Annika has been saying things this past year about her skin. Negative things. Mostly she says she wishes she was white and had “hair that falls down” (straight hair).
Every time, it pains me. I grew up wishing I was taller; had better hair; or bigger/smaller boobs (depending on my phase of life), etc. etc. But disliking the color of my skin never entered into the picture. You can change your hair color and texture (temporarily), lose weight, and adjust clothing to make yourself bigger or smaller, so when you’re young and experimenting with your looks, one can achieve temporary perfection occasionally (very temporary). I’ve tried lots of different looks over the years.
But you can’t change your skin color. No matter what Michael Jackson tried to convince us that was true, it just isn’t. The only thing you can do is learn to love it.
I have no idea how to teach Annika to love her skin color other than to love it and hope she mimics me. So, what I’ve been doing is inserting comments about beautiful brown skin. Showing her images of beautiful brown people and pointing them out when we see them in real life. Talking about beautiful brown skin.
I’ve never really mentioned my own skin much, except in comparison to hers. But the other day, I was putting on sun block and Annika asked me why I was putting it on. Without thinking, I said something like, “Well, I really don’t want my skin to get tanned.”
“Why mama? Don’t you want to have brown skin?”
Whoa. That stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly had this realization that while I was telling her all the time how pretty brown skin is, I rarely mentioned mine on its own. And I had never explained that while I think brown skin is pretty, I wasn’t necessarily wishing for my own (brown skin).
So I said to her, “I think brown skin is beautiful. But I’m not brown. I’m white. And I think I look pretty with white skin. We’re all beautiful the way we’re born.”
She seemed to like that and went about her business of watching one of her current favorite television shows, “My Big Big Friend.”
Last week I was interviewed for a research study being conducted to study white mothers who have biracial children.
It was thoroughly enjoyable and very casual. The interviewer, a white mother of a biracial son, is writing her dissertation and might eventually produce a documentary on the topic.
Her research is strictly on white mothers of biracial children and their interactions with people at school. The interview was very casual, conducted over Skype and we essentially just talked for about 90 minutes. (I think it was only supposed to last an hour.)
We talked mostly about our various interactions with the general public and our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about race and skin color, and how those have changed (or not) since having our children.
Our feelings on many of the topics were similar. There were plenty of “YEAH! I KNOW, RIGHT?!” moments, which was awesome. Even when you have friends who are biracial moms, these conversations still don’t happen very often because we’re all parents who have busy lives and when we get together we don’t all sit around talking about our kids’ skin colors. So it was fun.
One of the points she made during the interview that I absolutely loved was how it’s so important for white parents to talk to their white children about race, skin color, and racism. I thought I knew all the reasons it was important but she brought up something I’d honestly never even thought about.
There is a whole new generation of white kids out there who will grow up to fall in love with a person of color. We did. And yet, it’s not something that parents necessarily think to talk to their kids about.
There’s lots more on that topic, but I’ll let you save it for a conversation with her. Or the possible documentary. Just something to think about.
Jennifer Chandler is doing this study for Cardinal Stritch University and is looking for more participants. If you wish to participate, contact her directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Annika was a baby, I once casually mentioned to Toyin that I’d like to dress her as Snow White for Halloween. He rolled his eyes and scoffed, “You can’t dress a black child as Snow White!” He was joking, mostly.
But even so, that year, I dressed her as a kitty cat, because she could say cat.
Oddly, Toyin doesn’t remember that conversation, or perhaps, remembers it differently than I do. A few years later, when Annika was 3.5, one of his family members sent us a Snow White costume for a Christmas present, which we both enjoyed watching her get excited over and immediately put it on and dance around. By that time, it was no big deal. Or was it? As I watched her pull it out and realized what it was, I flashed back to that conversation, when all of this was so new.
Thinking about race and skin color enters into the most mundane of choices when you have a mixed race family.
If the opposite had happened, let’s say my white daughter wanted to dress up as say, Diana Ross, I would probably be thrilled with her choice, glad my child was so multiculturally aware and being the raging liberal that I am I would brag about it to all my friends.
