In our society, the touted values - instant gratification, individualism, and a care-free existence, contradict the values key to building a more just and equitable society. It strikes me that in order to transform our society and ourselves, we must focus on goals diametrically opposed to what we are taught matters. (I know I'm generalizing. But I'm just talking about what I perceive to be mainstream U.S. values - i.e. middle class Anglo/Protestant values.) The main thing is to learn to trust others more and to build stronger ties with our neighbors and community, even our friends. In general as a society, we must learn deep empathy and accept that difficult issues we may never stop grappling with are a part of life and that it is healthy, even exciting sometimes, to have to wrestle with things. All of this contradicts what mainstream media and socialization into the mainstream teaches us.
Buy, don't grapple
Advertising (including product placement in movies and TV shows) has a lot to do with how we develop emotionally as Americans. Advertisers bombard us with images of the ideal life - carefree and happy-go-lucky. And this lifestyle is supposed to be something we're entitled to; our prerogative, which adds another dimension to the emotional equation. Of course, corporations want us to look to their products for solutions. Products, we are taught, can fix any kind of problem for us instantly, whether it be a stain on a shirt, a dirty window, or social anxiety. So, if there is an item or service we can buy or dream of buying, why do the work ourselves? At the same time, we are made to feel more insecure by the advertising we see. We question our looks, our lifestyles, tastes... And all this makes us the perfect consumers, because our insecurities and emotional needs trap us in a web of buying or dreaming of buying. I, for example, though I'm not very materialistic, do find a strange sense of false hope and excitement in buying something once in a while, whether it's new or used or useful or not. I am definitely guilty of projecting hopes and dreams onto items I buy sometimes. And I am conscious of this and am trying to figure out how to become less attached to things and more deeply trusting of people.
But my point is that in order to become better citizens and human beings, we must stop being the perfect consumers, precisely because consumerism encourages values such as individualism, selfishness, a sense of entitlement, and discourages trust in our own capabilities and closeness with others, two of the many makings of a caring, just society.
So, how do we do this? The messages are so pervasive that it's hard to keep them from colonizing our minds, but I try. I want to model strong friendships and trust in others more. Many of us live pretty isolated lives filled with work and so it's hard to get enough contact time with friends and family. That feels very unnatural to me. But I'm trying to be more present with my friends literally and figuratively, so my son sees that.
But as far as advertising, at my house, we have packed up our TV and put it in the basement. We listen to very little radio that plays ads. We don't buy toys or clothing which display huge brand names or messages that perpetuate inequalities or insecurities, etc. My family tends to de-emphasize the materialistic. Most everything we own, including furniture, is found, hand-me-down, or used. I don't mean to preach. I'm just brainstorming here. I'm sure the pressure to buy stuff and watch TV will increase as my child grows older and becomes aware of advertising and who has what. And then I will have a harder time shutting out "the messages," so I will have to teach him to be critical of the media.
The comfort of the right answers
There is an interesting article I read a while back that has stayed with me. The article is not directly related to the topic at hand, but it has some excellent food for thought relevant to anti-racist parenting.
In her piece Standardized Tests: A Clear and Pleasant Danger, published in Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change, Dr. Terri Meier, professor at Wheelock College specializing in cross-cultural communication and language development, discusses language socialization among different groups of children. She cites studies which have revealed some fascinating patterns:
Numerous studies of language socialization in white middle-class communities indicate that the largest percentage of questions addressed to preschoolers by mothers and other primary caregivers consists of simply structured questions to which the questioner already has the answer (e.g., "How many eyes do you have?"; "What color is this dolly's dress?"; How many fingers is mommy holding up?"). The purpose of such questions is not for the questioner to gain information, but for the child to display information, for which she is typically rewarded with extensive verbal and non-verbal praise.
When reading stories to preschool children, many middle-class parents often intersperse their reading with questions that focus the child's attention on noting and recalling specific details of the text.
. . . Research indicates that many working-class and minority children come to school with very different values and assumptions about what constitutes meaningful communication. In a 1983 study, Shirley Brice Heath found that in the working-class black community where she spent eleven years studying language socialization, children were almost never asked questions to which the adult or older child already knew the answer. According to Heath's data, the most prevalent type of question addressed to preschoolers in this community was the "analogy question," calling for an open-ended response drawn from the child's experience (e.g., "What do you think you are?" to a child crawling under the furniture). Other frequently asked questions were "story starters" (e.g., "Did you see Maggies' dog yesterday?") and accusations (e.g., "What's that all over your face?"). But very seldom were they asked test-type questions, the assumption being, why would you ask someone something you already know the answer to?
Reading was also often perceived differently, according to Heath. It tended to be a social event in which listeners, young and old, were free to throw in comments or to elaborate on some connection with their personal experience, rather than a context for testing children's reading comprehension or teaching appropriate school behaviors. People in this community were admired for their ability to tell a good story, draw insightful analogies, or present an interesting and unique point of view, rather than for their ability to display information or show off knowledge for its own sake.
How does this tie into anti-racist parenting? The middle-class emphasis on knowing and displaying the knowledge of right answers strikes me as directly related to the comfort/discomfort question. If right answers are so important and we're praised as children (at home or IN SCHOOL) for regurgitating them... the faster the better, this is the pattern we may learn. We want to do good, be good, be accepted, so we learn this style of communication and the values accompanying it. But what happens in situations when there are no right answers or when we have to work as a community to come up with answers together instead of racing to be the first one = the winner? What happens when there is no one to praise us? Catch my drift? Maybe anti-racist parenting extends even to this - the values we communicate on a daily basis to our children in the way we read with them or through the types of questions we ask. What do you think?