The Unbearable Whiteness of (My) Being. On Words.

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Talking about race as a white, middle-ish class, woman is super fun.

So why do it?

***

We have this funny story that we often tell each other about when our children first notice or didn't notice race. We tell it when we're feeling awkward or uncomfortable. We tell it when we're feeling like we need to console ourselves over the deficiencies in our own cultural competency. Sometimes we tell it innocently, because "kids! They say crazy stuff!". The story itself is not wrong, but the way we expect our kids to have a language around race is. We fool ourselves into thinking that being well adjusted and open minded must transfer to our kids by osmosis.

And it does, sort of, but it is not enough. Our kids see hair colour and skin colour just as clearly as my pre-verbal kid can identify the difference between a fork and a spoon. They accept it as normal until one day they don't.

When does that happen? How do we flip that narrative? How do we give our children the language to navigate those differences that they most certainly notice? I don't believe for a second that our little people are colour blind. But I do believe that they don't have the vocabulary or the safe spaces to talk about it. And if they don't have the language for these things, they might begin to believe that those differences are wrong or bad. It's not intentional– for the most part– it's just that it's hard! And what if I say the wrong thing?! And aren't we supposed to be beyond all of this?

I know. I get it. Let me assure you: we are not beyond it.

I have to prepare my children for the world we live in as much as I would rather prepare them for the world I hope for. So. In our house we talk about what the N word is and how some people use it with each other to take away its power and that is none of our business. We talk about how it's not an okay word in our family or to use with anyone else. We talk about how it has been used for a very long time to make people feel less than are by the way the look. We speak about these things because these words have been directed towards people we care about. We talk about them because these words are going to be directed at us. We speak about what an ALLY is and how to be one. To Sam, we discuss about how intentional we have to be to make friends with people who might have different backgrounds from us. We explain to him how sometimes our brains have been trained to make assumptions about the *goodness* or compatibility of a person based on what we see on the outside. We tell him that it's hard sometimes, and people won't always understand. It's difficult to be rejected. I tell him that I have not always been the best example of this hard work, but that I am trying.

Sometimes they rolls their eyes and we hear, "I KNOW I KNOW PLEASE STOP". But we do it anyway.

Thankfully, we don't have to do this job by ourselves. We have gracious people around who are open hearted and reflective and are willing to have these hard conversations with us even if they are thinking, "I KNOW I KNOW PLEASE STOP". The boys have friends and adults in their worlds who come from a variety of backgrounds. We help them process what they're feeling or how they are being made to feel. As for me, I say the wrong things. I don't always recognize my own privilege. I'm working on it. I don't have it all figured out.

My friend and I were talking about the divisive words our kids are exposed to. I was explaining some of the challenges we were facing, in part because so many (white) adults don't realize how important it is to identify the hard stuff (for lots of complicated reasons). Besides the fact that she now blames me for ruining her life, she realized very quickly that we can't be complacent. She's part of
an interracial family, she's a disability advocate, she is smart and
kind, and still, there was a piece that she realized she was missing:

"…I’m
proud of myself, though, that I never use hurtful words tied to a
person’s skin color, language, disability, or sexual orientation. But
now I’m wondering…is this enough? Is it enough to not use these
powerful and hurtful words, or do I need to do more? Do they know it’s
NOT OK to stand by when they hear others using these words? Do they
know it IS OK to stand up for their friends or classmates who are being
hurt? Do they know that sticking up for another child would make me
proud? Honestly, I don’t know.

Somehow I’ve been assuming
that my silence (by not using these words) is teaching them all they
need to know. But I’m not sure. I think I need to talk with them, very
simply and clearly, about the words we use, the words we hear (or might
hear), the power of those words to hurt, and how we should react when
it happens. I'm not sure why I haven't done this yet…in a very direct
fashion…but I haven't. That will change…starting today."

  ***

For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids

A great summary and response of the very important piece, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

My dad made a short documentary this year with his friend, Isadore. Yummo Comes Home: A Residential School Healing Story. It is primarily aimed at helping churches understand the importance they play in the Truth and Reconciliation Process in Canada, but it also seeks to educate folks on the devestating impacts of privilege among the dominant culture. Plus there are some sweet, old pics of my dad and grandparents.

