White like me

Thursday, September 06, 2007

** This is the end of the thesis I wrote about White privilege and my journey as a Teacher and Parent. I've been thinking about my experience in Canada - especially around race, culture and issues of language ( a huge issue in Quebec. I suspect you'll see that in a while****

I should have noticed the signs that something had occurred. Emily began verbally identifying herself as a “black girl” to her father and myself. She began to express that she wished she were “white and have straight hair like you, Mama”. When talking about a play date at a friends house, Emily told the little girls mother, “But you’ll have a black girl in your house”, looking for a reaction.

Each of these things rippled uncomfortably across my awareness. It was nearly a week later that I finally pieced together the puzzle. As we lay in bed reading together, the light bulb made a blinding flash in my head. “Did someone at school say something to you about being black?” I asked her. I waited for her answer, knowing that with all my professional and personal work, I was woefully unready for her response.

The answer, of course, was yes. Another little girl had told Emily that “She was black and had no friends, but that Alexander is black and he has lots of friends”. Emily took this to mean that it was undesirable to be a black girl and her expressions of desire to be “white like Mom” began.

With all my professional and personal preparation, my first instinct was to wrap her in my arms and cry. However, I didn’t do that. What I did do was call her father into the bedroom and explain the situation so we could have a family conversation about being black, being white and being bi-racial. In order to offer Emily some strategies to handle these situations, we talked at length about truth. Was it true she is black? Yes. Was it true that she has no friends? No. Was it true that Alexander is black? No, he is of South American heritage and has very dark skin, but is not black. Does he also have friends? Yes.

After Emily was settled into bed, Terrance and I talked at length about what to do. Should I speak with the teachers? While Terrance did not think this was necessary, I could not allow this to pass without comment. For Terrance, his reluctance sprang not from a desire to keep this issue quiet, but from the knowledge of the resistance that we would face. He, after all, has dealt with being black in New England for twenty years.

Simultaneously, I could feel my deep gut embarrassment at having to address this issue with these teachers and other parents. Polite white people do not discuss racist remarks. My entire socialization as a liberal White woman demanded that I look away from this incident as distasteful, or simply the words of a child who didn’t know better. As in the other arenas, these were well-educated people whom I liked and respected. How could I walk in and tell these white people that racism is in their midst! Why didn’t they already know it?

I quickly realized that as Emily’s mother and a White person who is committed to the work of Anti-Bias, my socialized embarrassment could not stop me from doing what the situation demanded. For Emily’s sake, I needed to be proactive and address the issue of these remarks to the teachers. I needed Emily to see that her White mother would never be embarrassed to defend and protect her, regardless of my own internal discomfort.

The next morning, I called the teacher aside and explained what I had learned. She was appropriately horrified. What should she do? Should she have a group meeting? Should she call the other child’s parents? Her panic indicated that she too had never thought through having to deal with the issue of racism in this private school setting.

I began to talk with her about what I knew about children and racism. I brought her resources I copied from the book Beyond Heroes and Holiday’s. I asked her to be prepared to support Emily in conversations about race. I explained to her that being black in a White dominant culture was apparent to all the children and it was natural for them to notice and discuss it.

However, it was when I began to talk about the privileges of being white in New Hampshire that I realized that I had never talked to her, or many other white people about this issue. Polite white people don’t point out racism to other polite white people, especially those in the upper middle class. Polite white mothers don’t tell the teacher that the other children are saying hurtful remarks. Polite white mothers don’t notice such things.

I don’t think that the teacher fully understood what I was saying, but she was willing to listen. The Head of School and the teachers met, and planned a course of action to respond to this issue with both the children and families. While not yet fully resolved, I am satisfied with the way the school is beginning their journey.

Some parents are avoiding me now; some are overextending themselves to be friendly. White guilt is a funny thing. One little girl involved in the incident told Emily that if she didn’t stop telling me about the things she was saying, the little girl would get kicked out of school. Emily promptly told me this when I picked her up that afternoon. Working through my discomfort has offered my daughter the strength to actively begin her own journey in the work of anti-bias.

It has become clear to me through this experience and this journey into Anti-Bias curriculum that part of the important work that I am called to do is being that White person who talks about the impolite issues of race and culture. It occurs to me that for some White people that I may be the first White person to call attention to the elephant of racism in the room.

14 Baleful Regards:

BetteJo said...

Taking the bull by the horns, meeting it head on - race is not an easy or comfortable issue for many people. But - especially as a parent - you need to do it and I am sure Emily feels good that you are willing to stand up for her as well as show her the respect of treating the fact that she is bi-racial as a possibly complicated reality for her. Rock on!

SUEB0B said...

It is funny that it is easy for white racists to talk about race, but much harder for white people who are TRYING not to be racist to have a sane discussion. As my favorite line from "Spinal Tap" says "It is a fine line between clever and stupid."

Here is my fave white guilt story: My housemate was a black woman in a very white town. She was certainly the only black woman at the video store where she worked. A regular customer came in and didn't see here there and wanted to talk to her, but didn't know her name. The customer described her as "Tall and thin," "with brown eyes" etc, etc, never once mentioning the salient detail that she was black. Because I guess that would have been a sign of prejudice or something. Funny.

