Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thoughts on Being an Anti-Racist Parent

I was perusing through the entries to the ninth carnival of feminist parenting and I came across this post by Blue Milk, in which she describes an incident where her preschool aged daughter and her daughter’s friend encountered a nasty episode of racism at a public pool. Some boys at the pool “taunted her saying her friend has skin like poo.” Reading about the episode really had an effect on me. I was sad. I was angry. FOR CRYING OUT LOUD THESE CHILDREN ARE ONLY FOUR YEARS OLD! WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?

It got me thinking about how I can approach the issue of race with SchmoopyBaby.

Tami Winfrey Harris wrote on Love Isn’t Enough:
If love alone won't keep a toddler from touching a hot stove or stop a teen from engaging in unprotected sex, why, then, do so many of us think love is all you need to keep a child from absorbing prevalent biases against people of color or being damaged by them? …An anti-racist parent is a proactive parent, who includes race in the canon of important values that must be actively enforced in age-appropriate ways throughout a child’s life
So the question for me then becomes HOW? How can I proactively teach my white male child about important values such as this? How can I keep him from becoming one of those jerks at the public pool?

SchmoopyBaby is growing up in a much less diverse community that the one in which I grew up in California. In his play group there are two black children; all the rest are white. Familiarity with people who look or sound different, although not a be-all-end-all cure to racial discrimination, is at least a first step. His own (half) Jewish heritage ought to be a reminder of the dangers of discrimination, but that is invisible. His white skin, blue eyes, and non-Jewish last name hide his cultural identity, and *might* protect him from the insults I encountered and the beatings my father encountered growing up. It probably will not, however, protect him from internalizing discriminatory episodes, be they based on religion, skin color, or anything else.

One of Blue Milk’s commenters left the link to a Hand in Hand article called “Inoculating Our Children Against Racism” written by Patty Wipfler. The article has a series of suggestions, which I thought made sense, so I thought I would share some key ideas.

The basic premises of the approach are justice and respect:
Children have an inborn sense of justice. Children are able to retain their keen sense of justice if they are treated with respect. If a child feels safe and strong, he will respond with indignation to racism, whether it's directed at him or at someone else. He will know that the racist attitude he has witnessed is wrong, and won't adopt it as his own…What makes children vulnerable to racism is to treat children like we are better than they are, we know better than they do, we are more important than they are, and our feelings have more validity than their feelings. Instead, we need to guide them with respect for their intelligence, whether they are acting intelligently at the moment or not.
So what does it mean to treat a child with respect? The article includes a list of specific things, most of which I think are intuitively obvious - things like don’t use put-downs such as bratty, whiny, and stupid and do not hit, threaten with physical attack, shame, or blame. These kinds of attacks by adults lead children to believe that some people deserve to be called “bad” and then mistreated.

This one bullet point in particular caught my eye because it contradicts something most mainstream parents in this country take for granted:

The child should not be intimidated for having upsets about the things that matter to him. In particular, the child is allowed to express feelings with crying, tantrums, and "freedom of the mouth" while crying or tantruming. You, as parent, will often set limits that upset your child. That's your job, and it's an important one. However, your child's job is then to blast away the bad feelings that those limits bring forth, so he can recover his sense that you care and that his life is a good one. When a child cries, has a tantrum, or storms in response to a limit, he is using an inborn healing and cleansing process. He needs your attention while he gets rid of awful feelings. It restores your child's sense that his life is good, and his trust in you and others.
I can see in my head a number of people I know snorting and rolling their eyes at this point. I would guess their response to the passage above to be something akin to “So I’m supposed to reward my child for throwing a tantrum by giving him attention? No way. What do tantrums have to do with racism anyway?!”

The article addresses that question by describing how racism "piggybacks" on early mistreatment and fears. Rather than repeat the entire section, I will quote the bullets that pertain to the white child, because that is what I am raising.

* A child has bad experiences, either at the hands of adults or during threatening accidents or illnesses. He carries feelings of being terrified, separate, helpless, and unable to fight for himself. These feelings can be kicked into play by small incidents like not getting the first turn at bat, or losing his lunch pail, or having heard a fight between his parents. His fears make him withdraw at times, and at other times, those fears make him aggressive and angry.

* When any child witnesses racism, it frightens him. The racism fastens onto fears that have cracked a child's confidence in himself and others, like a secondary infection invades an open wound. He doesn't feel good enough or strong enough to reject racist mistreatment and protest it. So the words, tones, and attitudes are imprinted in his mind, along with a fresh helping of fear.

* A white child's fears make him vulnerable to adopting racist tones, words, and stereotypes. When a white child feels separate, scared, or disconnected, he tries to escape these feelings by playing out the oppressor role he has been frightened by. The intensity of his actions will reflect the depth of the fears that the child carried before the racism he witnessed gave those fears a racial twist.
The next section of the article covers what to do once your child has experienced an upsetting encounter involving racism. The key activity is to listen to the child’s feelings so the child can heal. The child may need to cry, tantrum, or rage. The parent's role is to actively listen and support the child while he releases his anger and fear. Protecting the child from exposure to racism is discussed in detail as well.

I highly recommend you read the entire article at Hand in Hand. There are a lot of good suggestions. I haven’t had to broach the topic of racism with my 1 year old yet, but I think this article provides a thoughtful toolbox for how to be a proactive anti-racist parent.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such a lovely and thoughtful response to my post.