 

31 Comments

  1. We have yet to really have these conversations in our house, I have been waiting to see how my boys perceive people of different bodies, skin color, disabilities, etc.
    I am grateful the Oliver went through 2 years of preschool with a little girl that was born with 1 hand different than the other her “little hand” as she called it.
    Now just pretty recently the boys have started noticing color referring to other friends as the one with the “brown face”. They notice people are different but don’t seem to have any preconceived ideas which i like. it’s the same as the teacher with curly hair, or the girl in pajamas since they can’t yet remember names. I recently had to figure out how to explain to them that Oliver can not paint his face brown for Halloween to be a character out of iron man. It was a challenging conversation on my end as they don’t understand the history or what it means. I am thankful that we live in a community that is so diverse and hope that they will continue to be open minded loving kids. I see bigger conversations coming up soon and am inspired by your experiences to hopefully help to explain to them eloquently when the questions come up. For now I’m still in the wait and see holding pattern. I don’t want to push the conversation on them but acknowledge that it will need to happen, and likely sooner than I want. You do hope that your kids notice they way you act and act in kind once out in the world, but you are right, that isn’t reality. there are so many hours of the day that they are now exposed to other people from other households, osmosis weather good or bad is inevitable.

    Like

  2. I love these posts…
    …So I will share a part of my story, my experience…
    My father is Norwegian. My mother is Spanish. I was born and raised in Norway, and I have lived my whole life in Norway. I am as Norwegian as you can get them, whatever that means.
    HOWEVER, I inherited the beautiful colours of my mother. I have dark brown hair, and dark brown eyes. I burn easily, but get a nice tan if I use protection. Why do I say this? Because it is all about the colour.
    Since I grew up on the west coast of Norway, I blended. Many people on the west coast have brown hair and brown eyes due to “mingling” between the locals and boats people from southern Europe all through the history. Even if I were a tiny bit darker, most people would as soon as they heard my west coast accent conclude with me being Norwegian.
    And before I continue. I have never been called bad names. I have never had to hear people say anything bad about my colours. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been hurt by peoples ignorance or because of peoples inherent need to label people and put them in a category.
    At 23 I moved away from the west coast. And what do you know… People begin asking me where I am from. I say, “From the west coast, but my mother is Spanish” (I understand that they are seeing my brownness), and they say: «OH, so you are only half Norwegian!”
    …or they say: OH, so you are half Spanish” and for the rest of my life I am the half-Spanish. From that point everything they perceive about me is being filtered through the “Spanish filter”. If I laugh out loud it is because Spanish people are so loud, If I get upset or angry it is because I have a Spanish temperament, If I wear a red dress I look like a Spanish señorita – the list goes on and is eternal… They just assume I have inherited all these qualities from my mother (which I for the record haven’t)
    There is nothing wrong in being Spanish. I love my mother and I love the Spanish culture with its good things and its flaws, just like I love my Norwegian culture with its good things and its flaws. But no matter how much I love Spain. I am still Norwegian. I just do not look like your stereotypical blong or light brown Norwegian.
    I wish so hard my outside looked like my inside so that I didn’t have to explain myself to every person I meet who thinks it’s their human right to ask me “where are you really from?”, and then tell me how Norwegian I am, or not.
    Or perhaps what I wish the most is that someone makes a new definition of what a Norwegian looks like. That’s what I want. Then I can keep my beautiful colours and still be Norwegian.
    I wish people had the sensitivity or sense to ask me how I feel, and how I consider myself, and not think that they have the power of definition on who I am. Find out, not think they know everything about me after talking with me for 5 minutes…
    …So yes, I think you should talk and talk to you beautiful boys, because it is difficult to get your identity questioned. And they will probably have to deal with that on their way to adulthood and beyond.
    Warm hugs.

    Like

  3. Yes, yes, yes! Raising “color blind” white children doesn’t prepare them for the world that people of color experience–a world that is too limiting and filled with micro-aggressions due to institutional racism. White allies will help dismantle institutional racism. We need MORE allies. If every white parent has this conversation with white their child/ren, we could change the world:
    “We speak about what an ALLY is and how to be one. To Sam, we discuss about how intentional we have to be to make friends with people who might have different backgrounds from us. We explain to him how sometimes our brains have been trained to make assumptions about the *goodness* or compatibility of a person based on what we see on the outside. We tell him that it’s hard sometimes, and people won’t always understand. It’s difficult to be rejected. I tell him that I have not always been the best example of this hard work, but that I am trying. ”
    Thank you for writing this!

