Assumptions, Biases & Irrational Fantasies


Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the racism category.

From Other Blogs…

From Resist Racism: How does racism harm white people?

Some thoughtful responses, worth taking a look at.

– Atena

Advertisements

4 results for racism, Part 2 (Finally!)

 

rac·ism [rey-siz-uhm]
–noun

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

 


[Origin: 1865–70; racisme. See race2, -ism]

—Related forms

racist, noun, adjective

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
rac·ism (rā’sĭz’əm) Pronunciation Keyn.

  1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
  2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

rac’ist adj. & n

racism
noun
1. the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races
2. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race

racism

The belief that some races are inherently superior (physically, intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them. In the United States, racism, particularly by whites against blacks, has created profound racial tension and conflict in virtually all aspects of American society. Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.
[Chapter:] American Politics

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

As time goes on, I am confronted with many issues of bias that I generally think are important topics for discussion. The main topic of this blog is to inform my personal practice of anti-bias advocacy, especially in regard to working with young children. I find this topic to be of particular significance because it speaks to the dynamics of engaging in discussions about racism, which are essential to developing effective anti-bias education and training for adults who are in positions to influence the lives of children.

I don’t know how much anyone is keeping up with the various controversies in race and culture these days, but there seem to be quite a lot of ‘blackface parties’ going on. A lot of white people dressing up and acting out stereotypes of black people (or other races), getting caught with pictures posted on the internet, and then maybe sort of apologizing. Apologies range from reasonably sincere “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong – I’m really sorry” to the indignant “I don’t see what the big deal is – we didn’t do anything wrong and we’re not racists, and why are you so offended, we’re just having fun, etc.”

And then there’s Shirley Q. Liquor. More on that later.

Anyway, I have been reading blogs about these blackface parties, most recently involving two religious organizations – a christian school and a church. Riverdale Christian Academy hosted a graduation party for students with a Southern Plantation theme. Adult employees of the school put on a pageant of the antebellum era, painting themselves brown and dressing up as slaves. There was a skit during which a runaway slave was retrieved. At the church in North? Carolina, during a church fundraiser, a group of members got brown to celebrate some traditional black spirituals that they love so well.

That these things happen at all is disheartening to me. But I’ve become pretty accepting of (though not complacent in) the fact that there’s a lot of fucked-up stuff going on in this great country of ours (and the world at large).

What gets to me, though, is what goes on in the ‘comments’ sections whenever anyone reports or blogs about these things. Even knowing that blog commenters aren’t necessarily representative of the majority opinion (though I have no proof that they aren’t), I find it truly disturbing how many people are totally removed from the fact that this kind of behavior is offensive. And hurtful. And harmful. Here are some quotes from discussion of Riverdale’s party on Tate Hill’s blog, Urban Knowledge

“Who is hurt from what happened???? Nobody was hurt or offended unless they chose to be. Stop venting these vendettas against people of a different race. It has already been said, it’s not offensive for the roles to be reversed. Get over what happened. People do skits and depictions of bad things that have happened in history. There have been plays about the holocaust, no one would be offended. If anything, it would raise awareness of what happened, to act as a reminder. There are things that happen every day that could be “offensive” some just choose to not wear feelings on their sleeves. This is not Michael Richards screaming the “N” word in a crowded theatre. To my knowledge there is no accusation of inappropriate words or actions other than their faces painted black.

And….hasn’t this church already issued a statement saying that they are sorry if they offended ANYONE. That is a very blanket apology. Raise your hand if you want them to come visit your house and kiss your feet. Perhaps that would make you feel better.

By Anonymous, at 5:28 PM

One thing makes me really suspicious of these comments, though, is the fact that essentially, they’re all the same. Or rather, they’re mostly the same. There are about 7-10 variations on a theme going. Personally, I read that as people who are uncomfortable confronting their won discomfort falling back on slogans and ideas they’ve picked up over the years to justify or hide their prejudices, which they don’t know how to come to terms with. That example that actually features several of the variations, including

  • ‘They chose to be offended,’
  • ‘Get over it,’ (i.e. ‘This is uncomfortable, please stop talking about it’),
  • ‘The “Role Reversal Theory” (i.e. ‘Why aren’t white people entitled to do the same things minorities do in exactly the same ways?’),
  • and the very popular “Nobody said ‘n——‘… what’s the problem?”

