments as "normal." Thinking about what flavor of white she becomes is about teaching her to pay attention. And to be curious.

Luca is white and whiteness is a kind of cultural vapor that she has to dance with. Our job is to try and teach her to be critical of whiteness, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to try very hard and every day to not forget that she is white. Like walking through clouds, she has to learn to see it even when it is hard to see. And Rocki and I have to do the same.

I had visions of writing something very practical, a kind of day in the life account of a white child becoming white. But that isn't as easy as I thought. Or it is still too early as Luca is only just four. She is still at the age where, for the most part, race is not the first thing she notices, if she notices it at all. But then again, that is probably part of her privilege.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Welcome to white anti-racist parent blog

I am now launching this blog. The goal is for white parents to have a place to discuss their experience as anti-racist parents. I hope to invite several cool and enlightened contributors very soon. I also hope the community will grow and that many readers will share their opinions in the form of comments. Thanks for visiting! Come back soon.