Eat! and Race!

My youngest is 19 months old, so it’s time to start talking about race. In our house, we believe that being race explicit is essential to understanding racism and oppression in this world and country. We also believe that colorblindness is harmful and we want them to untangle this problematic worldview in their lives.

Once, my daughter identified herself as “normal” when we were talking about race. Despite our repeated teachings, she is still absorbing the whiteness around her.

So we start young. And keep teaching.

There is a book we have called “Eat!” that was given to my oldest by our first pediatrician. It’s a story about messy eating and shows several baby faces covered in food. I love this book, one because they love it, two because it’s gender expression neutral, and three because it’s a wide array of skin colors.

This baby loves this book, seeing the baby faces, the messy food and meeting the eyes of other kids their age. We read the book and then we point out skin color. “This baby has dark brown skin. This baby has lighter brown skin. Look at your skin, see how it’s different. We call your skin white.”

Being race explicit does something so important for our kids. First, and foremost, it makes us a family who does not pretend race does not exist in this world. It’s a common belief among many white folks that if we just treat people as people, or if we just recognize that we’re all the same underneath, then we can change the world.

We believe that this can probably eventually be true. But right now it cannot. Our society, our internalized beliefs are rooted in skin color and race. Pretending to not see it, or trying to love through it means we are not seeing the racial oppression, or we are trying to love someone as a solution when they are telling us that they are actively being harmed. Not to mention, not seeing a person’s skin color erases their humanity. We are all linked to our ancestors, our cultures, our history. Many white people don’t do this well. And just because some of us don’t feel connection to our ancestors, tend to live ahistorically, and/or fail to identify with many of our ethnic cultures doesn’t mean others should do the same. White supremacy has also impacted white culture, teaching us we are the norm and that others should follow suit, or they are then less deserving. And the policies and practices have been and continue to be put in place ensure things are taken away, restricted, policed, or even manipulated to our benefit all to uphold white supremacy.

So we talk about race in this house because we want our kids to know these details and to name them.

At dinner the other night, we played a game with our oldest. She asked if we could take turns saying things that are real that we wish were not. I went first.

“Capitalism,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I can’t remember my exact response but it went something like this, “it’s where people make a lot of things to make a lot of money. Where money is important and some people end up having a lot more than others.”

She went next.

“Guns,” she said.

Then my partner, “Poverty.”

We explained this one too.

Next I said, “Racism.”

She didn’t blink and said her next choice. We mentioned climate change, cancer, politics, human trafficking, animal abuse, stealing, the system of police, etc.

We talked about some but she knew many already. We have taught her that the world has big things in it that hurt people, that white people hurt people, that our ancestors hurt people. And we also teach her that we can talk about it and work to make it better.

Next we did a round on what doesn’t currently exist but we wish it did. We got answers like being a kid forever, unicorns, magic, boss baby, captain underpants, etc.

At one point, my partner said “superheroes.”

“Superheroes are real!” she exclaimed.

We exchanged eyes and just let it be. Even though her superheroes might be spiderman or batgirl, she also knows there are real life superheroes too. She knows Harriet Taubman, Martin Luther King Jr, Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, Frida Kahlo among so many more.

So if you’re also a white parent raising a white kid, talk about race with your kids. Without knowing what it is, how to see it, and it’s impact on the world, they won’t know how to contribute to change, their own growth, a better world for their future. If you talk about race, they’ll believe in racism. And if they believe in racism they’ll also believe in anti-racism. And if your strategic, they just might believe in superheroes.

“But I’m a good white person, right?”

“But I’m a good white person, right?” my kid asked me the other night. As we were sitting in her bed, I wanted to show her a video of a chicken greeting its owner at a school bus stop because I knew it would make her laugh. In the process of scrolling through my social media feed, it was inevitable that his face would show up. She always says his name the same way, with a scrunched up face and a grunt, “Donald Trump.” She also asks what each picture is about and in this case it was about his comments on “shithole” countries. I explained that he said something racist and upsetting, referring to places where many black and brown people live as bad places to live.

