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Let’s Talk About Race

October 15, 2009


When I was young, my family lived in North Carolina; not the deepest of the American South (my Georgia cousins called us “Yankees”), but still the South. This was the early/mid 1970’s, and although I was absolutely not aware of it at the time, it was only a few years after the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s. I say I was unaware, because it was something my parents never talked about. I had to put my own life into context when I finally learned a little history, many years later. My experience was different than a lot of other white children at the time: we lived in a very integrated neighborhood.

When we first moved into the house on Sundown Drive, I was still reeling from leaving behind friends in Germany. It was the summer before 1st grade and I was at an age where I suffered a bout of shyness, but I needed to find some friends. One day, my father saw a little girl playing on a rocking horse in the carport of the house across the street. She looked to be just about my age; so he grabbed me by the hand, marched me across the street, knocked on the kitchen door and introduced me to the girl and her mother. Then he left for work. Evelyn quickly became my best friend, and it never mattered to either of us that she was black and I white. We liked all the same things, and she was a valuable source of hipness for me, because she had two older brothers. (I was listening to Prince in the 70’s!)

Most of the visceral memories I have of my childhood involve Evelyn in some way. I can still hear the sound of her mother’s ring clicking on every notch of the steering wheel as she let it spin freely through her fingers every time she made a turn in her big, green, wood-paneled Buick wagon. These memories endure: dancing and singing, pretending we were Donny & Marie or the Jackson 5; the annual Christmas pageant I produced, always casting Evelyn as the virgin Mary, draped with a blue towel over her head, and a Baby Alive doll standing in for baby Jesus; the time my dad didn’t know she was over and waltzed into the family room naked (so I might have other issues…)

Donny & Marie, circa 1978

Donny & Marie, circa 1978

She was just as affected by the white-washed pop culture of the 70’s as I, maybe more so: she’s the one that was the huge Donny & Marie fan. It occasionally seemed wrong, as we got a little older, that all the Barbies looked like me, with white skin and blond hair,and none looked like her. Still, she didn’t seem to care and I didn’t think anything of spending an afternoon patiently waiting as her mother plaited her hair. My point is, we were young kids, we were friends, we knew we weren’t exactly alike and it didn’t matter.

Then one day towards the end of 6th grade, I went over to Evelyn’s house after school; standing on the carport at that same kitchen door where we first met she told me that I needed to find more white friends. It seems her oldest brother, now a senior in high school, had sat her down for a little talk. He told her that when we started Junior High the next fall, we would need to stick with our own kind: that blacks & whites didn’t mix after elementary school. I was devastated. She said we could still be friends at home, but should find other people to walk to school and eat lunch with.

Don’t worry, I was okay. I already had plenty of white friends, so I spent the rest of 6th grade and the intervening summer cultivating those friendships, plus one with a black girl new to the neighborhood that was fortunate enough not to have an older brother. As you may have guessed, Evelyn and I did not continue to be friends at home.

Still, you might also be able to tell that, although this was nearly 30 years ago, it still brings tears to my eyes to relive it here. It was awful, and I was furious: at her, at her brother, and at this stupid world I just didn’t understand. This is why, to this day, I am massively offended by anything I perceive as racist. I feel I’ve been a victim, not of “reverse racism” that so many seem to want to claim these days, and not of overt racism towards me in particular, but of a society that allowed racism to fester and the damage that leaves behind.

Before you start in, I am well aware of two things: 1)what I experienced can in no way be compared to what an actual minority faced with overt racism has to deal with; and 2)this was 30 years ago, and many things have changed. This is just my personal history. One little story out of millions. But, then, this is my blog, so…

I am now a mother, and am determined that my child grow up without prejudice. Politics aside, on election night  tears were streaming down my face because I knew my daughter would grow up not thinking that a black man as President is anything unusual. That made/makes me so happy and proud of my country. (Now if she can just think the same about a woman…but that’s another story.) In fact, the only problem is that we live in Orange County, CA where there are very few African-Americans, so any time she sees a black man in a suit, she thinks it’s Barack Obama.  And, yeah, that’s a little bit funny, but it also makes me worry.

