Years ago, back when we first brought my daughter home from the hospital, all swaddled and tiny, I remember thinking what every parent probably thinks: “I can’t wait until she’s old enough for me to tell her all about racism!”
What a fool I was! I should’ve been looking forward to talking to her about racism AND sexism.
As an adult, I understand that my skin, class, and gender give me a leg up in the world; that racism is a system—a cultural ill—as much as it’s any random individual’s lazy reliance on hurtful stereotypes. When I was in elementary school, I didn’t know much of anything about racism beyond “prejudice is bad” and “Don’t use The Racist Word We Don’t Use”. I also knew a lot of other racist words, but didn’t really get that they were racist or that I “Wasn’t Supposed To Use Them”. That’s mostly because I didn’t actually know what racism was. All boiled down, I thought it meant slavery, sitting at the back of the bus, and being mean to a person because of their skin color. Full stop.
Surely, things like telling racist jokes weren’t being mean, though, right? I figured they were just funny. There was only one black boy in my grade at the private school I went to in elementary school. He didn’t have a single friend, but I didn’t think that was racism. No, it was probably just the way he was always so sullen and angry. A fact that, in retrospect, may have had something to do with how often other kids called him The Racist Word We Don’t Use.
Moreover, it never really occurred to me that people could be racist against anyone but black people. Playing war with kids in the neighborhood always involved lobbing pinecone hand grenades and shouting about ‘Japs’ or ‘Gooks’ coming over a hill. Machine gun fodder. During the First Gulf War, I remember hearing the term “Towelhead” for the first time and thinking it was hilarious.
It’s not like my parents were blind to the existence of racism. They told me about how it’s always wrong to stereotype or have prejudices based on race, just like they told me about not saying The Racist Word We Don’t Use. It’s just that for me, that’s where racism ended.
Last night at dinner, Wendy asked me if I’d read an article she’d seen on the Good Men Project. The article, called “I Have a Dream: That People Will See a Picture Like This and Not Think It’s a Big Deal“, is written by a guy named Doyin Richards. Richards is a dad and a black man. He has a blog called Daddy Doin’ Work. Long story short, he posted a picture on his blog of himself holding his infant while brushing his toddler’s hair and was subsequently inundated with all manner of racist comments.
I highly recommend both his article and his blog (he’s got some really cool insights), but that’s not why I’m posting about it. Richards’ article was just the catalyst that prompted Wendy and I to jump, thoroughly unprepared, into a dinner time discussion of bigotry with the kids.
Here’s what happened: Wendy asked me if I’d read the article and I said yes, then started to respond. But the kids were sitting right there listening. “What was it?” they wanted to know.
“Oh, it was just an article mommy and I read today,” I said. It must have come through that I wasn’t sure whether it would be good to talk about it because they immediately wanted to know more.
“What was it about?”
“Well, it was about a guy—a black guy—who…”
And that’s when it occurred to me that they may not have the cultural context clues to even understand the point of the article. Why would my kids, growing up with a stay-at-home dad, be prepared to understand that someone thought it remarkable that a dad was brushing his daughter’s hair? What could possibly have prepared my kids for the fact that an unfortunately large number of people labor under the delusion that a black man probably doesn’t care enough to recognize his kids, much less brush their hair.
And that’s when I realized that our situation might be even worse … Maybe they would understand exactly what the article was lamenting because they’d already picked the prejudices up just from living in the world. My parents never called people Gooks or Japs. They never talked about Towelheads. They never told me racist jokes. In fact, I’m sure they’d have been appalled if they’d heard me doing such. Yet that’s what I picked up as being acceptable and normal. Then my actions communicated that acceptability to other people’s kids—a vicious, racist cycle.
So I dove in. Let me warn you, it turns out that it feels really weird to say, out loud to little kids, what actual racist stereotypes are. I had to look right at the kids and say, “There are a lot of people who think that black men are no good at being dads and they don’t care about their kids even though that’s not true. Lots of people believe it anyway.” How completely terrible. Yet, the fact that I hadn’t ever looked my son in the eye and warned him about it before didn’t make our world any less racist. I pressed on. “There are people who really think that black men are stupid and violent and like to hurt people and steal things even though it’s just not true and it’s not funny or okay for people to say that kind of thing.”
Thinking about the other jokes I heard and told as a kid I expanded the conversation to other groups. We let the kids know that every group experiences racism sometimes—and that racism is everywhere. We told them that they’ll hear things about how Asian people and Hispanic people and Muslim people are. We let them know that any time they hear about a group of people being all the same in some way they should stop and remember that it’s just not true—that people are individuals. We told them that sometimes we get so used to hearing about what other groups “are like” that we don’t even notice when it’s happening.
Even after all that, though, I felt like we really hadn’t given them much more insight than I’d started out with as a kid. Sure, we’d made certain they understood that discrimination and prejudice affect more than just African-Americans. Sure, we’d made sure they got that racism is more than just using “Racist Words We Don’t Use”. But it still just boiled down to the general knowledge that prejudice is bad and people shouldn’t say mean things about groups of people. There was something else missing.
Later, we were doing some family reading before bed (we’ve just started reading through The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper). There’s a scene in which one of the kids gets covered in dust and his sister says, “You’re filthy!” Her brother replies with, “Well, isn’t that just like a girl. All this around you and you only see a bit of dust.” It suddenly dawned on me that this, though it was sexism rather than racism, was the key to explaining this whole prejudice-thing to the kids.
I asked, “Do girls really hate dirt more than boys?”
“For most of history, who do you think had to do most of the house cleaning, men or women?”
“How do you think it might help men to tell everybody that women all hate dirt more than men?”
“Because then the women will keep on cleaning up all the messes.”
“Right. If everybody tells you in lots of little ways for years and years and years that because you’re a girl you must hate messes, do you think it would be easier or harder to say that you don’t care about dirt all that much?”
And it is harder. If a girl hears over and over that being a girl means hating messes more than boys, she’ll start to feel like she’s not a good enough girl if she admits when that
doesn’t describe her. After a lifetime of hearing it, it puts a constant whisper in women’s ears that they’re not real women if they don’t want to clean up the messes.
And after everyone has spent a lifetime of hearing it, people often can’t even believe a woman who says she doesn’t mind messes. They assume she’s just saying that for some other purpose and that she really does hate messes deep down. Some employers may hesitate to give her messy jobs because they’ll imagine she won’t be able to handle it—even if she says she will. They’ll believe they know what she likes even more than she does.
It’s the same with prejudices about race and class and religion, too. You can’t understand what racism really is unless you understand what sexism and all the other -isms are. They’re the same thing – one group using its power to define another. When we tell one another about the ways other groups of people are, through stories or jokes or threats or innocent, offhand comments, we steal a little bit of their freedom to be anything else. Stereotypes are more than just convenient labels. They’re boxes meant to confine people.
The bottom line is that we don’t want our kids’ potentials to be limited by the boxes that others might try to put them in. We talk about racism and sexism and all the other uncomfortable -isms with our kids because until a person sees those things for the boxes they really are, and sees how pervasive they are in ways that seem so innocent, they’re hard to fight against. And that’s true whether they’re directed at my kids or someone else’s.
Hopefully, my kids have a better understanding of what prejudice is than I did at their age. Hopefully, they’ll do more than just avoid saying The Racist Word We Don’t Use. Hopefully, they understand enough be the best they can be instead of just the person others expect them to be. Hopefully, they understand enough to stand up to those who just want to keep everyone in their place.
Image: mikebaird/Flickr (image resized and cropped)