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


Vikki said...

Hello everyone. I'm the Vikki that was referred to in Susan's post below this one. I just wanted to start by saying that I really appreciated this post because it was one dealing with practical application of an anti-racist lens. I've been hesitant to dive into all of this because I am a practical person and place importance on the outward expression of values. This piece started to do that...

Susan Raffo said...

This is a great post, T. Thank you for it. I think when you outlined how, in that moment, your silence put the cashier in the position of dealing with Jay's discomfort - taking care of Jay - you put your finger right on it.

You know, it's funny. I have never thought about the goal being to raise Luca with no racial prejudice. I don't think I have enough control over her or her own environment to do that. I think more about the need to give her the critical thinking skills to make her own decisions, the skills to really listen to people, to understand the historical and social context she was born into, the awareness that ignorance is ok and learning is always possible, I don't know. I just keep thinking of it as life skills with a deep awareness of white privilege and racism. And Vikki is so right - I go to theory and big picture thinking. My challenge in this exercize is going to be to keep breaking it down to concrete real life moments.

Vikki said...

I reacted similarly to Susan to the part about raising our children with no racial prejudice. I just don't think that is possible. As parents, we have so little control of the messages our children receive in contexts outside of our family.

t.t. said...

Susan, maybe you're right. No racial prejudice may be shooting a little too high. Don't know if it's even possible, but why not imagine the possiblities. Critical skills - yes. An excellent goal. That will become more of a focus for me when my toddler is a bit older. Right now it's a lot simpler than that - just encountering difference and being open to it.

- Tereza