This quote was also noteworthy, and segues well into my next point:

 

“I am so confused, I thought racism was saying or at least acting like you hate someone or something. I am missing the racism in what these people did. They depicted a time in the past and how it was reconciled. HOW WAS THAT RACIST????? Is there anyone on this blog that was a slave???? I don’t think so. You’re blaming these people for something that happened…what!??? not to you???Amazing. Taking on someone else’s burden, how…how.. Christian of you. While you’re at it, go for blood.

By Anonymous, at 5:08 PM

I had a friend in high school whose mother claimed that she herself couldn’t be a racist because she did not spit on black people. Which brings me to my next point – and back to the discussion of definitions and semantics: in these blog conversations about racism, it is clear that there are a few distinctly different ways of defining racism, and 2 particular ways emerge:

1) Racism is intentional acts of hate and discrimination. Racism is evil, and racist people are bad. People espousing this idea seem to believe that they must approve their own personal participation in racist behavior, and therefore if you didn’t try to or mean to hurt anyone, then you haven’t done anything racist. Conversely, racism is context-specific, so if it is not directed at you, then it does not affect you. This idea centers on intentionality, and fits nicely with the general American ideal of autonomy and the notion that the only person who can tell you who you are is YOU.

2) Racism is a system of oppression backed by institutional power. People behind this idea have generally heard it described in this specific way through some academic or social justice-based encounter. In this context, racism is described as a harmful social structure that must be ‘deconstructed.’ In this view, people of color cannot be considered racist, as their prejudices are not backed by institutional power. This definition often leaves people in the Notion 1 group baffled and alienated, thinking Notion 2 espousers to be irrational and unfair, as it seems to place all responsibility for racism squarely at the feet of white people and goes against the commonly held (and seemingly more comfortable) belief that “everyone’s a little racist,” as racism is seen more as emotive than socially constructed. Also, Notion 2 resembles the dictionary’s definition less than Notion 1, rendering it useless for many.

And of course there are gradations in-between. But these are the principle views that come out from what I’ve read. And I think this misunderstanding is a large part of the breakdown of conversations about racism and race relations – how meaning can make or break a conversation: is racism individual, intentional and context specific, or is it systemic and unavoidable – something you must try NOT to be a part of? These are dramatically different ideas, and if people are going to attempt to engage in any kind of dialog on racism, let alone work to stop, then the differences in their ideas about racism must be addressed and to some degree resolved. Otherwise, where one sees a problem, the other does not.

My opinion is that we’ve really got to stop raising children to believe that racism is evil, and that people who do racist things are necessarily bad people. Children who grow up thinking that only bad people participate in racism will become adults who are unable to recognize their own prejudices (that they are bound to have at some point) without having a crippling identity crisis that stops their potential for anti-racist development dead in it’s tracks. And they won’t be able to recognize racism in others constructively, without judgment and blaming, effectively closing the ears of the accused to any potential lesson. This happens again and again. And it’s more than unproductive – it is counterproductive. It is harmful. This system of meaning perpetuates a cycle of silence and misunderstanding.

In addition to paying particular attention to our meanings, we also need to examine our goals in conversations about racism and other forms of oppression. Why are we engaged in dialog? What outcome do we want? Is it to address problematic behaviors? Or is it to out someone as “a racist”? Are we making the effort to clarify someone’s position, or perhaps just reassert our own? Will we shame others into silence, or listen, and perhaps see their hearts revealed?

This might be a good time to bring up Shirey Q. Liquor. When I initially heard of this character (a white man portraying a black “welfare mother” in blackface) I was incensed and horrified. The more I read about it, the more convinced I was that this performer was on some serious bullshit. Than I brought it up with my husband, who is my biggest devil’s advocate. He got me to pay attention to the information I was reading, and then eventually watch some of the performances (thanks, YouTube), to develop a truly informed opinion.

Now I am certain that Shirley Q. Liquor is disrespectful, ill-informed, harmful, and extremely problematic. But because I listened to my husband and watched the performances, I know why I feel that way. Before it was based on a purely visceral reaction and I dismissed the act out of hand. Now I can articulate that the contrived “ebonics” accent and blackface makeup create a farce that does not reference itself, only the behavior it mimics. I can say that this performer might have created a character that creates empathy for single, black mothers in poverty if he had treated the character with more genuine respect, instead of mocking vulnerable women and their families for the sake of making money and garnering public attention.