So when my brown-skinned daughter wants to dress up as a white character, coincidentally, also Daphne from Scooby Doo, why do I feel mildly ill at the thought?
I posed this question on my Facebook page a couple of days ago and got the same thoughts back at me that I’d been thinking myself.
The gist of the commenters said what I’d been telling myself, “She can be whomever she chooses. It’s not about race. It’s about what she likes to watch on TV. It’s no big deal.”
And they are right. I was right. I went ahead and ordered the costume. She wants to dress as Daphne for her Scooby Doo themed birthday party. I will not say a word when she puts on the costume as I didn’t when she dressed as Snow White. When she dressed as Ruby Gloom/Tinkerbell.
I think what all these thoughts are telling me is this.
It’s not that fact that my child wishes to dress up as a white character. It’s the fact that most characters are white. It’s that there are so few reflections in the media for her that she only sees white.
It’s true that what we see reflects back on us, in all walks of life. And if the equality in children’s programming was more balanced, I would have less of an issue with it. But it’s not.
Basically, there’s nothing wrong with my child. What’s wrong is societal messages and media reflections. It’s time to change that.
I can’t do much with that. Sure, I could lobby and join groups that support media issues. But honestly, I’d rather spend my time being a mom and doing the best with what we’ve got. In time, all of this will change. I know it because I see it happening.
Every generation keeps the talks going along and eventually, equality and fairness will win out in the racial divide. I believe that wholeheartedly, although, I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.
But for now, what I have to do is go out of my way to ensure that my daughter see whatever reflections that are there.
I’ve started coming up with a list of non-white characters that I will do my best to insert into her regular viewing. I’m not going to try to cut out white characters, but do whatever I can to show her that the others exist.
Off the top of my head I can think of exactly one black female cartoon character that Annika watches semi regularly.
Last week I got into a little disagreement on Facebook, through a comment thread on an acquaintance’s page. I left a comment saying that people who fly confederate flags are generally not the kind of people who a black man (or woman) might want to be caught in a dark alley with. My point was not so much that flying a confederate flag makes you a racist, but in my experience, they usually are.
Then I got called a racist. By a white guy from Mississippi. Which, as another commenter on the thread pointed out, was kind of humorous.
The whole thing was kind of silly. Serves me right for wasting my time commenting on threads of people I barely know.
I forgot about it, for a day. But then out of the blue a couple of days later it popped into my head and I began to wonder, “Am I starting to be a bit of a racist toward white people?”
And then I wonder, is that even possible? The notion that white Americans can cry racism is complex and debatable in communities like Detroit, where race tension often runs high. It’s an argument that would take an entire other post to fill.
But the issue at hand, a type of ism, which I will call whiteism, and really has little to do with people who actually fly confederate flags, before Annika was born, and even before I met Toyin, I held the same opinion of confederate flag fliers.
But getting called a racist is unnerving. It’s been a long time since it has happend to me. But it happened a number of times when I lived and worked in Detroit. Black people often pulled the race card out when I worked at a bank on the border of Detroit. And it pissed me off royally every single time.
So the comment struck a nerve with me and it made me start to think about how I view other white people now.
Now that it’s been four years of being the mom to a child of color, I realize that I often view other white people with an initial suspicion that I never did before. I never needed to. I am white, and in the past, there was no reason to associate me with people of another color. Even when Toyin and I were a couple, it wasn’t the same as being someone’s mom. I never took it all that personally or really cared what people thought of us.
But a mother cares and holds concern when the thought that some people might assume negative things about her child.
All the general stereotypes that I know are there about African Americans and mixed race mothers, float through my head when we go to the park, to the store, to school, wherever, in certain neighborhoods. It doesn’t matter what they are, but I wonder, even here in liberal Austin, if they are thinking them about me/us.
They probably aren’t. I try to brush the thoughts away, telling myself that most white people aren’t racist. Even the ones who are friendly, I wonder, just a tiny bit if they are thinking something negative about me.
