I don’t think ANYone can really understand racism unless they’ve been on the receiving end of it. And as a very white person, I never really have. So I know my grasp of it is quite limited. It’s something I read about, think about, and can study in a museum kind of way. But it’s never really been my life.
But having kids who aren’t white changes that a little. It’s good that they start small. Because in case you didn’t know, people with serious racial issues tend to think children of color are adorable/so cute/precious, etc. And then the cute little African-American boy grows up into the scary black man. Or the sweet little Latino toddler becomes one of Those People who are dirty and greedy and stealing our jobs.
It’s good that that as children, they don’t get so much of that because it has helped to ease me into the whole idea that people won’t like my kids because of how they look. I’ve always been an “easer.” I like to wade slowly, one inch at a time, into the pool. So easing is good.
I’ve been thinking a lot about racism lately for a couple of reasons. One is that I was getting to know this person in a professional type capacity. And we were talking a lot about parenting and my kids and whatnot over the course of several days. And then when she first got a glimpse of my kids, I could see her face drop. Because I didn’t have the kids she thought I had. She wasn’t sure what to make of that. But the previous good things she thought or said about my kids flew out the window in matter of a millisecond. I could see them fly away. Was she rude to my kids? No. Did she think they were horrible people? Of course not. But she was no longer interested in them the way she had been before. Suddenly they were foreign (no pun intended) and out of her ability to relate to. Just like that.
Another reason this has been on my mind is that we have these neighbors who are racists. I know this with every bone in my body. I could give you the 137 reasons why they would fit the stereotype of someone who wouldn’t like people of color. But that’s not really how I knew. When we moved into this house 4 years ago, we met two of our neighbors. One being a couple with grown or almost-grown kids. Whom we love dearly. Another being a family who was initially very nice to us. But in a novelty kind of way. Like, “Oh! I know someone who adopted a little girl from China and she is so gorgeous! Remember, Honey? The Petersons from church? Or was she from the Phillipenes? I don’t remember. But she’s so cute! I would love to have one of those!”
The other house that is within proximity of us is the house with the racists. This is the family who the other two families said, “Oh! Wait til you meet them! They have boys your age!” Only…we never met them. And weeks turned into months. And then when warm weather happened, I made sure to go over to introduce myself. They were polite. But not friendly. Okay, I thought. Maybe they are the type who don’t like to play with others.
Only they do. As the years rolled around, I’ve watched them have a string of other neighborhood kids in and out of their house. And their kids flow in and out of others. And not once have they crossed over to say a peep to us. Any contact we’ve had has been initiated by me.
And there’s something about the way they smile really hard at my kids. Not to my kids, mind you. But at them. I can’t explain it. It’s just there. They have some issues with my kids’ skin.
Now if you are reading this and thinking, “Well. Really. How do you know that?” And rolling your eyes. And thinking this is just another example of someone wanting to pinpoint everything on race. I can totally identify with you. I used to be you. I really did. I thought, “Geez. Everything is about race. People who aren’t white want to make everything about race. Any flaw they may really have…it all gets twisted into some kind of racial thing.”
And that’s because Race Is Their Lives. People who aren’t white live in a world we white people don’t live in. Every day, they wake up with skin that isn’t white and have to deal with that all day long. Wherever they go. Is everyone they encounter treating them differently because of their skin? Of course not. But it happens so often, so much, that it becomes how they see, feel and think. It becomes reality. And they are forced to spend so much time defending it they can’t put down the shield for two seconds to see if it’s still there.
We can’t even begin to understand how tiring and hard this is. We can’t. I look at my boys and feel tired for them. For what I know will come as they turn into teenagers and then adults. And beyond. It’s all tough stuff.
Which brings me to two more stories –
One is when I was teaching way back when. It was my second year teaching. I had this great class, full of great parents, which happened to be quite diverse. There was this new kid in my class. I’ll call him Johnny. He and his family were black. This kid had some issues – learning differences and behavior challenges – that according to his mom, no one had ever brought up before. It took about 5 conferences for me to realize that Mom was a bit of a bully. And that she had likely bullied his other teachers into being quiet.
Quiet has never been in my repertoire.
There was an incident in the spring where Johnny did something naughty. And then lied about it. I don’t really remember the whole story. But I do remember that the lie was such that I had proof he had lied. It wasn’t just my speculation. He got his clip moved. Mom called wanting a conference. By this point, I had gotten wise and was having my principal sit in on the conferences. And so we met. And at one point during the meeting, Mom looked at me and said, “You are a racist. You are singling him out because he is black.”
I remember feeling pissed as hell. This lady was clearly playing the race card. Her kid had issues. She had issues. And she was hoping to shut me and my white principal up by dropping that bomb on us. Nuh-uh. Not gonna fly.
So I say, “Really? Why don’t we call the other black families in our class and see what they say. Let’s start with my Room Mom, shall we?”
(I don’t think I was that crass…but I said something to that affect.)
I have never forgotten that. And I never will. For a long time, it stuck out in my memory because I was angry at her. Angry that she pulled that card out, knowing it was very hard for a white person to counter it. And because I was sure of course that it wasn’t true.
But then, my self-education on racial issues caused me to remember it frequently for another reason all together. Because I would love to go back in time and handle that better. Apologize. And look her in the eye.
I don’t know her story. I don’t know how much crap she’s been dealt because of the color of her skin over the years. I don’t know what her previous experience had been with white teachers and their insensitivity. I don’t know a thing about what made her say that. I don’t even know what behaviors I might have exhibited to make her think that. And I don’t know for sure that race wasn’t playing into this.
If I could go back in time I would look at her and say, “Wow. I am really sorry you feel that way. What am I doing that is insensitive to your family? Please help me to understand.” Maybe I was right and maybe it really was all about her thinking her kid was perfect. But maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I should have heard her out.
Which brings me to Story #2:
Last week, 4’s best friend’s mom came to pick him up. They are a Japanese-American family. As we were chatting, she was telling me about this man in the gym who had just singled her out because of her race. And then she began to tell me about another gym that was known among the Asian community in town for being very racist against Asians. And examples of things they had said to her, etc.
This was one of those moments that I would have wanted to roll my eyes about 10 years ago. Because the examples she gave were things they might say to me too. How does she really know it’s about race?
But today, I understand a bit more about where she’s coming from. I have an idea about the battle she faces every day in her skin and with her accent. I can begin to understand how that would give her a different view of the world than I may have. And most importantly, I think I understand a better way to listen.
It’s hard to talk about race. We fumble along and don’t know how to say what we feel in a way that isn’t offensive. But that’s no excuse for silence. We need more conversations on race in our nation. We’ve come a long way. But we have a long way still to go.