Now I can see that initially, I wanted to assert my opinion about this performance without seeing it firsthand, and I wanted anyone I spoke with to assume that because it was me saying it, that my critically uninformed opinion would be enough.

My point is, that not only do we have to clarify and articulate our own meanings, but we also have to find out where other people are coming from, and make sure they are saying what we think they are saying. In fact, the act of listening will help us explain our own thoughts more clearly and relevantly.

The universe gives me so much to write about – I’ll try not to get overwhelmed and post again soon.


4 Results For: Racism

 

I’ve been reading a particular conversation online about racism and ‘reverse racism’ and the denial of white privilege. It’s got me thinking about the definitions of words and how the general populace has no working definition, no reasonable common vernacular with which to discuss systems of oppression. So when we start arguing, we’re not really ever arguing about the same things.

Of course, now that I think of it, this is true with most systems of meaning. We skim the surface with each other, taking connotations for granted and not examining the roots of the language we use, sharing little in regard to the subtleties and deeper meanings of the words and phrases we toss around.

 

I try to be precise in my use of language – often failing, but usually trying. I get lazy like everyone, I fall back on “You know what I mean.” You know what I mean. You know what I mean? I pause and wonder ‘Will they get what I’m trying to say?’ and ideally I’ll slow down, clarify, ask questions. Less-than-ideally, I’ll plow forward, hoping that they’ll figure it out.

 

Feminism and racism are explosive kinds of words. Loaded. These words are rarely able to sneak into a conversation, especially when converted into their related noun and adjective forms: eyebrows raise, blood pressure begins to rise, and the way is laid for explanations, arguments, defenses, accusations, denials, subject changes and uncomfortable silences. I wonder, though, how often do we use these words (and others like them) and really try to make sure our partners in conversation know what me mean. You cannot be responsible for another person’s understanding, but you can at least work hard to be clear about what you mean. For example, when I refer to feminism, I seldom say “…meaning the struggle against sexist oppression.” Such a description might be helpful toward keeping the conversation going, as many people begin to search for a way out of a conversation where the concept of feminism is introduced, because for them it signifies irrational, angry women on a mad rampage (among other things).

 

I should probably be explaining myself better. I should be asking more questions, like “What do you know about feminism?” or “What does ‘feminism’ mean to you?”

 

I should probably be talking less in general. I am one of those people who can talk themselves into a downward-spiraling vortex if I don’t watch myself.

 

So, anyway, I’ve been reading this heated blog conversation about racism and as usual, the participants and commenters each appear to have a different understanding of what the word ‘racism’ means, and what the difference is between racism and prejudice. In regard to ‘reverse racism’ participant, a highly intellegent and reflective woman named Kali made this point:

 

“The bottom line is that your argument about “reverse racism” is unsupportable. It’s been ably refuted in the literature on race relations by everyone from Omi & Winant, to Patricia Williams, to bell hooks, to Derrick Bell, to Beverley Daniels — historians, legal scholars, humanities scholars and psychologists. No one with any credibility in the field of race relations believes in it. It’s the racial equivalent of men crying out they’re being oppressed by “feminazis.” As a diversity trainer, you should know better than to repeat that sort of nonsense.”

 

In response to that, someone made this valid point:

 

“And surely you are not saying that simply because past and present “historians, legal scholars, humanities scholars and psychologists” have refuted what DG said, that we should all just say, ‘Hey, everything that can be said about this has been said…no need to talk any further on the subject…dead topic…’ “

 

So, who gets to define what these words mean – in this case, ‘racism’? Obviously there are dictionary definitions. But American english as we speak it has its own forms of oppressiveness, and any dictionary that defines racism will more than likely be doing so through the cloudy lens of racism. American Heritage actually has a Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which I was hopeful about, until I read within their definition of racism that

“…Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.”

The problem here is that this definition suggests that the civil rights movement emliminated the institutionalization of white domination over black people. This is inaccurate. Dictionaries are viewed as documents of high authority, often deemed as the height of accuracy. So when the dictionary tells people that white domination is no longer institutionalized due to the civil rights movement, what does that mean? It means it is a source that we cannot trust to define these terms.

