Saturday, February 27, 2010

Explicit discussions about racism

Our Little Tongginator has a post about her daughter's experience with racism in kindergarten. Grown In My Heart is having an Adoption Carnival called "The Racism Rainbow." This post is for that carnival.

There's a book called Nutureshock that came out recently and has become a topic of conversation in parenting blogs and adoption blogs. I've never read the book, but apparently the book discusses a study that disproves the popular idea that if parents avoid the topic of race with their children, the children will not learn to be racist. This tack apparently does not work. It's not even enough to expose the child to bland primary school multicultural lessons or passing positive remarks about people of other races on TV - without explicit dialogue, children will become racist.

A shocking idea, especially because the colorblind avoidance approach was so appealing, and made so much sense.

That image the parents were imagining when they decided not to expose their children to racial issues, though... that was me.

I've often tried to give my parents credit for my fascination with multiculturalism and multiracism, but it wasn't their doing really. It's in my nature or something. I get a deer in the headlights look whenever race comes up in a racial tensions context. I reveled in being a racial minority in Jersey City - and I'd do it again in an instant. I may be a little guilty of glamorizing the idea of nonwhite existence, but I feel the pain too. Civil War history books make me cry. Actually, many history books make me cry, yet I devour them.

I even remember the moment I realized that I was out of sync and didn't get it. I was 21 and it was outside a hotel in Maryland. Over a decade later, it occurred to me that I should have retorted, "Not racist - SEXIST! AND PROUD!" (it wasn't sexism either; it was a newly fierce independent streak. But that would've been a snappy comeback.)

I'm sorry. I never can seem to go along with social realities. I'm white, and I'll always be white, and I'll never get away with pretending I'm anything but white. However, in my own way I've also been on the fringes of society, and that's the part of racism that totally sings to me.

I love the fringes. They hurt to belong to, but they're home. In the fringes, you can't spend your time looking for people who are just like you, because there aren't any. So you learn to love people whose primary similarity to you is that they are also in the fringes.

I plan to speak to my son explicitly about race and racism. I'm not saying that my failure to follow Nurtureshock's social experiment means I think the idea is invalid. It's quite valid. Kids negotiate power relationships with each other by nature, and race is an easy format for that. Of course they're going to draw lines by race sometimes.

But I also plan to speak to my son explicitly about every topic relevant to life in the modern world. He will be well-versed in history, philosophy, environmentalism, diversity of thought, Euclidean geometry, cat fostering, grammar and sentence structure, politics, household physics, the importance of rescuing butterflies, personal budgeting, practicing moderation, format-specific storytelling, subsistence gardening, cause and effect, and game theory.

I plan to tell him that he can be not only a recipient but also a giver of racism, and how to recognize and understand the thought processes behind such urges. I can explain to him that the world is much bigger than his classroom, and teach him to think big. I can teach him that the nicest person in the room wins, not the loudest or the meanest, and that tolerance brings a lasting type of social power that bullying can never achieve. Don't just turn the other cheek, but overwhelm your would-be bullies with your total consuming awesomeness.

I can't give him healthy self-esteem, but I can do numerous things to encourage his self-esteem to grow, and I think he'll be quite able to do the rest himself. Because he is awesome, and he knows it deep inside, and if I provide an environment where he's not being crushed all the time, he'll take advantage of his opportunities to thrive.

I've already started explaining the complex ways of the world to him. I continue to learn them myself, and as I learn, so shall he. Now I just need him to become fluent in English so I sound like I'm saying something other than, "Yabba yabba yabba."

Am I afraid I'll do an inadequate job? You betcha. I'm sure I'll miss important lessons left and right, and I'll want to apologize to him every day for it. But it can't be helped. The best I can do is keep talking, keep resisting the urge to censor his world or pretty it up, keep trusting that he's listening and that he'll sort it all out.

There's a song by Voltaire called "Goodnight Demonslayer"... here's a link to the Youtube's about a father telling his son to stand up to the imaginary monsters beneath his bed. I'm just going to post the last verse of the lyrics, because I think it's relevant.

Goodnight demon slayer, goodnight

Now its time to close your tired eyes

There are devils to slay and dragons to ride

If they see you coming, hell they better hide

I won't tell you, there's nothing 'neath your bed

I won't tell you, that it's all in your head

This world of ours is not as it seems

The monsters are real but they're not in your dreams

Learn what you can from the beasts you defeat,

you'll need it for some of the people you'll meet.


  1. Hey! Nurtureshock's a great book, actually--but I think you got them backwards. The goal of the chapter was to encourage people--or at least support--in having exactly the explicit discussions you're talking about. The deal was, the differences are obvious. Not talking about it apparently allows kids to go, well, he's brown, and I'm kinda yellow, and OBVIOUSLY we're different, and then generalize from there--if he's shy, then all brown people are maybe shy, if he's a janitor, then maybe all brown people are janitors--because that's how kids learn, they make these classifications based on observation and then wait and see how they pan out. So--especially in a school area where there are lots of mulitcultural kids, oddly enough, it's better to actually say, hey, look, he looks different but it's only a color, it's not anything else.
    Apparently it's worse in really multicultural areas because kids at certain ages LIKE to sort themselves out--thus the boy girl thing, too--and they do it by color if there are lots of people of all colors, but if there's only one, they don't. That last part was weird, but I think I kind of get it!
    Glad you're doing well! As for the possibility of round two...good luck!

  2. No, I didn't get it backwards. That was what I thought it said.

    People (kids or otherwise) note differences and make lines and categorizations. It's a bunch of mental survival skills; if we lose the skills entirely, social existence would become insanely difficult. To eradicate racism would be to selectively overcome the habit. That would be very cool.

    But I don't think we'd stop noting differences or making categorizations. I think there's a point at which a choice is made: a child can either note the difference and test it by teasing, bullying, or otherwise stressing the kid who has been identified as different, or the child can note the difference and be positively intrigued.

    You're right - having groups of children of different races is different from having one or two individuals. In my elementary school, there were exactly two black boys. Those boys' white peers tested the boys and were intrigued by them in turns, to varying degrees. They weren't constant victims of racism, nor were they entirely free of it. They were subject to lots of individual decisions made by their individual peers.

    The point of explicit discussions about racism, I guess, is to open a child's mind up to being intrigued in a positive way so that the child sees less need (or no need) for testing, teasing, or bullying.

    Um, I'm not sure where I'm going with this train of thought. Maybe I've already reached my destination.