Assumptions, Biases & Irrational Fantasies

Category Archive

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

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.


Speaking Up Is Hard to Do…

Today, while I was at work, one of the teachers made a comment about wanting to choose a doctor who had gone to school in the United States. Then, she said “I’m sure that’s biased…” to me in a half-joking kind of way, since I’m the resident anti-bias lady, and I immediately responded, “Oh, that’s okay.” also in a half-joking kind of way.

But then, walking to the train station on my way home, I wondered should I have said something more? Did I miss a teachable moment? What if a student had heard her inadvertantly? How would a child from another country feel about such a statement? Would training in a European country be better than training in an Asian or African country? This brings up lots of questions.

In the moment, I immediately thought about my mother, and how she feels similarly. I started to share that, then decided not to. I think I’m kind of ashamed that my mom feels that way, though she states that her primary issue is whether or not she can understand the doctor’s speech if they have an accent. And I agree that it is important to be able to understand one’s medical care provider. Honestly, I think in my mom’s case it has more to do with having been frustrated about not being able to choose her medical provider due to HMO issues.

In the case of this teacher, I see her being overwhelmed at the long list of providers to choose from, looking for some way to narrow it down. But it does seem problematic to make such a judgment. But what really confounds me is this: when do I decide to speak up about something, and when do I let it go? When is it appropriate? Anti-bias work requires that you generally make an effort to confront bias more often than a person typically would. Now I’m wondering if I should mention it to her sometime.

I’ve spent my life attempting to cultivate some credit as a badass straight-talker who tells it like it is and calls ’em like I see ’em. Really though, I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to confrontation. I’ll do it, but first I’ll procrastinate and ignore the problem and avoid it and start to address it and chicken out and dance around it and see if I can get out of it somehow. Then, when I can’t avoid it anymore, when avoiding it will lead to clear and certain disaster, then I’ll deal with it. And of course, after that I’m totally relieved, wishing I’d done it sooner. Life’s funny that way.

But there will always be an excuse as to why I can’t confront bias. There will always be a reason why it seems like the wrong moment. Why it seems like it’s not such a big deal. Anti-bias only works if we stop making so many excuses, bite the bullet, and act. So I think I will say something to her about it. I’m not gonna pick a fight or anything, but I’ll just mention it, find some way to relate it to the classroom setting. This is the hard work, and if I’m not willing to do the hard work, then I have no right to ask anyone else to.

I’ll report back on what happens. Until then…