    Like

  4. again, keep talking, and I love you. My boy’s best friend since age 3 is an African American, and in my very divided city, both families have had to work so hard to keep their friendship going, but sometimes I’m afraid that it isn’t enough, that we don’t have enough friends in our social circle that are not exactly like us. We need the preaching.

    Like

  5. Oh what to say. I want to digest this in so many ways! And I especially want to send you a hug. We stand on this fine line with so many things as we work to make these girls of ours better than us. It is not easy. xo

    Like

  6. i won’t lie– it’s not always comfortable. but i will tell you that if you start talking about it (and i’m begging you to start talking about it), it will get easier, erin.
    promise.
    honestly promise.

    Like

  7. Very thought-provoking; thank you. I, too, am a white middle-class woman, and I have only ever worked, primarily, with underpriviliged populations. For 8 years now. I just recently went to a stunning presentation on poverty that made me realize just how different the backgrounds were for my ex-boyfriend and myself, and how that impacted the relationship. I appreciate your strategy on creating safe space to talk about these things. I work in early childhood special ed, and the most impacted children, who are unmistakeably different, draw a wide range of reactions from the kids and their parents. I’m still working on not being riled on behalf of “my” kids, and figuring out how to talk about it with these people. I think I do OK, a very tentative OK, at creating a safe space for parents to speak about it. I have a lot to learn. I”m looking forward to it.

    Like

  8. I hate that you are having to discuss the N word in kindergarten. I hate it. I also hate how hard things have to be thought about and sometimes I want to run away but I know that we can’t. I also hate that I have no idea what I’m doing and sometimes I wish that I was a big jerk and just didn’t have to worry about anything because I didn’t give a damn or maybe a religious fanatic so it would be all out of my hands. I am enjoying the discussion.

    Like

  9. This is happening in our house too. Hard conversations. With my girls there is a lot of loss too, as we process their birthmother and race and adoption. My friend Aaryn writes a blog, Thematically Fickle. She is a White mama to a Black daughter and writes about race and white privilege often.

    Like

  10. we are often talking about things at our house, and I know the “I KNOW I KNOW PLEASE STOP” so super well. it hasn’t gone away by 14, that’s for sure. but you know, it isn’t fun necessarily for us to talk about, and it isn’t fun for them to hear, but no one said parenting would be all roses and sugar cubes and rainbows.
    “Do they know it’s NOT OK to stand by when they hear others using these words? Do they know it IS OK to stand up for their friends or classmates who are being hurt? Do they know that sticking up for another child would make me proud? Honestly, I don’t know.”
    THIS THIS THIS. this is what we are constantly reinforcing to 14. Kids have this when they’re little! they stick up for their little buddies! but somehow it recedes somewhat when they get older, and are totally comfortable in their (white male long-standing-family-in-community) privileged. so I am so super bossy about this. SUPER bossy. we make sure they know about examples where people just stand by, and how they can escalate. We say that by standing by and not speaking up against hurtful words you make the person who said them think it’s ok. And that can escalate quickly.
    the worst! worst. is how to explain how a casual “like” on facebook can be so so so harmful. that’s the latest reason for a horrible uncomfortable talk.

    Like

  11. A. You were so cute and I see so much T in that pic.
    B. Bravo, well said, and thank you for saying it.
    C. I’m so glad I have you in my arsenal of badass no b.s. mamas who are keepin’ it real.
    D. I have no effing idea why I alphabetized my comments.
    E. xo.

    Like

  12. Another really excellent book on the topic, “Priveledge, Power and Difference.” It delves into other areas of power and privilege too but, IMO, does a good analysis of race as well.