It’s hard to brush away all the memories of being in a group of white people and hearing things that I know they wouldn’t have said if there was a black person in the room.
And it’s just the white people I wonder about. With black people, I feel more accepted by them than I did before.
Black people typically pick up that Annika is my daughter. The occasional brown skinned person has asked if she’s mine, but for the most part, they see it.
They can tell a biracial child from a black child. They know what it looks like and in their world, it’s just not as uncommon. Additionally, they aren’t looking at her skin color because it’s not a definer. They see her hair, her bone structure. They look at her face faster. It’s not something anyone has told me, but I see it. I can see that they are really looking at her and to them, she’s just a child, not a black child.
I generally feel a sense of welcome when a black person sees Annika and me together. They smile a bit bigger than I imagine they might have when she’s not with me. They see us and they know that I will see them as a person. And I wonder, if perhaps, it’s because they know right away that they can drop their suspicions about me.
It’s true. I’m not imaging it. I began to notice it when I was pregnant. The first time I noticed it was when Toyin and I went out to eat. Our waitress was a black woman and she was so friendly to me. I thought it was just because I was pregnant. Toyin said, maybe that was why, but his guess was that it was because she knew I was carrying a black child in my belly. “You’re one of us now,” he said.
So, in some manner, becoming a part of a culture that I was never entirely privy to, have I renegotiated my status in the other culture that I was once a part of?
It’s a question I wonder about. And it’s why I know, viscerally, that racism still exists. Because I feel it inside my bones and in my heart.
I have no answer to this question. I am not interested in coining a term or floating around a new race debate (not really new). But it’s just something I wonder and I know that I will likely never have a very good answer for.
Today I’ve got a guest post from Jen Marshall Duncan, another white mom with biracial children. She’s a teacher in Iowa. Her blog, Empatheia, is one of my regular reads because she is insightful, articulate and intelligent, a real gem in the blogger world.
I came across this “I Don’t See Race” poster on Pinterest and it really struck a chord with me. I live in a university town that has been deemed “a hotbed of liberalism.” The town has a rich and storied history of leftist leanings: protests against wars/conflicts, marches for women’s rights, and lots of pride in our home grown son Zach Wahls who is touring the nation to talk about being raised by two moms. Yet for all of these leftist leanings, there is one area where my community of is still lagging behind instead of progressively forging ahead–that area involves the issue of RACE. Many people say things like “I don’t see race,” or “It doesn’t matter what color someone’s skin is; everyone’s the same.” That is the motto until something happens that makes our community uncomfortable….like changing demographics.
For the past 4-5 years, our community has become more diverse. Our schools overall are now just about 30% non-white, but due to city planning/zoning issues, almost all kids of color were enrolling in the same 2 elementary schools. Our hotbed of liberalism knows that diversity is good! Diversity is beneficial! Everyone learns to be a global citizen in a diverse environment! But until 5 years ago, that diversity used to stem from visiting professors’ families. Now it stems from struggling families who move from Chicago to make a better life for their children.
Just like in the rest of the country, these days high minority enrollment is found in the same schools as high poverty enrollment. Studies show that in U.S. schools, skin color and poverty correlate.
Kids in poverty don’t always have easy lives. Sometimes they are a little behind their peers in learning because it’s hard to learn when you worry about meals, clothing, having shelter, etc. Having so many of the kids who need extra help be the same kids who are of color is problematic enough, but then having so many of those kids also be in the same school building is really problematic. It seems like our community is trying to push them out.
The school district wanted to spread the diversity around, and many parents complained saying, “Well, we’d have to bus those kids. They would move farther away from their homes. It would be hard for those parents to participate in school activities if they don’t have transportation. Let’s just help them by letting them stay where they are.”
Hotbed of liberalism. People who don’t see race. It doesn’t matter what color a person’s skin is.