As Kali referenced, there are many great minds who have put forth functional definitions of terms in the lexicon of race relations, but while those are valid and useful for some of us, how do we convince others that such definitions could be valid and useful for them, too? Can we have a conversation using common terms? Is it even possible?

There is much more to be said, but we’ve got places to go and I’ve kept my child waiting long enough. To be continued…


Me and White Guys… Part 2

When I first realized that I was not being noticed because I was essentially invisible to a group of people, it was quite painful. My ego could barely stand such a notion – surely not I? I admit to being something of a megalomaniac, so the idea of my goddess self going unnoticed by mere mortals was a hard blow to take.

Beyond all of that, as people we just generally have a lot invested in being. Existing. When that gets challenged, a struggle ensues.

So, I noticed a blog linked to this one and I went to investigate – it was lainad – one of my favorite blogher.org contributors. She’d written something in her own blog, Writing is Fighting (LOVE the title!) on this topic after reading Me and White Guys… Part 1, sharing an account of her own experience of invisibility-induced trauma. This, in turn, got me thinking about another incident, which I described in response to her post. I’ll share it here, for your reference:

I was at a Chicago Public Radio panel discussion on race relations with my husband and daughter (who was about 6 months old at the time). There was a meal served afterwards, and the radio personalities were mingling and chatting with everyone. I happened to be on the food line right in front of the event’s moderator (who’s name I can’t remember), who’s a moderately well-known radio personality in Chicago. And as I stood there, waiting for the line to progress, a man (a white man) walked excitedly up to the radio dude, and placed himself between us, literally pushing me (however nudgingly gently), as though I hadn’t been there. And there it was – the rage, the shame, the shock of invisibility and out-and-out rudeness. He was so eager to get in with the radio guy (who didn’t notice me either) that he was willing to negate my existence to do it.

Besides all of the typical reasons for being upset about this kind of thing, I was also feeling the exhaustion that comes from being a new parent. I was just glad to be out of the house, and for a few moments, not holding a baby. And it was ruined.

Incidentally, this guy who nudged me out of his way was also the same guy (that guy) who stood up during the panel discussion q&a and stated that he wasn’t a racist, and why don’t black people take back their communities, poverty is so sad, if you tried harder you’d be able to overcome, blah, blah, blah (sorry – hyperbolic paraphrasing in effect).

Anyway – after stewing about it, I happened to run into the guy again coming out of the bathroom. I couldn’t take it, I had to say something. Maybe because I was holding my daughter in my arms, and I couldn’t bear the idea of not standing up for myself when she was watching. So I did.

“Excuse me – earlier, waiting in line for the food, you pushed me out of the way so you could get to [Radio Dude], and I really didn’t appreciate that.”

(Smiling, fumbling over words)”Oh – I’m sorry – I didn’t mean anything by it.”

I don’t remember what I said after that. Nothing particularly dynamic or scathing. I remember thinking ‘That’s a fuckin’ weak apology – I don’t care what you meant by it, you’re an asshole.’ I remember feeling like he was less interested in expressing contrition and more interested in getting back to the party. I definitely remember still being pissed.

But I’ll tell ya, I did feel better than if I hadn’t said anything at all.

I hadn’t thought about this incident until I read Laina’s post, at which point it all came back to me in an instant. The internal struggle I’d had over being bumped out of this guys’ way was overwhelming in its intensity. And so much of my anger came from the fact that the situation had the power to effect me in such a way. Imagine how often people feel this kind of anger and shame everyday – how it is unleashed and left to fester or grow. These things don’t just dissipate – they continue to live inside us, and will eventually get out somehow.

I wonder what it must be like to be on the other side of this dynamic. I wonder how many white guys are wandering around the world, knocking women and people of color toward and over the margins, oblivious to the trail of wreckage they leave behind. I wonder how many actually notice that they’ve tripped over an actual human being, and as Laina submitted, don’t know what to do and solve their quandary by pretending not to see us. How much of this behavior is pretending and how much is oblivion due to complete self-absorption, induced by privilege?

I know I can’t effectively practice anti-bias and generalize about white guys. But I do recognize that these trends occur for a reason.

