let’s talk about race

If you’re anything like me, race is one of those subjects that feels intimidating.

If it comes up in conversation I can feel myself tiptoeing around it like a land mine, afraid of unintentionally offending, afraid of showing my ignorance, afraid of not knowing the right words, even, to talk about race in any kind of informed way. I know there is much I don’t comprehend, a myriad hidden assumptions I’ve never before recognized, yet avoiding wrongs can feel like trying not to step on the toes of a ghost. How can I avoid what I can’t see?

Ludovici, Charles Albert, 1820-1894; A London Fog

For many of us who are white, we may vaguely sense that to talk about race at all is in some way racist. We’ve heard aphorisms such as, “there’s only one race: the human race,” in which case, isn’t it best to simply erase race from the conversation? In any case, keeping silent seems like a no harm done approach, and the consequences of misspeaking — well! — things can blow up very quickly in this age of social media.

Today, however, as part of Black History Month, I’d like to talk a bit about race, focusing mainly on black-white relationships in the U.S. That’s a mammoth, complex subject, and one in which I am only a humble, entry-level learner. I feel quite inadequate for this, but I’d like to chew on a couple of ideas with you, keeping in mind that I am writing from a white perspective and particularly addressing my predominantly white readership.

First, I’d like to consider how keeping quiet about racial issues with our kids is actually a potent form of communication. And second, I want to look at the precarious notion of color-blindness. I am not intending to deal with racism, per se, but rather to suggest proactive stances and conversations we might have with young children — especially white children — who need to hear race spoken of positively rather than only reactively when difficulties and tensions flare.

from Pecan Pie Baby Sophie Blackall

Tomorrow I’ll follow up with some book suggestions by authors and illustrators of color that help us do this very thing — talk about race with young children. These books model helpful words, shine a light on hurts that have been hidden from our eyes in the white community, help us grow in our ability to live peaceably, lovingly, in our wonderfully diverse world. I’ll also have a number of links to helpful blogs and articles.

Is silence silent?

For those of us who are white, it’s possible for racial issues to never or rarely come up in our households. This is entirely the opposite experience of those who grow up in  households of color. Yet far from improving things, avoiding or squelching conversations about race is unhelpful for our children and for progress in racial harmony, as uncertain and bumbling as those conversations may be.

It helps, I think, to ponder what silence on any given topic conveys to children, whether that’s silence about matters of faith, for example, or a painful issue such as addiction or divorce within one’s family, or a large-scale national issue they overhear adults talking about — school shootings, for example — but that is never addressed directly with them.

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I can think of three flawed responses on the part of children to those silences.

1) They remain unaware of the existence of the matter, thus developing a skewed view of reality.
Clearly on some matters, we may choose to protect young children through silence; we don’t need to tell them all the woes of the world. But young children can be left oblivious about important matters — climate change, homelessness, hurtful language; just completely off their radar screens.
This knowledge gap can persist into adulthood, depending on their community. A study last year reported that twenty-two percent of millennials polled “said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.” Two-thirds did not know what Auschwitz was. Critically important matters which ought to impact our understanding of the world, like matters of race, can be effectively disappeared if not spoken of.

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2) They infer the subject does not matter. It is not important enough to talk about.
They’re vaguely aware of it, but reckon it insignificant.
In a helpful article written for the National Association of Independent Schools, “What White Children Need to Know About Race,” the authors explain how ignoring race, in an attempt to convey our lack of racism, backfires in reality:

“While white parents’ intention is to convey to their children the belief that race shouldn’t matter, the message their children receive is that race, in fact, doesn’t matter. The intent and aim are noble, but in order for race not to matter in the long run, we have to acknowledge that, currently, it does matter a great deal.”

The absence of racially diverse characters in our books also conveys the inconsequential nature of this portion of our society. “The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn’t matter, who’s human and who isn’t human,” writes author and Professor of English, Philip Nelson. “A story doesn’t have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people — omission tells us that these groups of people are not important.”
If racial harmony and equity matters to us, we need to let our children know that.

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3)They sense that the topic is frightening, too big or dark to speak of.
It looms in the background, a blurry-edged threat. When adults clamp down or button up about subjects a child has overheard or experienced  — 9/11, a parent’s depression, the death of a grandparent —  it conveys a deep foreboding. Thus the whole matter of race can acquire a heavily negative connotation. “This is something we don’t talk about.”

Silence is a tool in a parent’s tool belt, for sure. There are moments and circumstances in which at least a temporary silence can be wise. I do think that it is tricky for us as parents, however, to recognize areas in which we are unwittingly silent, or topics from which we actually hide via silence, which then impact our children in counterproductive ways.

Color Vision

When we do talk about race, the problematic position of “color-blindness” crops up.

