A First Step in My Contribution to #BLM: Teaching My Daughter to See Race

I can remember the first time it happened. It was the beginning of the school year and I was in second grade. A little girl with dark skin took up the desk next to me, but I had never seen her before. It quickly became apparent to me that she did not speak English. I was intrigued. I went home and borrowed my elder cousin’s Spanish textbook and became obsessed with learning her language. I wanted to know everything about her. She was so different. And I loved that about her.

It wasn’t long before my teacher moved her desk. She began to spend most of her time in ESL and, though we stayed friendly, she understandably felt more comfortable with the children that spoke her language, those that could say more than, “Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” But the largest rift occurred when my teacher began to actively thwart my efforts to learn more about her culture. “She should be learning English,” she would say, “instead of learning her language, why don’t you have her learn yours?”

And that was it. From then on, I was encouraged to help those around me assimilate to my whiteness. To my “Americanness.” The largest gift I could offer my non-white classmates (or so I was taught), was to look past the color of their skin and invite them into our lily white world. I encouraged my black friends to join the Girl Scouts and play lacrosse. As a generation, we became known as the “millennials.” But, culturally, we became the first of a certain order of missionaries: we weren’t invited to celebrate our racial differences but, instead, were encouraged to abandon them. There was no white/black divide because, really, what we were taught to see was only white.

As I grew older, this colorblindness only became more ingrained as my anti-racism tactic because the only attempts at creating a dichotomous world were so clearly rooted in ignorance, fear and bigotry. I would hear adults in my blue collar, white community warn one another to avoid certain neighborhoods because the “blacks” lived there. Parents of white children would decline birthday invitations to black friends’ parties, but offer to pay for the black friend’s lacrosse equipment. They were sending a message: join us or stay away from us. Colorblindness was welcome to exist, but only if the color was white.IMG_4473

Of course, inviting the “other” to partake in our culture of charades and Girl Scout cookies was not in itself problematic. It was the whitewashing of any culture that came to be seen as “Other.” The more we were taught to wear white-colored glasses, the more we welcomed a second-tier to the racism cake. For every hockey rink that became more diverse, a basketball team remained just as black. Each lacrosse stick grasped by black hands only left an empty spot on the school’s STEP team. And for every black kid embracing the Beatles, there was a white mom smashing the latest hip-hop CD under her Coach loafers.

My daughter will be four soon. She will soon be sitting in a classroom that looked a lot like mine: full of Latinas, Blacks, Asians and Whites. She will notice they are not all like her. She will notice the differences in their skin, their clothes, their accents and their language. She will become aware of her white privilege and, in all likelihood, she will be taught to extend it to them. To offer them a hand as though she is pulling them aboard a life raft from a sinking ship. And she’d be right to notice that their ship is sinking. And she will probably even be aware that her white privilege had something to do with it. But what I need her to know, too, is that the ship isn’t sinking because it wasn’t sea worthy. It’s sinking because it’s the only way her people are allowing those on board the “Other” ship to stay alive.

We see it on the news every day. The justifications for white supremacist actions by creating a media image of blacks behaving in very non-white ways: the way they dress, the jobs they work, or the neighborhoods they live in. Or the insensitivity to their subjugation: the proclamations that more whites were killed by cops this year (I should hope so, seeing as our nation is 79% white), or this preposterous #alllivesmatter movement (I would need an entirely new blog to even begin to address why that is inherently racist). And all of that is deeply problematic, but let’s also not forget that the Ku Klux Klan not only still exists, but has apparently developed enough brain cells, collectively, to put together a functioning website. As a white woman with distinct racial privileges, it would be nothing short of crass for me to not acknowledge the legitimacy and importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

I’m not sure that I have the answers or even know where to best place my desire to be activistic and not a bystander, but I am going to begin with a small, yet important, project. Her name is Eva. She is three. And as long as I’m living, she will be allowed to ask a black friend if she can touch her kinky hair.* She will be encouraged to ask her how it feels to have dark skin in America. Or ask her Chinese friend why she eats seaweed for snack. She will know the lyrics to every Tribe Called Quest song and she will expand her own world by embracing the differences in everyone she sees. And she will not attempt to extend her white privilege to her non-white friends but, instead, will seek to create a world where her own white privilege is abolished.

 

*Please see comments below. And please feel free to keep this conversation going- it’s critique and openness that contributes to this much overdue discussion of the role of race in our relationships and the way we conduct our daily lives. Thank you, Karen, for sparking the conversation. And my deepest apologies to anyone I may have offended.

 

 

  5 comments for “A First Step in My Contribution to #BLM: Teaching My Daughter to See Race

  1. Karen
    July 10, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    You had me 100% until your last paragraph. Touching a black friends hair is NEVER cool. Recognizing and embracing differences is spectacular, but your examples of how to learn about them are offensive to POC.

    I feel like you are almost there though, and have the heart to take this as constructive advice.