    Like

  13. yes.
    when my own heart and ears say those very words, “I know! I know! Please stop!” it is my cue to say it again.
    when my white daughter rolls her teen-aged eyes, only barely, and reluctantly, aware of her privilege, it is time to say it again.
    when my black daughter sheds angry tears at her color, her hair, her non-whiteness, it is time to say it again.
    when my black son comes home and tells in broken language he was put in yet another head-lock (for fun…) on recess, it is time to say it again.
    when my friends and family wonder why, oh why, did she bring it up again…it is time to keep the conversation alive.
    the conversation must live beyond the easy moments, the circumstantially-demanded moments, and into the moments in-between. we are not blind, and what a grace it is to see. there is Light. it is our work to notice it, name it, celebrate it in each of these growing hearts.
    thank you, thank you, for continuing the conversation.

    Like

  14. Thank you for sharing the Yummo Comes Home video. It is a deeply touching, disturbing and moving story about events and peoples that I had not known or heard before. I feel a little stunned after watching it. Truly remarkable.

    Like

  15. I’ve been studying the Treaty of Waitangi and the results of how colonialism treated the indigenous Maori this year. It’s opened my eyes. I know understand between equality and equity. I also learned about the invisible back pack in this article http://www.waitangi.co.nz/Chapter10HealingOurHistory.pdf
    It’s broken me, learning this stuff and realising it’s not enough to treat everybody the same. We have to act as well.
    You are amazing, an inspiration. You are walking the hard road and with success.
    Love and hugs from the bottom of the globe.

    Like

  16. I really appreciate your words here – “the conversation must live beyond the easy moments, the circumstantially-demanded moments, and into the moments in-between.” I need that reminder. Thanks.

    Like

  17. A few months ago Mezmur’s two best friends were having a play date without her. One of her best friends told her other best friend, “Let’s hate Mezmur because she is brown.” It’s a bit of a long story how it played out after that, but what it comes down to is…it took this incident for these parents to start the conversation. A conversation they should’ve had long ago. It was so painful for me (thankful Mez knew nothing about it) and all I could do was beg this mother to continue talking with her daughter. Mezmur doesn’t play with those girls anymore.

    Like

  18. Many, many years ago, when I was a young girl, I had a devastating event happen in my life that still haunts me today!!
    I have never used those words either, my parents taught us the terrible effect uttering those words to another person would have and I strove to never say them, ever!!
    One day at school, our class was walking en masse to another area of the school, single file down the stairs, (my best friend), me, and another girl behind me, and so on. You know the noise a class of grade 5 kids can make, laughing and joking, when I felt the head of the girl behind me push past my shoulder and utter this sickening word, into (best friend)’s ear. N…!!! What happened after that has haunted me for the rest of my days and probably always will, even now it causes me so much pain!! My best friend turned to me with tears, and hatred in her eyes, and asked, how could I say that? Well to make a long story short, she did not believe me, nor did my teacher when he was told, and they shunned me, and broke my heart!(I was ten). She never spoke to me again really, but as I got older, and smarter, now with my own ten year old, not saying them is just the beginning of this fight against racism, and oppression, I fight the fights, with courage, now with an ALLY, my son!! My hope is it will cease to exist, in all it form, someday soon!!

    Like

  19. I just wanted to thank you for this post. I am a sporadic reader, and have been catching up on your recent writing (beautiful, thought provoking, stuff. Thank you for sharing it.) I am an elementary teacher who moved from Seattle, where I was working at a very expensive (amazing, wonderful) private school, to Mumbai, where I am working at an international school. I teach first and second grade. I am a blonde white girl, and moving to India has forced me to reconsider a lot of subconscious beliefs. White privilege in India, just like many other things, is way out loud, as is racism. I have a family in my class who dyes their six year old’s hair brown (from black) so he looks less Indian. Half of the (India-born) kids in my class identify themselves as “British” when asked about their roots. Issues of skin color and race have come up a few times in the kids’ conversations, and (as the only white girl in the room, and as their authority figure– a strange position to be in, because it reinforces everything the media is teaching them about white vs. brown) I have been mostly at a loss as to how to deal with them. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot. It’s not a fun thing to confront, but I am grateful to the experience for making me begin to recognize, deal with and even seek out my own ignorance. I really appreciated reading about your experiences. I hope you continue to write these pieces. (And I wish all kids had such thoughtful, reflective parents.)

    Like

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