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Civil Rights Through the Eyes of a Five-Year-Old

by Sierra on January 18, 2010 · 17 comments

in parenting

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!”

Um…

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?

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  • http://legendaryduck.wordpress.com/ Andromeda

    The Medford post office has an enormous mural of the Triangle Trade. (…yes. You read that right.)

    [Reply]

  • dancingwolfgrrl

    Not a blog, but Beverly Tatum's book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? has a nice combination of theory (on both how kids of color and white kids develop racialized identities and ideas about race) and practice (in the form of stories about her own kids and parenting challenges).

    [Reply]

  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    I heard about that – it was part of what sparked our dinner table conversation. That and I was reading Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse, which Martin gave me for Xmas.

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  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    thanks! I just put it on my booklist.

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  • msmsgirl

    This blog blows me away with its analysis, sensitivity, and heart: Peter’s Cross Station (‘where the personal is still political’) – it’s about a lesbian couple and their two kids in an open, transracial adoption, and I find it SO intelligent. Oh! it looks like she blogs at Strollerderby, too. This is one of my fave blogs on race and family living, though.

    Bitch, PhD, though mostly a political blog, is great on race – it has several bloggers who are women of color – and sometimes takes on parenting.

    I’ll try to think of more… this is one of the issues I’ve been reading about on the feminist interwebs for the longest time, starting with the HipMama/GirlMom communities back in the late 90s; they were extremely antiracist and anti-white privilege about parenting and still have a lot of good stuff in the archives.

    This has long been a favorite piece, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” that I just realized makes several points that pertain to parenting and children’s experience of the world.

    Lisa Delpit’s book, The Skin That We Speak, is an academic book about language acquisition in the classroom but does a brilliant job of laying out the mechanisms of what you’re talking about from the Nurture Shock book — how swiftly white and black children internalize white supremacy without anything explicit being said, from toddlerhood. I hear good things about all her other books too.

    Maureen Reddy’s Crossing the Color Line is great, but Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World, looks fabulous. I’m going to buy it.

    I have no idea if you already know about any/all of this stuff! *Love* Tell My Horse and Hurston!

    [Reply]

  • unalmas

    Here are some things to look at:

    An excellent publisher: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/

    I found a lot of excellent materials at Food For Thought in Amherst: http://www.foodforthoughtbooks.com/

    Around here, I bet that visiting Lucy Parsons center would get you some good info: http://lucyparsons.org/

    Multicultural education: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activitya

    In particular, you can use this page of quizzes as a great starting point for discussion: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/quizzes.html

    Peggy McIntosh's white privilege checklist is also an excellent place to start. Here's an activity based on that list:

    Life analysis (based on the questions in McIntosh’s essay): have students make a list of ten things they normally do during the week. Then have them imagine that they woke up one day to find that their “race” had changed to [fill in the blank]. Going through their lists, students should analyze how each thing might be different for them were their “race” different. Would they be able to go to such places, talk to such people, enjoy such events, etc.? Would they feel comfortable doing so? What would be the chances that people of that race would be found doing these things in these places in these ways? What other things might they be doing instead? What real differences, in other words, does “race” make each day in our lives.

    Make sure that you take time to discuss media representation. Do their books have only white kids and experiences from dominant culture? Have them look for other examples with you and discuss how underrepresented people might feel to never see themselves represented. That worked really well for us.

    We have had a great deal of discussion around gender which led right into race. It was easy for Simone to understand why my body was different from other people's and why it made it easy for people to make me feel bad. It's really REALLY hard for us to find safe bathrooms when we go out – you never think of how difficult it is for a gender variant person to pee with a little girl in tow, but it certainly opens up great discussion topics if it's something that happens in your family. It was pretty easy to extend that into race, as another thing which is visible that people use to categorize, even in the absence of other knowledge. If the gender thing would help, feel free to use me as an example. :)

    [Reply]

  • Nica

    this is a good blog resource:
    http://loveisntenough.com/

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  • msmsgirl

    Huh, I wrote you a long comment but I think it got lost. It basically said that one of my favorite blogs about race and family living is the personal blog of one of the other babble bloggers, Peter's Cross Station ('where the personal is still political') (http://www.lilysea.blogs.com/) – it's a really intelligent and compassionate blog about a family of two moms and two kids that formed through trans-racial open adoption, and I've found some of her takes on race and child socialization really eye-opening.