I’ve met white guys who are nearly desperate to give the impression of having shed their privilege. I can’t say I blame them – when you look closely at white male privilege, and how it has affected everyone else in the world, it’s pretty ugly. No one wants to be a part of something that most people in the world hate. So they distance themselves from it, or deny that it exists. There are some people who are actually making a real and sincere effort to overcome their racism and privilege by not only admitting that it exists, but attempting to actively lay it down when the opportunity arises and lay down their weapons of unbalanced power. This is, of course, rare (to say the least).

I am torn. I do not want to demonize white guys. I want accountability for damaging behavior. I want to be forgiving. But I find it nearly impossible to forgive people who are indifferent to my existence and ways they may have hurt me and others. Dr. Black Girl Pain at Blogs in the Key of Life, wrote something about black people and forgiveness that I relate to on many points, and find to be relevant to this issue:

Isn’t there’s a better way we can handle white folks? One that doesn’t involve us spitting in their faces and going upside their heads everytime they pass, but doesn’t involve us forgetting what’s been done to us as a people and acting as if they’re our saviors?” Read more here…

So, yeah. I find it so difficult to be forgiving and express my understanding. But I have to find a way to do it somehow, because the way that I want to be, and the work that I do demands that I do so. It’s difficult, though.

That’s all for now.


The Terror of “The Past.”

In the aftermath of Michael Richards’ racist tirade, I’m thinking about the things he said and the reactions I’ve been reading in blogs. It has me wondering about people who do not hold claim to African American identity and history: how many of them have any idea of the effect these kinds of things have on us?

I wonder how many people consider the epoch of slavery, and the following years of socially sanctioned hatred and abuse against free blacks as a healed wound? For many, the very idea of slavery is hidden behind layers of ignorance. A short section in a few history classes, that no one was really asked to think about. Portrayals in movies, usually Alex Haley’s Roots, with little opportunity for engaging conversation on what such a history might mean to people today. Whatever exposure people have to this history, it is certainly not ongoing. It is compartmentalized, usually into Black History Month (I saw bell hooks give a lecture at Northwestern University and she called it ‘Negro Employment Month’ – I laughed so hard!).

So people are able to think about “The Past” (including, but not limited to slavery, lynchings, segregation, and the general systematic denial and/or obstruction of rights) as being over and done with. No longer an issue. I get the feeling that some people are thinking about these things as a single issue, and that the issue has been resolved. I’m wondering how many people are thinking along these lines. How many people do I walk by every day, how many people do I talk to, smile at, hold the elevator for – that really believe that lynching is something that happened in the past, and that there’s no connection to it now?

Some things will always be painful. What has happened in the history of this country that these wounds should be healed? The Emancipation Proclamation? No. Desegregation? Also no. Civil rights? Hardly. Every advance made by people of color in America has been through a hailstorm of hatred and contempt. Contempt is poisonous, and in this country, we get dosed with it every day. Like mercury in the water supply – we don’t even know that we’re drinking it, and that it’s making everybody crazy.

This is the metaphor I’ve come up with: Slavery was us being put in a meat grinder. That’s not happening anymore. But when we weren’t being put through the meat grinder anymore, we were still being shot at, trapped, vivisected and occasionally still “accidentally” getting knocked into the meat grinder. This went on for generations, then when the “Civil Rights Era” happened, it was clear that the meat grinder was no longer publicly sanctioned, and all other forms of hunting and trapping were strongly discouraged. But so many traps were set, that we still get caught in them. And the weapons have evolved, so a lot of people either don’t know they’re using them, or know full well that they’re using them, and that they won’t be held accountable.

In the meantime, we haven’t forgotten the meat grinder. Or any other stabbings, bludgeonings, shootings, etc. And we’re still bleeding and scared.

When people are cavalier about other people’s post-traumatic stress, they undo some of whatever healing may have happened. Then our minds and souls have to revisit our trauma and put energy into healing ourselves again, and this process is painful (this is why people should not make jokes about being raped, or use the word ‘rape’ lightly. You could really fuck up somebody’s day by ripping open the scars of their trauma).

So, when Michael Richards says (on stage, with a microphone) “Fifty years ago, you’d have been hanging from a tree with a fork up your ass!” He’s not just making a horrible, horrible, horrible faux pas. He is invoking something much bigger than he – a painful history of power, hatred, fear and terror. Yes, American terrorism. He’s unleashing that torrent on everyone who hears his words, and I believe that for the reasons that I’ve just explained, it will be particularly disturbing for any black Americans who experience it.

