Tuesday, January 23, 2007

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.


t.t. said...

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

This is so important! You hit the nail right on the head. To be comfortable with being uncomfortable is the essence of all the work that needs to happen to challenge the isms that ail our society, don't you think? Mainstream American culture is all about feeling good and running away from discomfort and conflict. This tendency is so ingrained in so many of us and is something to contend with. No wonder centuries-old oppressions prevail. To stick with the process and the people doing the work with you regardless of how messy things get, to be able to delay gratification or to pursue a goal regardless of rewards, to be patient enough to listen and process, to remain faithful to the cause... all that is revolutionary.

How do we teach our chidren to be comfortable with discomfort? I have to think about that. But my gut reaction is that it starts with the most subtle things. Like patience. Letting your child figure how something works on her own without interfering, for example. Being comfortable not having all the answers all the time and saying so. Giving our children space and trust. That shows we are comfortable not having to have control, a big part of being able to be comfortable with discomfort, if that makes sense. It's all about teaching our children "emotional IQ," I guess - like naming feelings, talking through conflict, but also silence. Lots of quiet time to reflect. Lots of food for thought, Susan!

cloudscome said...

"a kind of day in the life account of a white child becoming white" - what a fascinating idea! I think it is something that will be so hard to see, but writing about it is a wonderful idea. I am delighted to be able to read along here.