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Last fall my husband and I went to the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis to see a fabulous performance of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. One of the emotionally-pivotal moments of that play is a heated conversation between John Prentice, the young African- American medical wunderkind, and his father, an older, blue-collar worker adamantly opposed to his son’s intended, interracial marriage.
“You think of yourself as a colored man; I think of myself as a man,” John contends with emotion. It’s a moment the audience applauds, an expression of the color-blind mindset advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others at the height of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, the hope for a society where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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Seen in this light, the dream of a colorblind society is a good one, in which barriers, stereotypes, prejudices, laws based on the color of skin are removed and we view one another as equals, where race is not a source of division and hatred, where humanity functions as a harmonious whole, in which the dignity of personhood is preeminent. For MLK and others, to be color blind was to be not-bigoted, not a segregationist. This is the positive spin on the notion of color blindness, and this slant on the concept is a worthy ideal.

Yet when misapplied, that concept disregards other realities; the side-effects, as it were, of a shallow notion of colorblindness have rendered it an inadequate paradigm for racial understanding for at least a couple of reasons.

First, because racial identity, specifically black racial identity, ought to carry positive associations, rather than seeming to be automatically negative.

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Therefore, it should not be dismissed, but celebrated.
Just as I feel an ownership, a kindred spirit, a joy in my Swedish ancestors, for example, or you might with your soccer team, or your rugged New England spirit, or connection with a community of faith or runners or Star Wars nerds, all pieces that make us who we are, so too our race is a positive aspect of our identity. Not a source of superiority, yet not an aspect to be erased, to be blind towards.
Racial identity contains deep-seated elements of culture that must not be diminished or disregarded as though they were an embarrassment, a triviality, a liability. For each of us, our personal history is profoundly shaped by the history of our race. To say that a person’s skin color does not matter, to strive to be blind to it, is to negate a phenomenally important element of who s/he is.
I think if John Prentice were speaking today rather than in 1967, he would not express himself in the same way. Rather than deny his racial identity, I think he would assert his value as a black man.

Second, color blindness is an inadequate position for whites to take because race is certainly not a non-issue.

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Most white Americans, it’s true, never consider skin color when going about their day to day lives. It may feel to us who are white that race is a non-issue, that we approach a color-blind society currently.  The reality is, though, that this is an example of our white privilege. It is impossible in our society for a black man to not know himself as a black man; for a black woman to not know herself as a black woman. Race is not an extinct construct and it seriously impacts the lives of black persons every day. Structural racism in particular has and continues to negatively impact our black communities.
To assume a narrative of colorblindness rather than acknowledge the racial conflicts and injustices on-going in the U.S. is to disregard critical issues.

Black is beautiful

Rather than being color-blind or race-negating or racially-unaware, then, and certainly rather than being color-suspicious or feeling racially-superior, I think we must aim to be color-aware and racially-positive.

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White parents can help their children understand the injustices faced by people of color — be color-aware — and recognize the beauty of racial differences — be racially-positive. Many black history titles and increasingly middle-grade novels address the former. Tomorrow, I’ll have books tackling the latter, extolling the loveliness of all the different colors of us. Several of tomorrow’s books help us consider skin color as “only” one piece of who we are, lowering the degree of difference between us. The majority focus on the beauty of the black body, affirming the image children of color see in the mirror.

For too long, black bodies and black skin have been viewed with prejudice and animosity, not just by whites, but tragically, by blacks as well.
There is an anti-black bias especially in white children, but significantly in black children as well. The hatred and dehumanization experienced by black Americans since their horrific enslaved beginnings in our society have planted seeds of shame in the psyche of countless precious black boys and girls.

For me, with my interest in children’s literature, it has been eye-opening, sorrowful, and challenging to learn more about how this bias translates into children’s books.
From the historic reluctance to feature a black face predominantly on the cover of a book, to the limited roles black characters play in our stories, this silence, this absence, is deeply troubling. It is one of the factors I am aware of as I choose books for Orange Marmalade, trying to put a diverse cast of lovely people before you and your children, to broaden our awareness of the good, multiracial nature of our world.

from Pie is for Sharing illustration Jason Chin

In a helpful article written for the New York Times, author Natasha Tarpley reflects on the complexities surrounding depictions, vocabulary, and perspectives on black hair as well as skin, including disagreements within the black community. The overarching takeaway for me is a scorched sense of astonishment and deep sadness that insecurities, humiliation, shame, and extreme negative responses to hair and hairstyles have and continue to impact an entire race of people. Truly the human tendency to sort and rank ourselves, despising some and affirming others on the basis of utterly inconsequential matters, is diabolical.

As white readers, we need to be aware of these realities, to draw our children’s attention to the beauty of all races, to celebrate the affirmation received by black children when their beautiful faces appear front and center in our kids’ books, to again and again unseat our indifference and naiveté and expand our empathy for and honor of our black neighbors.

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Growth in understanding across races and cultures is a messy business demanding forgiveness and tolerance and patience on all sides. That is the story of the human condition, isn’t it? It is not a tidy business but one full of snares and hurt, fits and starts, inching progress and disheartening backward slides. These musings of mine today are a tiny drop in the bucket and come from a place of sheltered ease in my white world. I am not speaking from any position of authority but as a fellow sojourner in this slow, stumbling walk towards a more honest heart, a more gracious understanding, a greater inclination to listen, a more peaceful world.

Join me tomorrow for a list of picture books addressing race and on Thursday for book suggestions which simply feature characters of color without any reference to race.