All this to say history is not just in the past. It is all around us, we experience it everyday because we carry it with us with every step, every action, every word. Take care with what you say and do, and don’t take “The Past” for granted. It can still hurt.


Michael Richards. Now, seriously. Come on now.

Poor, poor decisionmaking skills (I am, in fact, shaking my head).  I thought that by now people would at least know that they’re not supposed to talk like that in public.

I also think, however, that comedians tend to get a little carried away with themselves and what being funny gives them licence to say and do.  This is why it’s a problem when people try to write off offensive humor by saying “It’s only a joke.”  In this case, it’s “I was just so mad.”  Unacceptable.

When I get mad, I don’t randomly pull racial slurs and epithets out of my ass willy nilly.  To follow that reasoning, Richards must call everybody a nigger when he gets mad.  Something tells me that’s not the case.

What’s unfortunate, in my opinion, is that Richards was not able to do anything but fly the “I’m really not a racist!” flag.  Whatever he thinks he is or is not, his behavior was profoundly racist.  He needs to own up to that, at least, if he wants to regain any respectability.  And, as a friend pointed out, the power dynamic he was trying to wield was totally fucked up.  I mean, to invoke the idea of lynching?  “This is what happens when you interrupt the white man?”  You CANNOT go there without mutual agreement, in a public arena, with a microphone ON A STAGE, as a celebrity and expect anything but big fucking problems.  That history is too painful.  Too raw, and too volatile. 

I think that we’ve gotten to a point as a media-based culture where we should be prepared for things like this to happen.  Where we should be holding performers to standards based on their own personality and ethics, and not those of the characters they portray.

But then, up until now, did we really have any ethical expectations of Michael Richard the actor? 

I hope that people can take a lesson on celebrity idolization from this.  Celebrities have their own stanky shit.  Some of them are bigots and assholes, just like any other random sample of people from the population.  Many of them are priviliged and ignorant.  Many are poor decisionmakers.

That’s what I have to say about that.  For now.


Inspired to endure less bullshit…

I had a great conversation with A. yesterday, talking about the assumptions that people make about children’s gender and race. I’m so inspired by how she doesn’t tolerate it. Not that I believe that less tolerance is necessarily the solution to our problems, but I have to admit that I wish I could draw the line the way she does about certain things.

I’ll back up a bit, give some context: A is my friend who provides excellent care for my daughter 3 days/week. She’s an outstanding care provider and a supercool ladygirl. So while I’m downtown shaping curricula and hanging out with other people’s children, A. is at my place, or in my neighborhood, guiding Babygirl through all kinds of journeys and adventures.

Stella is one of the sweetest-faced children you’ll ever live to meet, and leaving the house with her means hearing a lot of comments about said sweetness. Really, it’s like being with a celebrity sometimes. Of course, due to the rampantly huge-to-the-point-of-invisibility racism in this country, coupled with people’s natural curiosity, many comments that are essentially about her sweetness are mixed in with comments about her complexion, her hair texture and (if she’s with anyone but her father), tentative questions about her parentage (Babygirl’s skin is a nice honey brown, just like her Papa, whereas my skin is darker, like brownies and our nanny is white. I’m not sure what food to compare her to). She is also mistaken for a boy on a regular basis. This is mostly because we make no effort to put clear gender ID tags on her (e.g. barrettes, pink clothes, frilly whatnot). We seldom style her hair – it’s too short to bother, and I’m more concerned with it being clean than anything else. Though there have been times where she was wearing a pink dress and still was mistaken for a boy. I think it was lack of hair accessories.

I’ve long been decidedly against this society’s fetishistic gendering of small children through apparel. It’s not that I won’t dress Stella in pink, or put barrettes in her hair, etc. It’s more that I refuse to behave as though my daughter’s identity and well being are based on whether I adorn her with sexualized garments and accessories. I refuse to base her identity on something as changeable as colors and clothes. And I absolutely reject the idea that there’s something wrong with me as a parent for maintaining these ideals.

So yeah, back to the conversation with A: She described to me an incident where she encountered all of these issues at once in a woman who first complimented what a handsome boy Stella is, and then went on to bumble her way through comments on her possible biracial parentage. And A. had the wherewithall to just tell the woman to stop.