To my knowledge, of the 200+ children at my daughter’s school, there is one African-American girl, and even she has a white mother. I was mortified one day when I heard my daughter tell the other girl that she’s “chocolate.”  But I had to take a step back and realize that these are 4 year olds. It’s an age where they are compelled to label things, people included, as a way of learning about, and exercising some control over their world. There I was, faced with the same problem that trips up millions of progressive white parents: what do you say about race?

Many of us choose to say nothing. That’s certainly what my parents decided, and it’s understandable considering the discomfort they must have felt following the tumult of the civil rights years. Today, I think most of us just issue some blanket platitude that “everyone’s the same on the inside” or “we’re all equal” and try to ignore racial differences as much as possible, hoping that the children will do so, as well. We tend to think that if we talk about race, we’ll simply draw attention to differences we don’t want to emphasize. We all want our children to be “color-blind”, don’t we?

NurtureShock4So what’s a parent to do? I recently picked up a copy of the book NurtureShock, which I have raved about and reviewed  in other forums. If you’re a teacher or parent you should do yourself a favor and give it a read. Very challenging,  thought-provoking, science-based stuff on child development. (The central premise being that most of our current strategies for nurturing children are backfiring.) More to the point of this piece, chapter three is entitled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” Talk about an eye-opener.

I wouldn’t want to summarize the entire piece here;  but basically, we don’t talk about it for the very reasons I mentioned above.  Let me share my take-aways:

  1. Children’s attitudes about race can be dramatically effected by their parents talking frankly and often about race
  2. General statements such as, “we’re all the same under the skin” are too vague to be effective
  3. When children learn about historical discrimination, it impacts them by appealing to their innate sense of fairness
  4. Placing your child in a diverse environment and expecting them to ignore race and naturally integrate does not work
  5. It is natural for children, at a very young age, to see racial differences (it’s as obvious as gender.) It is also natural that children of all ages are prone to group favoritism. Belonging to a group is important; and they like people that are like themselves.
  6. Minority children warned too much about possible future discrimination will tend to blame teachers, etc. for failure rather than their own efforts
  7. Minority children taught ethnic pride are more successful and attribute failure or success to their own efforts, thus developing self confidence
  8. White children do not need to be taught ethnic pride because they are naturally able to decipher that they belong to a race with more wealth and power in society
  9. Children left to their own devices, especially as they get older, tend to segregate themselves. In fact, the most diverse schools have the most fractured cliques based on race.
Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama

Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama

The up-shot of all this is that parents have to talk openly and explicitly about race with children, starting as young as age three. That is, of course, if their goal is a child that not only has an understanding of racial equality, but also has a diverse group of friends. I believe this is something to strive for.

Armed with this information, I look at my daughter’s school, and it’s a little odd. The school is probably 50% white, 40% Asian, 5% Latino, 5% Middle Eastern or other. But half of the kids in her class are mixed-race. My daughter’s best friend has a Japanese mother and white father, another is Latino/Asian, etc. So maybe if the differences are harder to really see that’s a good thing? I don’t know, but we talked today about Mr. Obama’s significance in terms of race. She was floored that such a thing was ever an issue. We looked at pictures of Michelle and the girls – and she wants Malia’s hair! What a change.

She’s four, so I’ve got a lot of years of talking to do. For the record, I long ago forgave Evelyn. Neither of us had parents that talked about race. Finally, her brother did the talking and he spoke from his own experience. I just hope that we keep the dialogue alive so that it is the experience of fewer and fewer people through the years.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2009 9:17 am

    What a fantastic post! The thing that really resonated with me was WHY you cried on election night, knowing that your kid would never understand why a black president was a big deal. As a black man, I had the same reaction. My daughter, who was 4 at the time, will never think that a black man cannot become President of the United States. Talk about empowering! Actually, I have little doubt that by the time she is an adult, we will have had a female President also.

    I am still on a fence about how much we should talk about race with our children. It seems we send mixed signals when we say on the one hand, racial discrimination is absurd … people are people but then on the other hand, we don’t shut up about it. In fact, the actor Morgan Freeman really stopped “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace in his tracks when he said the best way to deal with race is to stop talking about it.

    • October 20, 2009 9:28 pm

      The sad truth is that, given our uncomfortable past with regards to race,we are stopped from having natural conversations with our kids about one of the most obvious of the myriad ways people differ. Thanks for your input & the clip.

  2. ghettoblackify permalink
    October 16, 2009 12:04 am

    interesting post !

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