Parenting in an election year

I am 34 years old and have watched white man after white man run this country. In a moment of sheer hope and relief, President Barack Obama won the election in November 2008. I have never felt such joy for politics, to see someone win on a platform of hope and change.

November 2012 was a turning point for me as a parent. Twenty weeks away from parenting, sitting 20 weeks pregnant, I held fear for my unborn child. All I could think, was that the outcome of this election meant possible harm and oppression to her little body – to see her stripped of reproductive rights, access to comprehensive education – more white men in charge of her decisions in life. I truly feared that she would come into a world rooted in the same white patriarchy that I have seen nearly all of my life. It was that night that myself and my partner decided that no matter the outcome we were going to parent with the intention of teaching anti-oppression and justice. We always knew that in our bones, but that night we said it.

My daughter is now three years old and she has only known a black president. I say that sometimes to myself, just to hear it again.

This election year, things are looking dramatically different. We’re in a fierce battle of opposition, values, and especially gender. I have been explaining to her that a cisgender woman may actually become president and how that has never happened before. She has no concept to relate this to, and just seems puzzled that a cisgender woman couldn’t have a job just like Mommy does. But I am struggling in explaining to her the dynamics at play, what this cisgender women is living through in her pursuit of the presidency.

I read to her the story “Grace for President” by Kelly DiPucchio. It’s the story of a classroom that decides to have an election of a young black girl versus a young white boy. In the end, Grace wins out but only because one boy classmate decides to vote for her. Otherwise, all of the girls vote for her and all of the boys vote for her opponent. There are many dynamics in this book not unlike what this election year looks like. Grace and her opponent are both qualified in that they are students of the school, have values and opinions, and want better for their friends. They have opposing views, such as whether a certain food in the cafeteria should be offered every day or if it should be taken off the menu entirely. (This analogy reminds me so clearly of so many things being talked about in debates: health care, women’s rights, contraception, abortion, government funded programs, comprehensive education…you name it. We either will get it or we won’t.)

But what strikes me most in this book is that the young boy who is running against Grace doesn’t do very much campaigning. He assumes that because he’s in a lot of clubs, plays sports, and does well in school that this election will be a landslide for him. And the outcome supports this. In comparison, Grace campaigns tirelessly, working to gain everyone’s vote, holding speeches and sessions to hear from her peers. He does none of this. And yet, he still nearly wins. We’re supposed to feel great that Grace pulls it off, turning one young boy to make a difference. All that work, and she only gets one person to turn.

The lesson of course is that hard work, courage, and pursuit pay off. But what a raw deal…Grace has to do all this work just to be considered when her opponent just has to exist. I cannot ignore the work she puts in and the drain on her little body just to achieve this.

I look at this election year and it feels so much of the same. One candidate is the most qualified candidate ever in the history of politics. Yet, we cannot stop talking about what she is wearing, her demeanor, her softness or lack thereof, her marriage, etc. None of these are required to do the work of the presidency but they are top qualifiers for her simply because of her gender. She has to do so much extra work just to get people to hear her, to consider her, to allow her to stand on her own instead of under the past presidency of her husband.

In comparison her contender is a criminal, a racist, a rapist, an abuser, a supporter of violence, and as close to a dictator that we can imagine. This man has been accused of sexually assaulting women, including a 14 year old girl. He has called women fat pigs, dogs, whores. He has encouraged his crowds to resort to violence against those that oppose him. He has stated himself, that he could kill someone for no reason in the streets of New York and still wouldn’t lose a follower. And this is true, he is doing very little work except to be his ignorant, racist, vile self and people love him. In fact, he is being uplifted for simply not being a politician…which is hard to swallow since the majority of our population has the same qualification, yet they chose him.

So yes, I have no idea how to talk to my daughter about this election year. Explaining the persistent racism and white patriarchy feels pretty heavy for her little body. Yet, she is aware of many of the facts, the two different sides and approaches. I have shared my frustrations, my fears, and my anger for what is happening. I mostly fear for what I will have to say if he does win – to explain why people did vote for him, that so many people in this country care more about themselves than others with less, to explain what she might lose, and to explain what this means for people in this country.

In our election story, there is no author to change the ending, to change history. And history is speaking pretty loudly these days.