Bubblewench said...

WOW. You so amazingly brought this into perspective. I hope more people read this and see it for as you put it, the elephant of racism in the room..

I am so glad Emily can tell you those things and knows you will always be there for her.

Amazing posts on this topic.

velocibadgergirl said...

Amazing essay. And I agree with Suebob..."it is easy for white racists to talk about race, but much harder for white people who are TRYING not to be racist to have a sane discussion"

I often worry that not knowing what to say is a form of racism itself. I hope not. But it definitely is an elephant in the room.

Anonymous said...

About a month before Myles was born, our next door neighbors invited us over for a drink.
It became increasingly clear over the course of the hour we spent at their house that the huband (maybe the wife too, at least by association) was a racist. He seemed pretty equal opportunity in his comments against black, hispanic and homosexual.
I was extremely uncomfortable, didn't laugh or respond to any of the "jokes" or comments he made, but also didn't call him on it.
I'm ashamed of myself and my rationalization that we don't have to see them socially again but do have to be their neighbors so why make waves. I still question if I did the right thing and wonder what I will teach Myles to do in a similar situation.

All of that to say it takes amazing courage to call attention to that elephant. Good for you.

Anonymous said...

Emily is incredibly lucky to have you guys as her parents. I was naive to assume that it would be easier to be black in New England than in Texas or...in the South. Maybe it is better...but still not good. Good luck to you, Dawn.

Anonymous said...

Emily is very lucky to have you as her mother. I re-read every word of your post twice before commenting because I wanted to commit it to memory. I too am raising a bi-racial child in a very "polite white" private school setting. I know that these discussions are just around the corner for me and for my son. I hope I can handle them as well as you did and that his school and community will be as positive about embarking on the journey.

Madeleine said...

I always learn something when you write about race and bias. Thank you.

You might enjoy this anti-bias anecdote that came up on Ask Moxie, in a discussion about letting little boys paint their nails. The teacher in this story is wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful posts in the last week. I'm very interested to hear your experiences, and storing up positive examples for myself for future use.

I am a sensitive wuss. As much as I want to adher to my egalitarian ideals, I still find myself doing the aaahhh-make it go away! flinch with uncomfortable topics such as racial bias, even when I notice it and feel discomfited.

And yeah, it's even *harder* to talk with (other) white people about racism. We all want to be so polite and correct--or we end up fighting uphill against racist remarks... or we deny that its effects or that it even happen(s)ed. (Lalala- I didn't hear that!)

I really commend your courage and perseverence in addressing racial bias as it appears and not sweeping it under the rug. It hurts to be silent (and complicit), but I don't always know how to break through that --or where to find the courage sometimes. One guy I worked with, if hearing a biased/racist remark, would simply but firmly tell the offender, "Hey, man, that's not cool." Thank you for the similar encouragement!

Debbie said...

Wow. I can't contribute to the (very intelligent) conversation being had in your comments, here, but I can say this: I'm so glad you're Emily's mom, and that you refuse to let this issue lie. I wish I weren't uncomfortable discussing race issues, but I am. I don't know how to grapple with the subject, despite having dated black guys and having been friends with black peole over the course of my adult life. It's such a frustrating thing we do currently, this pretense that black people never endured what they did and oh, everything's okay now because P Diddy is richer than god so OBVIOUSLY, it's fine, see? Russell Simmons and Jay-Z and everyone - they're all so wealthy and they've all invested their money and -- see? No harm, no foul.

Only, that's a whole lotta bullshit.

Thanks for opening this can of worms, Dawn. You're brave to do it.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a 95% white community (where the other 5% was about 1% each of black, asian, indian (like from india), hispanic, and mixed race). It was the same way in our community: polite white folks did not speak of race. We did not acknowledge racial issues at all, in fact. I imagine if I'd been in the video store in the situation SueBob described, I might have avoided race in describing the video worker as well.

I think now I live with some residual discomfort when discussing issues of race (well, and religion, politics, class -- everything that was verboten to discuss in my small central NY town) but I am much more able to discuss all these things based on my broadened experience as a college student and now as an adult. I hope that I can raise my daughters to know that it's not a verboten topic, but one in which we should engage in open dialogue -- with the intended result to be welcoming to all friends, regardless of their skin color, social status, etc. It's a tall order. But I have you as an example of how well it can be done. :-)

Anonymous said...

My heart breaks for Emily. Roy would have chosen the same tactic as Terrance. A co-worker of Roy's tells his children that racism is out there, it sucks, don't let it define you.

I think your proactive approach is better for Emily and all of us.

Anonymous said...

I really wish that this dialogue could be extended beyond this blog. Race and priviledge are the elephants in the living room in America as well as other nations, and it would do us all well to be able to have sane (emphasis on SANE) conversations about it.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Such an uncomfortable topic. I applaud your efforts to educate and assist the teachers, and to point to the elephant and say, "Let's talk about THIS." Good for you, and best of luck.

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