August 15, 2009

Color Coded

I have always said that the cure for racism will be a generational, but this cure has to be a conscious choice. I know my parents made a VERY conscious decision NOT to allow their parents to use certain words or express certain ideas around me and my brother. Period. They didn’t want us poisoned. It is one of their best gifts to me.

Here in the quasi-rural south where we live, the schools are still pretty dern segregated. This is not helping. That’s one of the many reasons I send my kids to private school; I didn’t want Sam and Maisy at a school that was 95% white, or 95% black, or 95% Hispanic/Latino. It’s not what America looks like, and either way you go---putting your kid in a school where all the kids share their race, or putting them in a school where they are a tiny minority-- it can create the mindset that your race makes you an insider or makes you an outsider. We don’t need any more of that mindset here, thanks. We have plenty.

The school my kids attend is a jumble of colors and cultures, and this is so normal to them it’s not worth remarking on for them. I see this as a step forward from my own generation. For me, it WAS worth remarking upon. For example, as a teenager/ young woman, if I saw an interracial couple, I had an emotional reaction, like an internal HELLZYA THINGS ARE CHANGING THINGS CAN CHANGE YAY feeling. My kids don’t have ANY reaction. An interracial couple is so regular to them, it does not blip on their radar, either positively or negatively.

They react to the couple as people, not as a political statement, and like them or dislike them based on the things that REALLY matter. Such as: Will these folks let me pet their dog, do they have kids my age and can I play with them, do they now or will they soon have share-able cookies?

My children are not CAREFUL about race. I still am, sometimes. A lot of people in my generation are. I am not, for example, even a tiny bit comfortable NOW, as I try to explain the complicated relationship folks of my generation have with race issues in the New South.

gods in Alabama is in part a story I told to explore the complicated relationship GEN X Southerners have with generational racism. I was asking mself, how do you love someone, a grandparent, say, when you grow up and realize they hold a worldview that is anathema to you? And yet, can you STOP loving the person who baked you cookies and kissed your skinned knees? Neither of you will change... What's the compromise? Should there be one? Where does love bend to principle, where does principle bend to love... It is MUCH EASIER for me to exlore these things via STORY than it ever is to approach them directly and try to have a conversation about them.

I don’t see this awkwardness, this need for indirectness, in my children or in the children of my friends, and I celebrate the HELL out of that.

For example---A girlfriend of mine got called in for a parent-teacher conference because her child had done something “Offensive.” The teacher was in a whispery panic, but my girlfriend kept asking questions that eventually led to the fraught disclosure that her child had done something the teacher deemed....racist.

My friend---an expat Canadian living in the south---was horrified. She leapt in her car and went down to the school to kill and eat her child, and then digest him and make him watch 14 hours of diversity programming on PBS.

The child’s offense? He had drawn himself playing on a playground, and one of the pictured kids he was playing with had deep brown skin and a big 70’s style afro. In other words, the pictured kid looked exactly like ONE OF THE CHILD’S ACTUAL FRIENDS.

My friend killed and ate the teacher instead. And yes, the teacher was off base, but I can sympathize. She is not comfortable with race issues, and she was so scared some racism got in her when she wasn’t looking that she overreacted. She was trying to be CAREFUL, and she will probably be careful her whole life. Meanwhile, my friend’s son was simply...comfortable. Comfortable drawing himself inside his own skin, comfortable drawing how his friend looked inside of his. Race issues did not blip on his radar.

Last week, my own girlchild came to me with an extravagant portrait of a brown-skinned, flame haired beauty wearing what looked like a ruffled flamenco dress. We had the following exchange.

Her: Here Mommy, I drew this picture of you!

Me: Oh, how pretty...That’s me?

Her: Kind of! It is you as a Mexican Black Spain person. With red hair.

Me: Of course. Um...what is a Mexican Black Spain person with red hair?

Her: It is a person from Mexico who moved over to Spain. Except you are black. With red hair.

Me: Obviously.

Her: Yeah, Momma. DUH!

Things like this, they give me hope for my homeland.

Posted by joshilyn at August 15, 2009 2:10 PM

You sound like my southern husband when he talks about his grandmother and her sisters. I made him pause his TV show and listen while I read this to him and he just kept nodding the whole time.

Thanks for sharing that.

Posted by: AJenTooMany at August 15, 2009 2:45 PM

Oh, I love the way your daughter thinks! I'm of the same generation you are, and I share your occasional carefulness. I don't want to have race (or any other difference) be a thought, but it pops into my head sometimes.

