1. Look back and examine how your racial attitudes were formed. Maybe you are an oldster like me and you remember Senor Wences or Speedy Gonzales and you didn’t realize these caricatures shaped how you see people. You also grew up loving What’s Happening, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Sammy Davis, Jr., The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jimi Hendrix.
But you also went to a small school where there were only two black girls in your class, who you never spoke to, because it was simply easier and more comfortable not to mix. Now you wonder what school must have been like for those two invisible girls.
2. In school you learn about the Civil War and the Holocaust and you learn slavery and anti-semitism are clearly big and evil and wrong. But you also hear someone say at dinner, “Blacks just aren’t as smart as whites.”
You feel that this is a strange thing for a kid’s dad to say, but since your parents don’t say anything, you don’t either. But in the car on the way home, your parents tell you, like it’s a secret, that the man was wrong, and that all people are equal. And that’s that. Even though you don’t really know what equality means.
3. But you can’t even imagine dating someone Hispanic because they are poor, uneducated, lazy and drink a lot. You know this because of Speedy Gonzales and Slowpoke Rodriguez. Or you are told to lock the car doors because you are driving through a bad (predominantly black) part of town. Or people impersonate black people or people with accents and you laugh, even though it feels wrong. But it also makes you feel a little better about how powerless you might feel. You might be poor, weak and scared but at least you aren’t black or brown or have an accent.
4. Then you go to college, move to the city, and make friends, and your world view expands as you get to know people of other cultures, races, and gender preferences. You still fear saying something offensive or stupid, so you don’t interact as easily as you do with white people, where there is some kind of easy code, where if you make a cultural generalization, you all laugh because you know it’s just a joke and you aren’t really racist, because you are creative and liberal and evolved.
5. Then someone (maybe even your father) mocks your gay friend. And it bothers you enough to defend your friend. This is the beginning of learning to understand the rushed concept of equality that your parents told you about in secret in order to not offend the racist dad. And you use this newfound sense of injustice to defend your gay friend and gay people everywhere. You watch (and join) protests for gay rights. You realize that progress and equality and allowing people to be different scares a lot of people who just want everyone to act the same and be the same. But when you hear a relative ask, while watching a black person on TV, ‘Why do they have to talk like that?’ you say nothing.
6. Then you get cast in a mixed race play- and on day one, all the white and black actors sit down, at opposite ends of the table. Everyone recognizes this instantly and chagrined, everyone works hard to integrate. Everyone really loves and respects everyone else but the patterns of silent segregation are deeply entrenched. You don’t even realize when you are planning your first wedding that while you invite the white actors, you don’t invite the black actors, because you reason, we really aren’t all that close, right? But the door was there and you failed to open it.
7. Now you are older. You finally meet your life partner. But you can’t make a baby together. You enter the foster system and start taking MAPP classes. The brilliant, hard working instructor, who is black, leads you and a class of black, white, Hispanic and mixed race people. The classes teach you almost more about white privilege than they do about fostering a child. The white people are constantly raising their hands to answer questions. The instructor urges the people of color to take a stab at an answer and you do too. You know they know the answer but feel inferior in some way- maybe they feel less educated. You know everyone in this room is as smart as everyone else, but you sense the disadvantage. You stop raising your hand in an attempt to level the playing field. But that also feels wrong. Is this evidence of white privilege? It feels like it.
8. Your child is black. Her birth family’s reality exposes you to at-risk black life where there is no safety net. You stay close to your child’s birth mother and learn how hard it is to succeed when the deck feels stacked against you in the face of financial, medical, educational and legal institutions. You watch this woman try to do the right thing for her family. Her struggle becomes personal. Then Trayvon Martin is shot and George Zimmerman is set free. You begin to learn how much you don’t know.
9. While your baby sleeps you read Nurture Shock to learn about how to not fuck up your kid. Chapter 3 rocks your world. Chapter 3 is “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”.
Studies indicate that white parents are uncomfortable discussing race with their kids in an attempt to raise their child to be color-blind.
“We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair are plainly visible… Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color to segregate on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors.”
But families of color discuss racism with their children as early as three, because they have to prepare them for discrimination, slurs and worse. Look at it this way- if you have a daughter, you instill in her the belief that she can be anything, a doctor, lawyer, President of the United States, right? That’s the same way to discuss skin color and race.
The studies clearly indicate that if white parents don’t talk with their children about race, the kids will learn it on their own, and quite possibly not from credible or empathetic sources. And the earlier the better. By third grade children have pretty much self-segregated based on looks.
10. When you do have the race chat, and you discuss how so-and-so has different color skin, comes from a different culture, a different faith, a different language with different food, you emphasize how we are all the same on the inside and we are all people who deserve love and respect. But go one step further and ask your kid questions. Make it an on-going dialogue, because as your children grow, so does their comprehension of what is happening around them. See it as your opportunity to grow a compassionate citizen of the world.
10. At the park or playground or through preschool, you make black friends, and you learn to really listen. You learn to not say things like “You’re so articulate!” to a black woman because she hears the silent “For a black person” at the end of the sentence. You learn to not tell black people how much better it is nowadays then when you were young. That doesn’t help black lives right now. Your Jewish friends hopefully learn to not say, “We know all about civil rights. We know about suffering and prejudice.” Believe me, it’s different when you are judged just by turning a street corner.
PS: And you brace yourself for the day you have to explain racism to your tiny, shining, bright, life- and love-hungry three year old daughter.