Now, I can’t say that I would choose to confront a well-meaning-but-clearly-inappropriate stranger in this way, but I do think that A. is pretty courageous in this. I’m more likely to either raise my eyebrows, smile stiffly and try to get away asap, then feel bad later for not giving the lady a verbal smack, OR I’ll posit a few gentle statements to challenge and discourage her assumptions and generalizations and offer a gentle lesson about race and gender. God – I hate being so gentle all the damn time!

But it’s the age-old question – Do you offer the lesson and possibly teach someone something they didn’t know (adding another brick to your tower of racism/whateverism-induced exhaustion), or do you react and leave them as ignorant as you found them (and possibly less open to learning due to embarrassment or anger)? Do you seize the teachable moment, or do you just go on with your day?

Many people of color take the stance that it’s not their job to teach ignorant people about race. My position is that whenever you are tired of ignorance, it becomes your job to do something about it. If you have knowledge, you have power and the associated responsibility.

I also believe that people of color (and any people who have knowledge that others do not have) are not “on-call teachers” as it were, meaning don’t think you’re entitled to a lesson on race, culture, whatever in the middle of the grocery store just ’cause you realized it’s time for you to learn something. That’s where the problem lies, I think – we have to be able to control when and how we respond to ignorance. Otherwise, it becomes another form of oppression. And we can only respond in the context of our own reality, i.e., it won’t be a universally applicable lesson.

This has got me to thinking that I need to be more in control of when and how I offer knowledge about my child and my self and my circumstances. Maybe that lets me off the hook for being so gentle all the time – it can be frustrating. I guess we’ll see. I’ve never been the kind of person to say “That’s none of your business.” Maybe I’ll try it – I don’t know. But A. has inspired me to consider that I don’t have to endure people making asses of themselves about my child’s race and gender every single time it happens. That’s kind of exciting.


In the infant classroom…

Today, I had a couple of moments where I felt like these teachers in the infant room weren’t paying as much attention to my kid as the others, and my immediate assumption was that it was because she’s black.

Of course, then I went through the logic and the reasoning and rationalizations – for one thing, she wasn’t there as a registered infant, she was there with me because my childcare fell through. So she wasn’t their responsibility. Also, there were quite a few children in there and very busy.

Besides those things, I’m pretty accustomed to Babygirl getting a lot of attention, so I guess I notice it when people aren’t really noticing her or asking about her at all. Then I wondered about whether it might have something to do with my girl wearing orthotic leg braces. Disability makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and leg braces are fairly visible. Then I wondered if the other kids would pick up on that discomfort and end up internalizing it.

I have no concrete proof to back this stuff up. So what is it, then?

These weren’t the regular teachers, they were visiting directors from other centers. And actually, one of them would talk to Babygirl occasionally, but it seemed as though the other wasn’t even acknowledging her.

One thing I’m sure is affecting my opinion is that neither of these women acted as though they had much interest in acknowledging me when I first came into the room. I was put off by that, and I think it essentially set the tone for our interaction in my eyes. From that point on, I think I saw them through the lens of 2 strange women who didn’t think enough of my (or my daughter) to acknowledge that we exist.

I have to acknowledge that these impressions that I had could easily be mistaken, that I could have misread them. I get touchy about white people who aren’t particulary friendly. I guess I think that if they don’t make an effort to be welcoming, then they could easily be unwelcoming. I often wonder exactly how many people secretly dislike black people, and sometimes I put that on people whom I don’t know very well. It’s a survival technique, of course, but it obviously doesn’t serve me well as often as I use it. And I’m definitely a little more defensive about my daughter – she has faith in all people right now, and I hate to see her look and smile so big at someone and they don’t notice or acknowledge her.

What can I do about this kind of thing? I think that part of it is just stuff I’ll have to learn to live with. I have to be careful about being over-sensitive about people’s reactions to my girl – my mom tends to do that with me. Also, I can try to model what I want for her in my interactions with other kids. That way I’m not transferring whatever I’m dealing with onto them and not treating the well, and then I’m providing a reference for how I want my daughter to be treated, more or less putting my money where my mouth is.

I still don’t know if what I noticed was real or imagined. I’ll just have to keep on watching.