She wanted to know why, so I shared that he believes that how white people live is better than how other races live. I also shard the irony in this belief as here where we live, it’s the white people that make it not such a nice place to live and especially not for black and brown people.

This is then when she said, “But I’m a good white person, right?” She has said this before, and I am quickly realizing the conflict she experiences. As a white family, with many white friends and white people in our lives, she is struggling with the little kid notion of “good people” and “bad people.” At this age, she is not in a place to understand that the system we live in is the problem, not an entire race of people, and certainly not herself.

My answer to this question has remained the same: “Remember, there are no good people and bad people, but instead just people who can do good or bad things. We and our family are working to make good choices to try to get rid of the bad things people are doing.”

This time I went a little further to test her understanding, “The place where we live, this country, has made it so white people get more things than black and brown people. And it’s unfair because we as white people didn’t do anything to deserve it. Imagine if you went to a school where all of the white kids got cookies every day just because they were white, but none of the black or brown kids ever got them. That’s wouldn’t be fair right?”

“Right,” she said, “but that would only happen to **** in my school.” I hesitated in response, as what was interesting about her awareness is that the kid she mentioned  presents as white, meaning I believe society reads their body as a white. In full honesty, I do not know their race or their ethnicity, and I named this for her and she was confused. I explained race a little further saying that we don’t know anything about this kid’s ancestors or what stories were passed along to them from their parents (we explain DNA as stories, from the book “What Makes a Baby” by Corey Silverberg) and that most of the time we can’t know unless they tell us. But it was so interesting to me, that she, even at 4 1/2 years old, has picked up on the possible differences in ethnicity among her classmates. I suppose I should feel good that she is being racially explicit, but my inner white socialization feels some disappointment in how she already has categorized her friends. I am doing some personal work to push myself beyond this statement to remember that I need her to see race and differences, or she will never see the differences in treatment or inequities within our world.

It also spoke to me clearly of the lack of representation in her school. I too have mixed feelings on this. I do wish that her school was more diverse, but I also recognize that it’s in a district where mostly white folks live. We as parents have made a conscious decision to expose her to other races of people through our friends and family, TV, books, toys, etc. We have no intention of enrolling her in a school simply for diversity. We recognize the inherent harm that already exists with her whiteness and that we are not in this to create “exposure” to other people’s lives to learn. We have the tools and methods to teach her and besides, the core work for us is with other white folks to change the system. On her own, she will develop deep relationships with people of color, I have not doubt in that.

Next year, she will go to kindergarten which will shift her experience on race. Here are a few things I have already learned about this town I live in. The school she is districted in, is mostly kids of color, more than half in fact. Every other elementary school, all 5 of them, are majority white kids, with some as high as 80% white. I also learned that to be in all day kindergarten, the fee is $3,500 for the year. If you live within two miles of the school, the bus is not free and costs $235 a year. More than 37% of the kids in her soon to be school have more than 9 unexcused absences in a year. Remember, I am talking about 5-10 year olds here. I live in a town that is racially segregated. Most of the kids of color live within her school district and within 2 miles of her school. Clearly, I have a lot to work with as an invested parent in pushing the school system to do better.

As she preps for kindergarten, she is so excited to go. I know she will find so much joy, but will also have so many questions as she will see some of these inequities. She already points things out regularly to me when she sees them. It’s also going to be a new challenge as a parent to explain how these inequities also impact her. This will open the opportunity to really talk about structural racism and how it impacts all of us. I know she will go to school next year with love and intention. And I have no doubt she will make change with every step she takes. So no, we’re not “good white people.” But I know she is a good human who wants this world to be good for everyone. If I can continue to uplift that inner desire in her heart as she grows and learns, that’s a win for me. It’s also a win for our future.