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Monday, January 19, 2009

Race Questions

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day. In preparation for this, Offspring #1's kindergarten class read a story about Marin Luther King Jr. She came home and told me all about it. And then she had some questions.

"Mom, are we white?" This was a sincere question, by the way.

"Yes, we're white."

pause

"Is Katelyn white?" Katlyn is the blond haired, blue eyed, neighbor girl of Scandinavian descent who, frankly, could be the poster child for white folks.

"Yes," I said. She doesn't really know what it means to be white or black. We've never talked about the concept. I decide to explain.

"Steve is black," I said, referring to an adult family friend.

Ahh, the dawning of recognition. "Samuel is black!" she said, excitedly.

"Yes," I said, "Samuel has dark skin, but his dad is black and his mom is white." Oops, I've introduced another layer of confusion, because the next question was;

"Is Mr. Baby black?" Mr. Baby happens to also be known as offspring #2. He has the same skin tones as the rest of the family. I explained.

"Oh," she said. And she was done with the questions.

She's 5 and contrary to what you might think from this story very bright. (Not that I'm biased in any way.) We've never talked about race. She's had friends and teachers of all races. It was clear that she had never given one moment's thought to why some people's skin colors were different than others.

Which makes me wonder; By talking and teaching about people's differences, does it make it more difficult to see how they are all the same? Does it lump people into groups that they shouldn't be lumped into? If we divide people up by color and pat ourselves on the back for increasing our diversity, have we really diversified anything? Or have we just made everyone suddenly very conscious of their skin color and the skin color of those around us?

I'm pretty sure Offspring #1 considered skin color something similar to hair color. Lots of differences, but not a big deal. If we start focusing on how skin tones make us different, then don't we end up falling into stereotypes? Katelyn must be like this because she's white and Samuel must be like this because he's black.

Reality is, both friends Katelyn and Samuel are being raised in the same town by parents of very similar economic status. They attend the same public school system. These things are going to lead them to be more alike than different. The big differences between Katelyn and Samuel will be found in things that have nothing to do with skin color. For instance, Katelyn has one little sister. Samuel is the second youngest of 8. Katelyn attends one church; Samuel another. Katelyn takes dance. Samuel plays soccer. Katelyn is up at the crack of dawn. Samuel's mother has to drag him out of bed every morning.

Many businesses are required to report on race. We have Affirmative Action plans that we are required to present and show "improvement" on. Doesn't this just turn us from looking at who someone really is and push us towards making judgments based on skin color? In one breath we tell managers to hire the best person for the job. In the next we say, "minorities are underrepresented in your department." How can that not influence a hiring decision.

I'm glad Offspring #1 has learned about Martin Luther King Jr. And, in fact, we are heading to a day of service in his honor this morning. I'm glad things have changed over the years. I'm not sure, however, the emphasizing differences is the best way to go about it.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think your point is correct for your circumstances. However, there are plenty of places in the US where race is still an important factor in how people are treated.

Just because your kids haven't soaked it up through their skin doesn't mean it's not happening.

Regina said...

A dear friend came to work the day after her daughter's first day of kindergarten. She said when her daughter came out of class she burst into tears. "Mommy, I'm black,", she said. My friend said she didn't know what to say - "Honey, I'm sorry, I forgot to tell you?"

This little girl, like yours, had been raised without having attention drawn to those differences. Now she has a label she has to wear for the rest of her life. I don't have a final answer, but it seems to me that as long as we keep pointing out these things as differences then they will continue to divide us.

Davide Di Cillo said...

I think i'll teach my kids (when i will have some) their own pantone color :)

Anonymous said...

When I worked for a Canadian subsidary of a US company, my boss had me fill out a form for a US company we were a supplier for that stated we do not discriminate based on colour (sorry "color") or gender. It then went on to ask what ther percentage of our employees were which ethnicities. When I discussed this with my boss, we laughed because out staff of 12 consisted of 8 whites & 4 asians, 6 Canadians and 6 immigrants, 11 men & 1 woman (me). Since we didn't meet any our perceived ideas of an American quota, we wondered if that would mean we wouldn't get the contract (we did).

Ironically, they never asked about first language groups, the one thing that is a big deal in the city where we live (we would fail that one - 6 anglos, 1 russian, 2 bulgarians & 3 mandarin/cantonese - not a french speaker among us!)

mean aunt said...

Davide as far as I can tell that would make me 4685 C.

Momma to 1 Looking for #2 said...

As a transracial adoptive mama, skin tone differences are important because my child will be judged on her skin tone. Also, she is special because of the color of her skin, it makes her different just as her mama and daddy being white makes her different just as her being adopted makes her different. As long as when we identify differences we are not attaching bias or stereotypes then differences are merely that differences. Now if talking about differences we say she's tall she will be a great basketball player then we are setting up a stereotype and bias. So keep pointing out all the differences but merely as that. Also your daughter is at the age when they are just starting to notice skin tone and the way that you taught her was perfect (go mama!). You pointed out a person that she knows and showed the difference without stereotypes and bias. Keep up the great work.
P.S. I am a lurker and really enjoy reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

See http://cdrsalamander.blogspot.com/search/label/Diversity
for disscussions on the impact of the US Navy's diversity programs. The author is in favor of elminiating any tracking of race/ethnicty in his workplace.

Angela said...