Back in the 90's - you know, the "Politically Correct" era - I had to attend sensitivity training. Not because I was insensitive (must make that clear) but because the company sent everyone. We were instructed that we should not identify people by their differences. That struck me as odd. I raised my hand and asked, "If there are a hundred people in the room, and I'm trying to indicate someone who happens to be the only black woman in the room, I can't say, "the black woman"?! I have to say "the tall woman in the red dress standing next to the punch bowl"?!" And they said yes. How does IGNORING our differences make us more accepting? It seems to me that ignoring her skin color implies that it is something to be ashamed of, which is exactly what we're trying to stop. I say we should respectfully acknowledge our differences so we can understand and empathize with one another. Stop being careful, and start being care-ful.
(Thanks for letting me share the soapbox.)

Posted by: Sandi at August 15, 2009 2:57 PM

bwwaahahahahha!!! Truly wisdom comes out of the mouths of babes.

And I hear you about the odd relationship GenX has with race. I thought the way you worked with it in gods was fantastic.

Posted by: Beth R at August 15, 2009 3:16 PM

As another mom in the South trying to raise kids without that "jumbled mindset" I totally understand your words. I just finished reading "Black Like Me" trying to gain insight into history I am too young to remember. I agree with your statement that the "cure...will be...generational." I think that only when enough time has passed that no one alive remembers separate rest rooms, water fountains and schools will be all be able to, in the best sense of the word, indifferently co-exist.

Posted by: lynn at August 15, 2009 4:08 PM

I was born in the south, raised in the north and raised my kids in the west.

This story happened when my 30 year old son was in 1st grade.

BJ was his best, most beloved friend. It was always BJ this and BJ that. I'd never met BJ until one day I went on a field trip with his class.

I asked Justin to point out the famous BJ and excitedly he said 'right there momma in the red shirt.' BJ was a very dark skinned black boy, the only one in the class and as far as I knew the only one in our town. But to Justin he was just his beloved BJ in the red shirt.

Posted by: pam at August 15, 2009 4:17 PM

Wonderful post, Joshilyn. Often I think I see improvement, and then something happens that knocks the wind out of me. I hope that your optimism (and mine, when I have it!) is justified.

Posted by: Sandra Leigh at August 15, 2009 6:12 PM

What a wonderful post.

Posted by: SaltedWithShadows at August 15, 2009 8:24 PM

I grew up in a 98% white town in the north and wanted different for my kids. They go to public school in a North Carolina city where it is about 80% minority. I don't think my kids see race, and it's great.
And now you've made me want to reread GIA. Not that that's a bad thing!

Posted by: Laura F at August 15, 2009 9:46 PM

My very first bestest friend was black. Who knew? She was just my best friend, until we moved across town.

And I grew up in a little town where being white was the minority; most folks were Hispanic.

But Lillian grew up in the South, and she remembers how things have been.

So imagine our delight when our youngest introduced us to his high-school girlfriend, who had just moved here from the Sudan. He didn't see skin color, he saw beauty.

Gotta love the upcoming generation!

Posted by: Fran at August 15, 2009 11:25 PM

Right there with ya. I remember being mortified when my preschool son, chattering away, pointed out "the black guy" at McDonalds one day. And "the white guy." I was shushing him madly until he pointed out "the green guy" and I really started looking.

Yes, there was a black man wearing a black shirt, a white man wearing a white shirt, and another man (whose race I don't remember at all) wearing a green shirt. And that's how he was identifying them.

I was projecting the race issue and confusing my baby. Aren't we all just a mess?

Posted by: Jen at August 16, 2009 7:16 AM

Sandi's comment about the silliness of ignoring our differences reminded me of the time my then 2-year-old son and I were in the hair salon at Walmart, waiting to get his hair cut (yes, I'm a big spender on toddler haircuts.) My son innocently and very loudly inquired, "Is the brown man going to cut my hair?" I tried to shush him, but the man immediately laughed and said, "But I AM brown! And y'all look pink to me. Nothing to hide, there. And yes, little man, I'm going to cut your hair!" He then smiled at me and said, "They speak the truth, don't they?"

Posted by: Melissa C at August 16, 2009 7:56 AM

Another "careful generation" gal here, who has lived in lily-white towns all her life. We purposely had our daughter in a preschool the next town over because it WASN'T so lily white, and maybe she'd see skin differences and think nothing of them.

Though I still have to contend with "Why is that girl so black?" or "I don't like that brown boy", and I DREAD the first time she sees or hears of a racially-motivated incident and I have to start explaining the whole mess to her!

Posted by: Brigitte at August 16, 2009 8:53 AM

Oh yes. Oh yes oh yes oh yes. This is me and my parents/grandparents and my kids, too. I was born and raised in a midwestern blue-collar town full of mostly 1st, 2nd & 3rd gen European-Americans. Up there, race meant did your people come from Italy or Poland or Ireland or what? My beloved sweet tiny cookie-baking grandma's father came from a part of Europe where folks are a bit swarthy, complexion-wise, and she was subjected to a lot of prejudice because of it and she grew up not liking anyone who didn't have her exact ethnic makeup. There was a LOT of racism going on in my family of origin, yo.

