Tag Archives: racism

Privilege

“I mean, you’re not going to adjust your own life for other people!” says an older white woman next to me at the coffee shop, sharing with her friends why she felt justified ordering an alcoholic drink at a table with a friend who is a newly recovering alcoholic. “That’s for damn sure,” says another friend.

These words hit me hard after immersing myself in the Ferguson accounts through people on the ground (via Twitter’s real-time feed) and watching a live stream last night, right at the point when a cop threatened to shoot the person holding the camera. I have not watched any mainstream media coverage of Ferguson and I don’t intend to do so. There is no real news there anymore and the sensationalized tone and lack of authenticity from their reporters makes me want to hurl so I avoid it like the plague.

What makes us get so comfortable that we’re unwilling to change for another person’s well-being? Just like I can close my eyes to suffering friends and neighbors, I have the option to ignore Ferguson. Its results do not impact my daily life. My family will not be directly impacted, either.

My life is overflowing with privilege. Everywhere I go I experience a particular line of treatment because I am white. I get an extra dose because I have an advanced college degree.  (Of course, privilege funded my education as well.) Top it all off with decent hygiene, respectable clothing, an ability to engage in conversation with strangers, and a healthy body and I get a free ticket past many people’s biases. I experience altered treatment because I’m female, of course, and in Seattle I might get some passive aggressive stares for having children and daring to take them grocery shopping, but that’s about all the bias I face on a regular basis.

The primary issue is not whether Michael Brown robbed the convenience store or not. It also doesn’t matter that he pushed the clerk aside. White people steal and shove all the time and they don’t get shot six times. It’s that clear cut. I am angry and heartbroken about the discrepancy between how a black boy and how a white boy get treated in America. I also have no idea what to do and get frustrated that I’m just sitting in front of my laptop, watching tweets tick by as brave teenagers block stores to prevent looting and peaceful protestors get teargassed.

Just as Ferguson won’t impact me directly, I know I can’t impact racism directly either. It would be far too easy to believe that I may as well stay quiet and do nothing.

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I start by acknowledging my own privilege. I start by examining my own prejudice. I look inward. I acknowledge that sometimes protesting is required. In fact, it almost always is. Change does not come easily.

Since my boys are white, I do not have to worry about them playing with toy guns at Walmart. I will never fear for them walking down the street to a friend’s house. Their little faces don’t encourage suspicion now, but even in their teens I can’t imagine I’ll worry too much about police treating them poorly. I’ll have my concerns for their well-being, no doubt, but it won’t be because of their color. It will be because their brains won’t be fully developed and a not-yet-developed frontal lobe is an impulsive one. My fears will be that they will make one stupid, impulsive decision and pay an enormous price for it (like a car accident). Moms of black children don’t have this luxury. When their kids make the impulsive decisions that ALL teenagers make, they are immediately at significantly greater risk for steep consequences, including jail time and police brutality. I would be crushed by the constant anxiety moms must face each time they let their children of color explore this world. This world that sees them as dangerous. Labels them hooligans, thugs, or animals. Sees a hoodie over a black face as a threat.

I don’t come at this thinking I understand even an ounce of the black experience. I never will. All I can do is educate myself, keep examining my own biases, speak truth into the void, and fight for laws that create justice. There are too many laws that perpetuate the cycle of racism and our nation is paying for it. More importantly, individual people of color are paying for it. They continue to suffer the consequences of centuries of racism and white people are not making it any easier. Frequently, we make it much worse. There is, indeed, a serious case for reparations.

I want to be a better friend than those ladies. If we are ever to move beyond this gross racial divide, a proactive stance is required. I will not stand by passively, holding my drink while an entire race struggles, even if it means the painful examination of my own heart, why I may feel nervous in certain parts of town, or assume something about someone because of how they look. Or if it means sharing my voice, risking making people uncomfortable by challenging their assumptions. It is 2014 in America and we are still (mostly) separate and certainly not equal. I used to get really angry when I’d ask the white adults in my life what they did to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and they’d fumble their response, “Well, I don’t know. I watched the news.” They did nothing.

Ferguson may very well be the beginning of a new civil rights movement that is desperately needed. I will not do nothing. I start with my voice.

Vocabulary to Lessen Stigma: Have you taught your kids these words?