I can only hope that I am surprised…

 

Dear Ms. Ellis

“Dear Ms. Ellis:

It has taken me nearly 20 years to understand and I am writing to say that I hear you…”

(Ms. Ellis was my 10th grade government teacher. She expected a lot of us as students in regards to respect and also our school work. I remember feeling that she really never liked teaching and that she just wanted to push us all around. But I get it now, I see what I missed all of those years ago. In a predominantly white upper middle class school, she being one of a few teachers of color, taught historical truth. I remember watching videos and hearing her lecture on and on about slavery, oppression, and the horrors of hundreds of years ago. As a naïve and impatient teenager, I was over it. Here she was trying to bring up the past and push it down our throats. I only saw a world of love, teenage rebellion, and those around me – safe in a world of acceptance for all. See, I was raised that way, to accept others – at least that’s how I interpreted it. My father led a regional organization as part of a larger national effort, to get Martin Luther King’s birthday listed as a federal holiday. My grandmother supported the civil rights movement. My father continues to highlight and celebrate black history and culture in his work. As a 15 year old, what was there left for me to do…besides sit in a comfy world of whiteness, blind to the fact that things were way bigger than I could ever see? Ms. Ellis was the only one trying to show me this. Well let me clarify, she was the first that I can remember and the most honest about it. My principal made some efforts as well, but I only ended up with a misunderstanding of what it’s like to be a person of color in a mostly white school. That’s a story for another time, but Ms. Ellis put the truth on the table. I see her frustrations now, her desire for respect and high achievement from us – wanting us to just listen. She wanted us to step out of our world for just one second and listen to her. I regret to say that I never did. I have no idea where Ms. Ellis is today, but I hope she is still teaching the truth about the history in this country and how structural racism was set up and thrives today. And more importantly, I hope that people hear her.)

“…Ms. Ellis, it is much too late, but I hear you. I commit to making up for this by hearing others, and teaching my children, my family, and even strangers about racism and white supremacy. I would be most grateful if my daughter sat in your class one day. I can only hope that others that sat alongside of me, as well as everyone else who when through your class, will open their ears one day and hear you too.

Sincerely,
Kelly Baker, class of 2000

 

Talking racism

I overheard another Mom the other day, as she was sharing a story about recently riding the subway with her nephew. On the ride, they saw a group of young men of color. Her nephew responded by gawking, as his predominantly white neighborhood had normalized his experience to be one without people of color in it. His aunt was mortified and embarrassed by his behavior.

This led me to think about the dreaded questions that toddlers love to ask, that us parents interpret as ways to embarrass us. I think of my own child, growing up in a nearly all white daycare in a predominantly white neighborhood. There is a real chance that we’ll be in the grocery store one day and she’ll turn to me and ask, “Mommy, why is that man so black?”

So how do you answer this question? Many parents might hush their child for fear of offending the person they have pointed out. But in reality, what does that teach them? I think it teaches them to not talk about race. And this means that we definitely won’t talk about racism.

Why don’t we speak about race? We label ourselves by race all the time, it’s on nearly every form we fill out. There is no secret that people have different skin tones. Yet, the larger secret seems to be that being brown or black makes a difference in this world. We whites have decided to turn a blind eye to this difference, living in eternal colorblindness.

My child is born into a world of privilege, with the only strike against her to date being that she was born with girl parts and is gendered a girl. But she is white, blue-eyed, blonde hair, beautiful, smart, and has a stable living situation and family. So how will I teach her that she was born into this, that she didn’t earn it. That her father and I didn’t earn it. It’s not her fault that she didn’t choose it, but how do I teach her that she should acknowledge this privilege and use it as a tool to break down the structural racism that continues to breed in this country.

This may sound like a far jump, but when you take off the colorblinders, you can’t miss racism persisting all around us. This means she’ll see it too.

I want her to grow up to understand the hardships that she and others face in this country. If she loves others even half as much as she loves me and her family, she has the power to make change. As a white woman, I have faced my own level of oppression, fighting for equal pay, and investing my career into advocating for reproductive rights and justice for all people. But this is in no comparison to racism. I know she’ll experience much of the same, so I expect the same of her to balance both her own experiences with oppression and also how she perpetuates it. I expect her to stand up and call out racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of oppression. But I expect this not because I will teach her it is right, but because I will do everything I can to allow her heart to grow in a way that she sees the world in all lenses. She will stand up again racism because it’s in her heart to change it, because it’s not the world she wants to live in.