    • katie pearce
      July 10, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for the comment. I can totally see what you are saying. I think the reason why I used the hair analogy is because when I was younger, my black cousin was always so curious about my hair and she was always reprimanded for showing interest. I think the point I was trying to make (and perhaps it should have been made differently), is that young kids are curious about strange things and instead of interrupting what seems to be to be an innocent and harmless curiosity, we should maybe embrace it. Touching hair, or asking strange questions is often a young child’s way of exploring difference. But it’s certainly an enormously complex issue and where we draw the line can often be a bit of a hazy area. Especially when it comes to children when we are trying to teach them respect and an appreciation of difference. Asking someone if they can touch their hair, in my mind, is quite different from just touching it. And if a three year-old is asking the question, it is quite different from a twelve year-old asking it. I know among my white friends growing up, touching one another’s hair was a common occurrence and I think my point was that I wouldn’t want her to be afraid to ask a black friend to play with her hair just because it is different. But, most importantly, I am truly and deeply apologetic for any offense I may have caused.

      • Karen
        July 11, 2016 at 12:01 am

        I feel you. I have had long, abnormally thick blond hair my whole life and if gets touched without permission all of the time. My black friends and family have a different experience around the same action though. It is highly offensive to them, and for good reason.

        You are correct about there being a difference with age. I guess I read your article as a road map to how you will guide your daughter over the years, not exactly at 3 years old.

        I love that you tackle colorblindness in the first place. That is a term that drives me up the wall. Blind to every color except white, hits the nail on the head.

        We aren’t all the same because we aren’t all treated the same. THAT is the diversity lesson that will be important to instill as she grows. And how to be an informed, compassionate ally.

        The way you described systematic, coerced assimilation is eye opening and brilliant. It is devious, really.

        We all need a hard lesson in how to not only celebrate, but also respect differences.

        Thank you for taking a stand when so many stay comfortable in their colorblind bliss.

  2. Candice
    July 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    Katie,

    This had my eyes watering. I wish I knew you more growing up as so many of the issues you’ve addressed I experienced. I was not quiet about them, however, I encouraged those I knew closely to embrace their curiosity and held firm to my culture and upbringing.

    I could see and am so thankful for how honest you were in your evaluation of the past, because so many things that you mentioned I experienced in Huntington. From my 5th grade teacher telling my Spanish friends to not speak Spanish in class because it was rude and to only speak English. (We talked about how ridiculous of a demand that was and blew her off.) To our gym teacher encouraging me to leave the track team to play lacrosse because there were tons of scholarships available. (I didn’t, because I loved track.) I appreciated her wanting to see me succeed and I knew it was genuine, but it stuck with me for almost 20 years! And I can’t help but wonder if assimilation had something to do with it. I remember someone wearing a do-rag in class (when they were popular), and he was afraid to go in the hallway with it because he thought he’d get beat up! I explained to him that he was fearing the wrong things. The black kids weren’t beating him up for being curious about the culture. That may have been what he was told at home unfortunately.

    This also reminds me of my Girl Scout troop, which was prominently White. We grew up together and I love them dearly. They never tried to push their whiteness on me, and I, while I could have felt uncomfortable being me, was strong enough to not be. It made our relationship stronger. Now I don’t know how they feel entirely because we never discussed race outright, but I would hope the times our differences arose and I shared what it was to be me, it brought more understanding of our differences.

    You are a Rockstar for sharing and wanting to teach your daughter to see race! That is the biggest mistake people can make. To pretend to not look at color or see people as different. We are ALL different and that’s why we’re unique. Teaching to appreciate differences is what’s most important.

    Another big difference for me is that I was taught about history outside the classroom as well. I learned about Black history and I’m continuing to learn more and more everyday about it. It is so important because it is part of our country’s makeup. When you have multiple perspectives you can make sound judgements.

    Thank you thank you! I’d love to see what you have to say about #alllivesmatter. I’ve had a few Facebook exchanges about it, but you seem to get it! You’re awesome!

    • katie pearce
      July 12, 2016 at 3:30 pm

      Candice!

      Thank you so much for adding to this important conversation. The fact that you had the same experience at Huntington El in our earlier years (i.e. girl scouts, Spanish, etc.) as I witnessed at Southdown really speaks to the pervasiveness of the issue. I just remember as a younger child in Huntington being so interested in the cultures of all the kids around me, whether it was black, Chinese, hispanic, etc., but remember, as a white child, being taught that my curiosity wasn’t “appropriate”- because it was seen as both anti-assimilatory and because seeing “difference” (especially cultural/racial) was also looked upon as almost racist, in some backward sense. My parents, thankfully, were never like that and they always encouraged me to be accepting and interested in people’s differences instead of encouraging me to whitewash the entire world.

      I think the scariest part of this whole conversation is that Huntington is among one of the more progressive and liberal places in our country, and it is still wrought with deep racial tension. It may not be manifested as extremely as it is in many other parts of our country, but it’s overwhelming to see how much work there is to be done before we can reach a place where white privilege is truly something of the past. I’ve always been so uncomfortable with the privileges I’ve been given, simply because of the shade of my skin, and I think as a white person it’s often difficult to know where to even begin in helping #blacklivesmatter gain the momentum it so desperately needs and deserves. I’m hoping this blog can be a small place to start!

      Perhaps another blog on that whack #alllivesmatter shit soon!

      Sending love, hope and peace to you, Candice!

      xo,

      Katie

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