But it really does matter. Because if it didn’t, the pronouns wouldn’t be there. Phrases like “Our children, our community our district and what is best for all of us” would replace the “those kids, those parents, them… they…”
The Pinterest poster above drew an immediate response from someone who admits she is privileged, but she worked her ass off to get what she’s got. She then asked, “am I a racist?” and answered herself, “I don’t think so.” Soon after she wrote, “what IS it THEY want? Just for me to give more and more until I have nothing? Enough already, be an AMERICAN AND WORK FOR IT” (those are her capitalizations, not mine.)
A simple little pronoun. A small word with huge connotations.
THEY are not truly American. THEY have different needs than US so maybe THEY should stay in their own neighborhood school.
All of this from people who don’t see race. Don’t see skin color. Don’t treat people differently based on race. Leftist-leaning progressives who will give up an evening to march in protest against a war on the other side of the globe…but won’t open their eyes to really see the people in their own city.
To all of the people who “Don’t see race”: You may be a good person. But make yourself better. Open your eyes and see people as who they are. We all have names. We all have characteristics that make us unique. There is no “THEM”. There are only individuals of all shapes, sizes, colors, heritages and backgrounds. And WE are all doing what we can to thrive and survive, day by day. See us. All of us.
Jen Marshall Duncan lives in Iowa and blogs at empatheia, where she writes about her experiences in a mixed race marriage, raising 3 biracial children, and her experiences as a teacher of kids who don’t fit into traditional high school settings.
So George Zimmerman has been arrested. And everyone is happy. The racist bastard has been caught and will be judged.
Except, I have to admit, it doesn’t feel like all is right with the world. It did at first. I was elated that he’d finally been charged. And I still think it’s the right answer. But the way it’s playing out in the media gives me pause. Suddenly, the cops did the right thing and arrested a racist pig. We can all go back to normal now and (hopefully) watch justice be served.
I hope that justice gets served. I truly do. I think he should spend some time behind bars just like anyone else who commits a senseless murder. That is unless we learn some shocking new detail that we haven’t heard yet, which I highly doubt.
Even though he’s been arrested though, it doesn’t feel quite right.
He could easily be a Nazi loving racist.
But my bet is that it’s more likely that he’s a garden-variety typical American white person racist.
My point is, he might not be much different than most white (okay, I know he’s half white) people. He might be stupider than many of us. But his racism very possibly doesn’t extend beyond what most of us hide and fight and deal with every day. His biggest mistake was thinking he was smart enough to carry a gun and not shoot anyone who didn’t deserve it.
Because we do live in a racist society. It is ingrained in us until we think about it and tell ourselves differently. It’s not genetic. It is systemic.
And we must face the truth. It is dangerous to be black in our country. Our history reflects it. While we are getting better. We are not fully healed from the racist atrocities that happened only a few generations ago.
And white people, we can not continue to pretend that this ugliness doesn’t exist right beneath the surface.
What is garden-variety white person racism?
It is the thoughts and the assumptions. It’s the purse clutch. It’s the crossing of the street to get away from a group of young black men. It’s walking just slightly faster.
It is the fact that mainstream movies and television shows are almost always populated by white folks with a handful of brown skins.
It is the fact that ghettos are always populated by a majority of African Americans.
It is that fact that the bad side of town is always a higher percentage of brown skins.
It’s the fact that poor schools keep getting poorer and stay blacker/browner, while rich schools just keep getting whiter.
But mostly it’s the, them vs. us attitude.
There is no them vs us. We are all in this together.
It doesn’t mean that all white people all racists and hate black people. It means that we need to consider that all of this is our reality. It’s all true. It doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us the survivors of a racist country. But first, we need to admit that it’s all around us. We can’t keep burying our head in the sand.
It’s time for my yearly bitch about how I can’t find black/biracial/dark-skinned-in-general dolls in general stores.
My biggest complaint is with stores like HEB, Walgreens, CVS, (Wal-mart if I shopped there often enough) and Target. I”m mainly focusing on these stores because I hate to shop, I don’t go to malls, and I’m not going to pick on small, locally owned stores.
