Rio’s kindergarten class at the Eliot-Pearson School has been discussing Civil Rights. At least, I assume so, because I don’t know what else could account for the strange mash-up of Civil Rights and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs that’s been coming out of her mouth all week.
“Do you know what, Serena? Dark people and light people used to not be allowed to go to the same school, and now they are! It’s all thanks to the president, who squashed…er…ate squash!”
She’s also been coming out with some less adorable ideas about race. The other night at dinner, after the kids ran off to play, Martin and I were talking about the Triangle Trade and it’s legacy of poverty (this was the night before the earthquake, eerily enough). Rio came in and started asking questions.
I haltingly explained that people used to claim that they could own other people, and that when they tried to own people they would hurt them a lot. We talked about how enslaved people could have their families broken up, could be hit by the people they worked for and often didn’t have good homes or medical care or enough to eat.
Because she’d been listening in on my talk with Martin about how slavery was displaced by economic imperialism and systemic racism and poverty, we also tried to explain that people of color in the United States today often don’t have as much money or safety or education as people with light skin, even though the laws have been changed to say everyone should be treated the same. Rio, not surprisingly, was glad to learn that all this bad stuff happens to Other People.
Rio: I’m glad I’m white, then! And that we have More Money. And Mommy is white. And you’re white Daddy (he’s from Latin America, which makes that question complicated, but that’s another story.)
Me (dies inside my head): Well, it’s not fair that people are treated differently because their skin is a different color.
Rio: That’s wrong!
Me: Yes. I hope in your life you’ll work to change it. I do.
Rio: Well, I am working to not give the earth a fever from too many cars. We moved here, and we take our bike trailer instead of the car to go places, and I don’t waste stuff. Those black people (by which she means our Haitian neighbors) are not doing that. I see them driving around in their car all the time.
Me (lamely): We have a car too, you know. I’m sure they’re doing everything we are to help the earth.
Clearly, I am out of my league on this one. I’ve been watching my kid gradually absorb racism from the world around her for a few years now and not done much to stop it.
When we first moved to this neighborhood, she was 4. Our neighborhood is pretty white by city standards, but is much more diverse than the picket-fence suburb we used to live in. It quickly became obvious that when we arrive at a playground and she’s confronted by a large group of black children, she shies away. My response: write a blog post about it and then don’t publish said post because I am a privileged white woman and when it comes to issues of race, I am pretty sure its not my turn to talk.
Then NurtureShock came out. I haven’t read this book yet; I’m really looking forward to it, it just hasn’t risen to the top of my stack. But the excerpt on race in Newsweek really captured my attention. Essentially, it said, “Everything you are doing is wrong. Your white, liberal assumption that you can combat racism by raising your kids to be colorblind and ignore race will breed insidious racial prejudice that no one has any language to talk about. TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT RACE.”
Unhelpfully, it didn’t exactly give a lot of tips about what I should say.
My daughter’s school has an anti-bias curriculum – see also, “The President squashed…um…ate squash..those rules…um”. Sometimes they send home articles for parents to read, and I read them. I talk about them with my husband. But I have No Idea how to have these conversations with my kid.
Unlike talking about sex and god, I don’t even know what I think. I think race is scary, and its one of the few areas of privilege where I’m clearly on the unfair advantage end by an accident of birth. A lifetime of education and reading and experience has not prepared me to talk to my kid about that in a way that might help her grow up different. Where by different I mean, “Not able to count her African-American friends on the fingers of one hand” and “Able to talk in complete sentences about race and ethnicity to anyone who asks her about it”. For starters.
For the moment, I’m going to award myself one shiny gold star for trying to talk to her about it at all and one for finally writing something about it here.
And then I’m going to shut up and listen. Any awesome blogs that deal with race+parenting I should be reading?