    I also wrote that in the intro to Lisa Delpit's book, The Skin That We Speak, she lays out some great research into that Nurture Shock thing you mention, namely how fast white and black children often internalize white supremacy without any explicit info at all, in toddlerhood.

    I second the Peggy McIntosh essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – it has long been a favorite but I never realized till I looked at it anew that it has several items about children and families.

    I love this thread; great resources!

    [Reply]

  • malwart

    While I commend your commitment to anti bias education, 5 seems awfully young to be discussing issues of Imperialism. Maybe you should just chill out on dealing with us and them issues until your daughter is a bit older. Let her be a child, with child like concerns. The enslavement of people is impossible for a 5 year old to cognitively compartmentalize into a safe place.
    I believe that if you want your child to save the world, you have to teach them first that it is a place full of love and not fear. There are many, many years ahead for her to be politically active.

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  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    woah – yes! I guess I wasn't clear enough in the post on this point, but I was not happy with the way this topic came up or how I responded to it.

    She overheard an adult conversation and started asking questions. When she asks difficult questions about sex or gender, I can usually field them pretty well because I know where I stand on those issues and I have a pretty broad knowledge of them, plus a good grasp on what she can get her head around developmentally.

    When it comes to race, I am clueless enough myself that I'm ill-equipped to respond gracefully to her questions. I hope I'll be able to handle it better next time it comes up after reading all the great resources the other commenters offered.

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  • Sarah

    Try also Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children. I talk to Charlie about all he loses a white boy when people are treated unfairly but I also explain that if he messes around when he's with his non-white friends, there is a good chance that they'll get in more trouble than he will and it's his responsibility to be aware of that, act accordingly and call out things that aren't fair. Witness his first day of kindergarten when he came home and asked me “Why do all the brown kids get sent to the principal's office and the rest of the kids just get told to be quiet?”

    I told him that was an excellent question for him to share with his teacher and the principal! We're in for a great ride in this public school adventure.

    [Reply]

  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    That's an *awesome* story. Rio has been throbbing with big questions lately. Thanks for the resource tip on how to deal with some of these ones!

    [Reply]

  • Sarah

    Try also Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children. I talk to Charlie about all he loses a white boy when people are treated unfairly but I also explain that if he messes around when he's with his non-white friends, there is a good chance that they'll get in more trouble than he will and it's his responsibility to be aware of that, act accordingly and call out things that aren't fair. Witness his first day of kindergarten when he came home and asked me “Why do all the brown kids get sent to the principal's office and the rest of the kids just get told to be quiet?”

    I told him that was an excellent question for him to share with his teacher and the principal! We're in for a great ride in this public school adventure.

    [Reply]

  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    That's an *awesome* story. Rio has been throbbing with big questions lately. Thanks for the resource tip on how to deal with some of these ones!

    [Reply]

  • Sarah

    Try also Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children. I talk to Charlie about all he loses a white boy when people are treated unfairly but I also explain that if he messes around when he's with his non-white friends, there is a good chance that they'll get in more trouble than he will and it's his responsibility to be aware of that, act accordingly and call out things that aren't fair. Witness his first day of kindergarten when he came home and asked me “Why do all the brown kids get sent to the principal's office and the rest of the kids just get told to be quiet?”

    I told him that was an excellent question for him to share with his teacher and the principal! We're in for a great ride in this public school adventure.

    [Reply]

  • http://childwild.com Sierra

    That's an *awesome* story. Rio has been throbbing with big questions lately. Thanks for the resource tip on how to deal with some of these ones!

    [Reply]

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