Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Post in Which I Ignore My Mother's Shushing and Talk About Race

Confession: I am one of those White liberals who wishes the world were colorblind. But it isn't. And neither am I.

I wasn't colorblind as a child in the 1970s in White, White Maine when I saw her down the aisle from me in that department store. There she was, a girl like me--same age, same size--but with brown skin! I could hardly contain my excitement. I wanted to meet her, to know her. I wanted to ask her about her brown skin! I ran to my mother and exclaimed in a loud voice, "Mommy, Mommy, there's a brown girl over there!" My mother was horrified. "Hush!" she whispered in a harsh tone. "We don't talk about that." Later, in the car, she explained to me that the girl wasn't brown, she was Black. I argued with her. She must have seen wrong. I had seen a girl with skin that was clearly brown, not black. But my mother explained that the correct word was "Black." Also, I shouldn't talk about it. Skin color was not something to be discussed.

Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When my own daughter was in kindergarten she was as apt to pick up a brown crayon as a lighter, pinkish one to color in the skin of the princesses in her coloring book. Unlike me, she attended school with children of different races. She swam with kids of different skin color at the YMCA and sang with them at the community music school. She regularly saw people of color in stores, restaurants, etc. But she wasn't colorblind either. An observant, scientific kind of kid, she eventually noticed that people with darker skin also often had curly hair. When she wondered aloud about this pattern in the kindergarten class, the (White) teacher responded by calling a meeting with me to discuss the problem with my child. Once again the message was clear: we don't talk about race. Good white people are colorblind. Or at least we pretend to be.

As adult I have come to understand, primarily by listening to and reading the words of adult transracial adopoptees, that White people need to enter the conversation about race, but we need to do so in a particular way: as followers rather than leaders. I cannot guide this conversation myself, nor should I look to other White people, including the well-meaning shushers such as my mother and my daughter's teacher, as my guides.

I start by acknowledging my own discomfort and ineptitude: my sheltered White upbringing did not in any way prepare me for honest, open discussions of race. I start by acknowledging that when I open my mouth (or put my fingers to the keyboard) to say anything about race, I may say something "wrong" ("Mommy, Mommy, look at the brown girl!") or give offence--and my lack of intent in doing so does not absolve me of responsibility. I need to be willing to be educated by people of color, to really hear them when they tell me how my words or actions affect them. My entry point is the many conversations about race and racism that are already happening, directed by people of color. I start by listening.

And I invite you to join me. Yesterday's conversation among transracial adoptees at Lost Daughters is a great place to start. If you haven't already read the post, I urge you to do so.


  1. Very interesting point about the discussion of race and upbringing.

    My experience (which is obviously different) we are constantly being told (by a society that is afraid and uncomfortable to talk about race) that we are living in a colorblind age, and racism is a thing of the past. And we should stop talking about race.

    Which is incorrect--racism can only be in the past to those who are not personally affected by it.

    In order to talk about race in this society or among friends, first we have to recognize the division that the system created (socially and economically) and what challenges are faced by people of color in a legacy system.

    What makes race an uncomfortable topic to those who are not subjected to its legacy is the idea that the system benifited many peoples "privliage" way of life.

    I think (with such a complicated topic such as this) one must have to understand the history of people who were affected by the social construct of race--tie it in with American history and how it played a major role in shaping the minds of people today. Understand the experiences of the people (past and present).

    To truly have a discussion about Race, one must read things that will make you uncomfortable.

    I would recommend (this is not an easy read) Michelle Alexaner-- The New Jim Crow. To get you started. If you find that interesting, I'm sure it will cause you to dig deeper in history. But it's not for the faint of heart.

  2. Thank you for your comment and for the book suggestion. I consider stepping into discomfort to be an important part of my process ... tentatively begun with this post.

    I've been noticing lately that some people (mostly though not exclusively White) seem to say things like "that history was terrible, but isn't it great that things are so much better now") whereas others (mostly though not exclusively non-White) say things more along the lines of "that history was terrible and ripples still through the present, affecting us today." The latter makes more sense to me.

  3. There is no real "correct" point of view when it comes down to it. It just depends on how much you know, how much you are aware of, and how much it affects you. These things are based on individual feelings. However, if I was to give my opinion, then I would say things fall into the second camp of thought. While there has been changes, the system really hasn't changed at all.

    I really hope you are able to get through that book, because it is a difficult read.

  4. I will certainly give it a try. Thanks.


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