Tug of War

Talk About Race

The mother with a son Bug’s age tells me she wants to raise her child colorblind. She is white, her boy Latino. She says our children will be able to grow up without racism. She says in her family, they choose not to point out differences.

My voice stumbles before overreaching. We’re both on our way somewhere. In this fleeting conversation, I say too much and not enough.

It’s a mistake for well-meaning white liberal parents to avoid conversations about race and bias. Racism is happening. It is grown right into the structures that govern our lives. What good do we do if we fail to give our kids a vocabulary for understanding it, for talking about it? For changing it?

It’s not up to us to wish away racism. We can’t simply decide we live in a post-racial world. If we could, why not eliminate poverty by pretending not to see  the homeless woman on the median strip with her cardboard sign? Why not declare gender equity and hope it will end rape?

In her post, “Let’s Not Be Quiet Anymore,” Linnea Nelson says,

As we begin to recognize that not all of us have the same resources, societal expectations, opportunities and history, we need to start the conversation that includes privilege, microaggressions, intersectionality and our own history as we open ourselves to conversations with our children.

My friend knows that a disproportionate number of black men are imprisoned in America  and that black people are more likely to get killed by police. She also knows that white people have a better shot at advanced degrees, lucrative careers, positions of power, and home ownership. When our children learn the history that feeds specious notions of race, they will be far better armed when they stumble across these chilling facts. They’ll be able to place this fact in a story and they’ll be able to do something with it. Maybe they will be better able to change that fact that our generation has.

I recall one chapter in Nurture Shock that sheds a bit of research-based light the limits of the colorblind approach. I tell my friend I’ll send it to her if she’s interested. She isn’t.

She is a white woman raising a child of color, yet conversations about the legacy of racism do not happen in her house. She is considering pulling her son from a class where racial justice is being discussed. Her approach makes sense to her even if it doesn’t to me.  I shrug and say, “we all have to do what’s right for our families.”

The brief exchange has shaken me. Something other than our disagreement has unsettled me. For all my fervor, I am conscious of my own failings in speaking with Bug about racism.

Here is what happens: I go into the library to pick out an assortment of books. This weekly ritual keeps a rotating mix scattered around the house. The supply includes picture books, non-fiction works, and graphic novels. For years, I’ve sought out books by writers of color with characters and story lines that will broaden my kid’s knowledge of the world. The libraries here stock an impressive range of material that can introduce children to tricky pieces of history. It’s all very accessible. I bring the world home: Japanese internment in WWII, farm worker organizing, the labor movement, suffrage, civil rights.

My boy pushes these books aside.

He goes for graphic novels. Zombie warfare and superheroes are his favorites. In the realm of non-fiction, he tends towards armaments, architecture, engineering, math.

The book about W.E.B DuBois? He pushes it off the pile without even opening it.

In those moments, my loyalties grab the opposite ends of the rope and start pulling. As a mother to this child in this home, how do I raise him, how do I guide?

My boy is kicking back after a full day of learning, chaos, complex social dynamics. School stimulates and wears him ragged. He comes home and reads for pleasure. I’m thrilled he is disappearing into a book — any book — and cultivating a love of reading. By being the agent of his own curiosity, he builds the capacity to make his way in the world.

Then another part of me tugs back.

Bug is not just my son in this home. He is a child of the new millennium on this planet in this place. He is a white boy in America. He is a neighbor. An emerging citizen. Isn’t it a parent’s job to step in next to him on this journey and say, “Let’s learn together”?  It seems simple enough to add one book from mama’s pile to our bedtime routine or our weekend schedule.

The darker truth is that the conflicts unnerve me in a deep-down place. It embarrasses me to see Bug so disdainful of these books. It’s as if his rejection of a kids’ biography of Wilma Rudolph is a measure of my failure as an anti-racist. Without being aware of the convoluted logic, I reach some secretly shameful conclusion that perhaps I’ve raised my son without empathy or the capacity to strive for justice. I give up on him. Ultimately, this is another way of giving up entirely. If he’s beyond redemption, then I can let myself off the hook, right? His lack of interest is an excuse to turn away from my terrible discomfort with the unfinished work of healing our world.

Maybe I’m more like my mom-friend than I care to admit. Steering clear of tricky topics relieves the stress and the confusion, at least temporarily. Do it enough and it’s possible to convince oneself that harmony is a fitting proxy for virtue.

Image: Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester and illustrated by Karen Barbour





2 thoughts on “Tug of War”

  1. I think it depends on his age. There is likely to be plenty of opportunity for you to broach these subjects with him, especially given our very polarized society at the moment. Sooner or later, something will come up in school, and you will find a way to discuss these things. You could start a conversation with someone in his presence and ask his thoughts and opinions. Again, depending on his age, you could actually have this very conversation with him, first gauging his awareness of a recent racially charged incident or two. It shouldn’t be seen as a necessity to discuss these things, but you could find ways of making it clear to him that you are concerned about his cognizance of these issues.

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