In the past few weeks I’ve experienced tiny twinges of embarrassment, most like those last felt in my seventh grade sex ed class, except these came while reading a library book to my oldest. I’m reading away, maintaining a calm exterior but my head is spinning: erection, sperm, sex, intercourse, fallopian tubes, urethra! Oh my goodness, am I really saying these words to my FIVE YEAR OLD? And we get on a plane to see family tomorrow! Is he going to ask our pilot if she has a vagina? Or ask his grandpa if he has sperm swimming inside his testicles? I can be a little anxious at times.

How in the world did I get into this predicament? Well, by choice, through a very gradual education. I can blame most of it on one friend who is also passionate about child development. When she passed on her copy of Nurture Shock to me a year or two ago, I ate it up. I am a huge believer in evidence-based practice. For medicine, for speech-language pathology, and yes, for parenting. (And I admit to dreaming that we’d run our country this way, too.) I guess I see it like most things we do: there is a science and an art. So, this book basically shares the most intriguing research applicable to raising children and readers can decide if and how they’re going to apply the knowledge.

The chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” resonated deeply with me and also kicked my butt a bit. One survey shared that 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race, even though most have good intentions to not raise racist children. Some parents didn’t share because they didn’t want to say “the wrong thing” or thought pointing out race was worse than not talking about it. Some thought that exposing them to various races and cultures or reading them books and showing them videos would be enough to prevent bias.

But lots of research is showing otherwise and I imagine those in less privileged positions are saying, “No duh!” right now and trying not to roll their eyes. One researcher reasoned that kids are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism” and will naturally categorize by whatever attributes are most visible. Young children needed to know the specific vocabulary or else they would refer to “skin like ours” or “eyes like mine” for descriptors of people, instead of the appropriate racial title, like Asian or Hispanic. Additionally, many older kids automatically assumed that their parents’ silence was actually an indication of them “not liking black people.” By early elementary school, kids already made their own categories of division and were making decisions based upon this schema.

Sad and convicted that I was one of those white parents not talking about race (this silence comes from such a place of privilege!), I started talking to Charlie, then four years old, about race, including details about where people originated while looking at a map. It also felt like a good time to talk about languages, food, and other cultural practices. We continue to discuss that many people treat others poorly because of these differences. He inherently sees that that’s sad. He understands it’s not right. Thankfully, this can be more than just talk for us. We have friends of different races with whom we regularly spend time. It is an ongoing conversation but he is at least getting an introduction to the vocabulary and he knows this topic is safe to talk about. Eventually we will talk about white privilege, how to identify and understand our own biases and how we can better live into racial reconciliation. I am not so naive as to think that our early discussions will prevent our children from having bias, so I see this as purely a jumping off point.

I have thought about these ideas of developmental categorization and parental silence a lot. Not just with race, but in relation to many other topics that are often stigmatized, including our bodies, sex and sexuality. So, I have really worked hard to be more open while maintaining respect for the current abilities to understand topics. When I was about to have Miles, Charlie asked how the baby would come out of me. I paused to think a bit and responded, “Well, boys have two holes, one for pooping and one for peeing. Girls have three holes, one for pooping, one for peeing and one that babies can come out of.” That was it. He was satisfied and I felt good that I was honest with him but also gave him a reasonable amount of information to process at age three.

Several months ago I taught Charlie about circumcision because he laughed at a cartoon boy’s uncircumcized “silly penis.” I shared this with friends and the very same friend who lent me Nurture Shock recommended It’s NOT the Stork!  I put it on hold from our library system, picked it up, and placed it in our usual library book spot. Later that afternoon, I found Charlie sitting on our couch with the book opened up to this page:

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I wasn’t quite ready for that.

But, we started reading. Not on that page. It’s not the first, thankfully. I had to live into these beliefs, once again. If vocabulary is one building block for understanding the world around us, I’d rather give him these words now and deal with deeper levels of understanding later. I don’t want it to be hard to say the words “penis” or “vagina” around my boys when they’re older. How in the world would we talk about sex, condoms, and STDs without crawling out of our skin? And I definitely don’t want to leave this education up to their peers, the media or schools. As crazy as it is to read these things to such a little person, I am enormously relieved we’ve opened the door for open conversation about our bodies and sex at a young age. Right now there is NO embarrassment for him and I get to practice being more comfortable with the topic. This is key for me. He has yet to categorize such discussions as off-limits for his parents and now I’m hoping he never does. Here’s to saying “erection” at the dinner table, folks! Ok, maybe before the meal.