So what will I say when she ask me why the man at the grocery store is black? I’ll tell her that it’s a very good question and that people come in many colors. In fact, that we all have melanin in our skin which allows for these variations. That right now we live in a place where depending on what color you are, you get different things and that this is not ok. That there is an incredibly rich history that I’ll share with her more as she grows – the establishment of whiteness and the structural oppression of all other races. And when I share it, I will tell her that it is important to see people’s races, not because it should matter what race you are, but because if she doesn’t see people for all of their humanity, she will fail in fighting for justice and equity for everyone; she’ll miss the key details that the world around her is working so hard to keep her from seeing.  

 

 

Body Parts

I noticed when my daughter was quite young that she knew all of her body parts with the exception of reproductive body parts. And more so, I realized that I didn’t really have a good way to teach her them. There aren’t many books for one year olds, and so it was up to me.

So why would I teach her this?

First, she needs to know what to call it. If it hurts, or someone hurts it, how will she know what to tell me? If I give it a name unlike its true one, when she tells someone else it hurts or someone hurt her, they won’t know what she is talking about.  So, assuming she isn’t going to get hurt or be hurt, what’s left? I learned the importance of this clarity for her first hand when she went to the doctors with symptoms of a urinary tract infection. The doctor looked at me and asked if I was sure it didn’t hurt in her butt area? She named that some kids get confused. I turned to my kid and asked, “does it hurt in your vulva or your butt?” “Vulva,” she replied. “Ok, then,” said the doctor.

Secondly, I want her to have a healthy view of her own sexuality. Talking about sex should start early. Surprising right? I don’t mean we should tell them all the details right away, but we should start scaffolding the information. The correct name for body parts and an understanding of how they work is the first step. They will ask questions, but they are only looking for a direct answer. If we answer the question matter of fact, they are often satisfied and move onto another topic.

It’s key that we answer though. If I shut down questions now, or lie to her, how will she trust me? Parents often think that a little lie here or there is harmless, but children are incredibly smart. Their entire childhood is based on observation and questioning. So when you fail them by telling them a lie and they find out, you automatically become a bad source of information. So why risk this when it comes to sexual health? Lies run the risk of us losing them before we can share not only accurate information, but also our values on the topic.

Imagine the power of honesty with your child when you tell them about their body when no one else will. When one day, you teach them about sex – that it can be incredibly fun, pleasurable, and satisfying, and it can also be flat, boring or emotional. Taking away some of the mystery and instilling a positive view on what sex looks like can lessen the urge to experiment. And even if it doesn’t do that, they at least have the knowledge of the risk involved for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

I hope that my children decide to have sex when they want to – not coerced, pressured, or because there is nothing else to do, but because they really like their partner and that they want to experience the positive things about sex with them.

I fully expect them to mess up, how can they not. We all mess up every once and awhile. But imagine the security as a parent to know that when they do, you’ll be their first call.

Darth Vader

It was a regular afternoon, I had picked up my kid from school and we were sitting on the couch as dinner cooked. I had just retrieved the mail and a giant toy catalog had arrived. This was about to be her second Christmas and this year, she had a better understanding of the concept, so I thought “why not!?” and handed it to her to look at. She flipped through the pages mesmerized by the colors and pictures.

After dinner, I sat down next to her and went through it with her. I asked her what she liked and spoke to the new things she had never seen before. When we flipped to the page on Star Wars, she pointed right at Darth Vader. She looked at me with her curious eyes and in her little voice told me that was a monster.

For most, this might seem completely harmless, even accurate in fact. But my heart sunk. This little person had never experienced Star Wars. It was not quite the fad yet at school and we don’t own anything with Star Wars on it. My heart told me I had to ask her. “Why is this a monster?” She just shrugged. So then I asked her, “is it because he is black?” She nodded quickly, looking at me with her eyes, thanking me for understanding even though she was too little to share the inner workings of her brain.

My heart felt heavy. “It’s already starting,” is what I was thinking.

But then I thought, “not my kid.”

I looked at her curious face and asked her, “what color is our puppy?”

“Black!”, she replied.

“Is she a monster?” I asked.

“No,” she responded with some confusion.

I wrapped my arms around her and said, “just because someone or something is black doesn’t make it a monster, okay!?”

“Okay!” she responded, and flipped the page.