But NOW I live in the south (well, Texas) in a town that has a lot of tech industry and universities and whatnot and my kids go to public school with kids from ALL OVER THE WORLD. They have best friends who spend their summers with family in China and Taiwan and India and best friends who have awesomely large afros (in the case of one of my son's friends) and awesomely teensy braids (in the case of several of my daughter's friends).

Our little neighborhood is full of color -- all KINDS of color -- and I LOVE THAT because my kids will do better than I did, much as I like to think and hope I did better than my parents did, with thinking people don't have to look exactly like me or have their people come from where MY people came from for me to like them.

Posted by: Badger at August 16, 2009 10:16 AM

One of my friends married a man of a different race. After they had dinner at my house, she commented that it was the first time they had gone out somewhere and no one had said anything about the race thing. My kids didn't notice. I think because we never made a big deal out of race and neither did they.

Posted by: donna lee at August 16, 2009 8:22 PM

That was a great post. A little child shall lead them....

Our girlchild married a New York China Texas person with black hair. He's very American, but his parents are old-world, and let's just say the cultural differences can get interesting. But now that our daughter and SIL have had their first baby, the Chinese grandparents and the lily-white grandparents have totally bonded with each other. There are no worries about being PC or whatever. We're just family, cooing over the same baby.

Posted by: Meg Moseley at August 16, 2009 11:45 PM

I'm so glad you wrote this post. I loved "gods" because I know what it is like to love an older relative who has such a different attitude than you do about race. You know they are wrong, but you love them anyway and you choose not to raise your children that way. I read "gods" while at the beach, and suggested it to my book club a few months later. There was a woman there -- raised in the Midwest and whose best friend is black -- who dogged the book *sorry to tell you* because she thought it embodied all that is racist and wrong about the South. WHAT!?! I was FLABBERGASTED!!! I felt that it was SO anti-racist. I seriously don't understand how you could read it any other way. I think I'll tell her about your post.

Posted by: Lori B. at August 16, 2009 11:55 PM

I'm learning that as my Granny gets older, she has less of a filter than she used to. It can be a wee bit embarrassing at times!

I grew up in so many different places with so many different skin colours (East Indian, Native Indian, Sudanese, Lebanese, Afghani, etc....) that it was never a big deal. Sometimes I was in the majority, sometimes I was not. Well, as a red headed, fair skinned kid I was usually in the minority!

I think there's still a lot of careful going on... I recall an event at work where there were about twenty adults in a room and one child (it was a gift exchange and he was helping hand out gifts). The adults were trying to tell him to give the gift to the "girl in the blue shirt" and there were about five of them in the room, he was confused...

Finally, the girl in question just said "geez people, just tell him to give it to the black girl!!" No one had wanted to actually say it...

Posted by: Heather Cook at August 16, 2009 11:57 PM

Oh, it is hard to have someone in your family be judgemental.

All through my childhood my best friends were black, and I never thought anything of it. I never thought my mother did either. At least until college. I knew my grandparents had an opinion on the subject, but I thought my parents were different. I remember going to the mall with a guy friend one day to help him pick out some shoes which is prefectly normal. But when I got home I got a lecture about the fact that white boys might have seen me with him and not want to date me now, and how if I had a black boyfriend they would kick me out of the house. I was just beyond shock and all I could manage was to tell my mom that if boys didn't want to date me because I was friends with a black guy then I would not want to date them in the first place.

And I know someone who calls his bi-racial grandchildren his little n!@@&*s and thinks nothing of it. I cannot believe no one else in the family finds it offensive enough to tell him to stop. I cannot imagine being a child and being called a derrogatory name by my grandparent.

So Bravo for having children who don't see color as a barrier, and even better for the fact that you support them and their choices!

Posted by: Karen at August 17, 2009 5:56 PM

I'm glad you wrote this post for a slightly different but related reason. I'm a church secretary in a really depressed, poor neighborhood of Chicago. Nearly all the truly awful, truly abusive drunks who try at least weekly, sometimes daily, to mess with me are African American. It tempts my own inherent racism A LOT. Thank you for the reminder that God has beautiful children of EVERY color out there in the world!!

Posted by: Kate Setzer Kamphausen at August 18, 2009 12:35 PM

Your daughter kinda rocks, doesn't she?

My first year at UGA, some frat boys put out a pamphlet laden with racist ugliness and so the campus was pretty much all het up when I got there. And moved into a historically black dorm. It was an eye-opening experience for me and it cemented in my mind the idea that we need to accept our difference as a matter of fact while celebrating the our similarities. So it sounds to me like the younger generation is finally getting it right. Yay!

Posted by: Heather at August 19, 2009 9:19 AM