January 18, 2013

Awkward race lessons from a white girl

What the world was missing until now: a white middle-class woman's perspective on teaching race relations to her white children. But as awkward as you can imagine this being, the process has been a real one for me.

If you've been living under a rock (or just recently discovered - fortunately for you - this painful blog), my family isn't exactly homogenous, skin-color-wise. We're kind of a mishmash of heritages and varying levels of blood-relations. We've got some Dutch American blood, some Native American blood, some African American blood, some unknown blood; we've got full blood-related siblings, half blood-related siblings, and a sibling who's not even adopted, but a sibling just the same. We're kind of an awesome hot mess.
I told you - awesome.
While some people think what my parents have done is extraordinary, some are horrified to think white parents would adopt black children - white people who can't imagine having to call darker-skinned child son, and black people who are angered by white people hijacking their children's cultural heritage. I get it. It's pretty sticky.

So while the rest of the world is puzzled by our mob of a family when we're out in public - once we were mistaken for a gathered group of Hurricane Katrina survivors (seriously, someone walked up and asked) - inside our family, I, for one, totally forget about the differences in ethnicity 99% of the time. (I realize this probably isn't the same for some of my brothers and sisters - sometimes they are made painfully aware that their parents are white and they themselves are not.)

When it came to discussing these differences when my own kids came along (who are very near the same ages as many of my own siblings), I just, well, didn't. Who knows if I did the right thing. All I know is that when my daughter and son played with my brothers and sisters, they didn't see differences, they just saw aunts and uncles they loved. If they drew Uncle Jack, they'd draw him with brown skin, but they wouldn't think twice about it - Uncle Jack just had brown skin. Just like he had black hair and a stretchy cloth headband always around his middle (with which to carry his foam knife at any given moment...obviously).

I didn't talk about differences - my kids didn't ask. Instead they colored a good portion of their coloring books with brown people. Talk about being a smug, self-satisfied, white lady in a mostly white suburb. Some people around me were telling gay and racist jokes, and here I had parented two color-blind children.

And then Jannika came home from kindergarten this year with a book she'd made of Harriet Tubman in history.
I'm still not sure what to say about the hair...
Me: Uh...what made you choose the black marker?
Jannika, with the slightest edge of "duh" to her voice: Because my teacher said she was black.
Me, with dawning realization: ...Do you think you know any black people?
Jannika, looking at me blankly: Well, no.

Oh my word! What had I done?!?! Possibly still the right thing? I don't know. But obviously it was time to move forward - I sat down and explained for the first time that she actually did know black people, although most were not the color of a pitch black marker. I talked briefly and vaguely about slavery - hence the importance of Harriet Tubman - but I didn't want to bog her down with the guilt of white people's sins of the past. More importantly, I didn't want her looking at her friends and family and relating them to slaves.

I tell you, it's sticky. (For a white person. Living not even remotely under the shadow and aftereffects of slavery. I realize how awkward of a viewpoint this is.)

The past two weeks Jannika has added Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. books to her "important people in American history" collection for school, and we've talked more deeply about their contributions to history. Now I'm beating myself up because we're walking the fine line of "melting pot" vs. "vegetable soup" - her gushy announcement of "It doesn't matter what you look like - it's what's inside that counts!" was like a home run but also a foul ball. Am I teaching the wrong thing again? Cultural pride is important. Heck, I love almond banket, Wilhelmina Peppermints, and coupons as much as any hearty-blooded Dutch person does. (I know I'll incite some Dutch anger at my stereotypes here, I'm sure - go ahead, throw some wooden shoes at me. I deserve it.)

I decided to leave it alone. Then Jannika told me how they made hands at school that were holding each other in friendship - one with a lighter tan paper, one with a darker brown paper. The light tan hand she said was her own, and the brown one was her Aunt Keera's - she had wanted to do Aunt Jillian's, but Aunt Jillian wasn't black. (This is Aunt Jillian who is half black and half white.) I left that one alone, too. We'll get to that hurdle later.

So basically this whole post boils down to me stressing that I'm totally botching it all up.

Come Monday, many people will be "celebrating" Robert E. Lee's birthday instead of Martin Luther King Jr.'s contribution to history. Yes, that really is a something - welcome to south of the Mason-Dixon line. Don't even get me started. I don't know what I'll be doing with the kids on their day off, but it'll probably involve making a paper chain of colorful people and talking about evaluating others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Is this overboard? I don't know. I don't think so? It's a value I want to instill in my children - if I don't talk about it, they'll listen to others who are flat-out WRONG. So maybe I'm doing a super crappy job of it, but at least I'm trying.

I'll end this with a link to video I accidentally took of my brother while we were in a cabin on vacation - if you haven't seen Deep Thoughts by Jack, click HERE. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

First publishing stats 01/18/13