I really loved this post. It spoke to so many things that I have been thinking. Thank you for writing it.

jessica lee said...

i'm glad you blogged about this. i don't have children, so i don't know exactly how best to approach this situation... but here's what i fear--

in bringing up children as being colorblind, or teaching them not to see color as much of anything, i worry that it diminishes what millions of people of color have been through in the past, or what they are going through currently.

i think we'd like to believe that race isn't an issue anymore in the US, but it still is. so when you teach children to be colorblind, it almost feels like it implies that race doesn't matter, when it still does.

pointing out the differences in our skin color and our cultures or races doesn't make a person racist... but when one makes assumptions about an individual because of their on the race, then it's clearly something else.

thanks for blogging about this. i think this is an important dialog to have and share.

Anonymous said...

I work at a university, in administration. One of the faculty in Poli Sci had students conduct exit polls during the presidential election and had the students help design the poll. He's a man of my own generation and wanted to include questions on race. The students DIDN'T SEE THE POINT of those questions. As far as they were concerned, the race of the candidate and the voters was a non-issue.

He recounted this in a continuing studies course (in which I was a student) where most of those attending were over 65. There were plenty of people in the room who lived through segregation.

We've come a long way, baby.

Anonymous said...

If we don't teach people that race doesn't matter, then how will they know that race doesn't matter?

It seems like the university students and the kindergardener kids have got the message. That's the point.

Any diversity mandates or quotas just extend the time that we have to care about race. If race doesn't matter then don't track it.

Anonymous said...

Having an English degree I am very aware of the power of words and the way our language structure controls our perception of things, events and people. So, when I teach my children about race and skin color I am careful to say, "Yes, he/she is a person with darker skin." instead of saying that he is a "black person."

I was very affected by our recent election and the number of times I heard Barack Obama described as a "Black Man." Yet, we never heard McCain descibed as a "White Man" He was just a man.

In doing this, we are perpetuating a division in our own mind - describing people first by a characteristic that implies belonging to a group, stereotypes, and division from "regular" people. Barack Obama should just be a "man." And if we do feel compelled to discuss his racial background, it should be secondary to his status as a person. So, he is a man with African heritage, he is a man with dark skin, black hair and brown eyes (or even black skin), he is a man with mixed racial heritage... Our national vocabulary regarding race perpetuates a focus on the differences and separates people first by "what" they are. This starts every conversation with an "identification."

When was the last time you heard a person of European heritage described FIRST based on skin color or race?

EHRL - I think you did a great job educating your 5 year old without introducing bias - I am just trying to make people more aware of how our language is perpetuating unconsious bias in every discussion we have.

And congratulations to us all that today we have inagurated a President who is a good man and brings a family background that povides a broad perspective on our diverse country - economically, racially and geographically.

Anonymous said...

I think your worry is both a slippery slope and a false dilemma: If we point out race we will inevitably fall into stereotypes and the only way to avoid this is to ignore skin color all together.

You explained to your child that people with dark skin are black but she didn't immediately assume Samuel was, for example, a gang banger. She just knows that he's black. It the perpetuation of stereotypes that's the problem not acknowledging that we don't all have the same skin color.

We don't have to hide our differences to see how we're the same. Honestly, I think we'd all do better to just accept that being different is OK.

As far as Affirmative Action goes if you can show that your job postings are advertised where everyone has a chance to see it and you aren't getting minority applicants (or ones with the requested skills) then that ought to be good enough. Maybe that isn't the case but government and/or management should get upset only if a company's hiring practices are shady. Like if they don't announce job openings publicly and just give them to friends of co-workers or if whenever you have two equally qualified applicants the job always goes to the white one.

jaded hr rep said...

Race and recognizing differences is not inherently a bad thing (i.e., group A has increased risk of XYZ disease). It's when we allow those differences to lead to erroneous assumptions and broad generalizations that is a problem. Categorizing things is what humans do by nature to make order and sense of a big and complicated world - our noticing similarity and differences isn't a concern. So the real question I have is why should someone be upset because they are white/black/Asian, etc.? The child may be upset because it seems to create a separation from others (but may also perhaps bring closeness to another), but adults get more touchy with the issue because we understand the history of race and the underlying social stigmatism attached with it in this country.

Personally, I have no problem with someone noting I am or any future kid of mine is Asian. It's when you assume I'm too polite, can't be assertive, and have a natural affinity towards math and computer science when it's a problem.

Anonymous said...

My kids also do not notice color. Our family includes all the colors of the rainbow, so they grew up with the mix. What I find funny is what they do notice, how come I can't have curly/straight hair like her. (One of my kids has bone straight hair and the other super curly. One has darker skin like me the other light like her dad. (Surprisingly the curly haired one is light like dad and the straight haired one is dark like mom) We talk about what wonderful things different cultures can bring us. We travel as often as we can to teach them about the world, not just our world. Since we can't travel all the time, once a month my kids choose a place in the world they want to learn about, they are each responsible for researching and telling us about the place they researched and then we try to find recipes from that place and cook a "traditional" meal there. They think it is a blast - although the meals aren't always successful.

OK so this is all easier with a spouse in the military. My kids have been exposed to so many races, lived in several different states and have travel opportunities. You would be amazed at how many places there are where color is not what is looked at. Our world is a beautiful place and our children learning the joys of differences will only make it better.

Infamous HR Guy said...

So many anonymous posters on here. HAHA

OK, I was raised in a small Missouri town. The one thing I was always told is that we all bleed the same no matter gender, race...etc.

Being in California since I was 11 has put me into a large multi-cultural environment. I wouldn't change it for the world.

OK, I'd loosen the employment laws a bit as they are a pain in my @#$.

Snarkysmachine said...

White people don't "see" color because they don't have to. Just something to think about. Teaching kids to be "colorblind" is way problematic.