So, here goes.
Why the fuck can’t I find a doll for my daughter in a store that I shop at regularly? Is that too much to ask in this day and age?
We have a black (biracial) president. Dark-skinned populations are growing at vastly enormous rates in this country. (Don’t read the census, it’s skewed based on how they define “white,” etc.)
Here in Texas, it’s one of four states that has a “minority majority” population. Which means that white folks are the minority. Yep, that’s right y’all. We got more brown skins than white ones here. (Don’t even get me started on politics. Really.)
And yet, and yet, I still can’t find a damn brown-skinned baby doll at my local five and dime. Not even the ones on the brown side of town.
I paid three fucking times more on Amazon than I would have paid if the local grocery stores would stock a few on their pristine little shelves. Luckily she was eligible for super saver shipping, or I would been really bent out of shape.
I know that I posted last year about my joy at finding that Big Lots stocked some brown babies, which I bought.
But this year, Annika specifically wanted a life-sized dolly. She has been drooling over these girls everywhere we go.
When we first saw them in a Walgreens last summer, I started watching for them everywhere. They were on shelves in just about every store we went into for a while. Surely, the HEB on the east side of town will stock some dark-skinned dolls I thought stupidly. They did not.
Really? I mean, for real? I go into stores on those sides of town without Annika and people stare at me. (Okay, not really, but my skin color is, without a doubt, in the minority.) It amazes me that they only stock white dolls there.
The stress over this issue runs deeper still. Annika has started to show interest in doll houses and smaller dolls. Gah. I have been searching for about two years various ways I could put together a biracial family for her dollhouse. The only solution I’ve come up with is to split two families with another biracial family. Or buy them all separately.
I realize that this is not the worse thing in the world. My daughter isn’t being ousted for being racially different. Her life isn’t going to be dramatically affected by this doll obsession of mine. What this all boils down to is the fact that I hate to shop I just want my daughter to be able to find her place in the world at every step of the way and I can’t believe that stores are so fucking far behind the times socially.
White people are unbelievably uncomfortable talking about race or skin color.
This is a fact that I have become acutely aware of in the past three years. In part, my observation of this fact came about with my becoming more accustomed to using skin color as a qualifier for myself.
Annika notices and mentions often that I’m white. She has compared me to random people out in public. “Hey, she’s white like you mommy!”
She has noticed that Toyin’s and her own skin colors are more alike than mine, and made sure to mention it. She’s also followed it up with assurance that she still likes me even though we’re different. That one was interesting to me because I’m not sure if she thought I’d be offended, or if she was repeating something she heard.
More importantly, an observation I’ve made over the past few years is that white people seem to think that their skin color is of no consequence and when discussing skin color with their children, they must discuss other races’ skin colors, but not their own.
For quite some time now, I get questioned by my white friends about how to talk about skin color with their children. It’s something, I am supposed to know about.
The truth is, I’m not more comfortable and I don’t know any better. I have just learned a few basic lessons. I can give a knowing nod. I have been known to roll my eyes about a typical white person faux pas. And I still make them too.
Something I have definitely learned is that white people have skin color too. We can talk about our own skin color.
When discussing skin color with your children, get comfortable with your own.
In general, other races don’t seem to have as much problem talking about race and skin color because they aren’t afraid to discuss their own. Because of our nation’s history, people of color have gotten used to being labeled with a skin color. White people, not so much.
To some, this might seem backward, going in a direction that many want to shy away from. White people who consider themselves enlightened and open to diversity will proudly point out that their children don’t notice skin color, or that it’s of little consequence. They lament the differences and wish for utter equality of the races, looking forward to a future when we are all the same, and when we are all truly equal.
While I agree with the latter part of that statement, I disagree that we must all be the same. Let’s embrace our differences and enjoy them. Let’s not assume that we must be the same in order to be equal. And let’s stop thinking of skin color as “theirs.” We have skin color too.
Ironically, when I first began to really ponder this idea, I finally understood why many black people will point out that their skin is not really black. My skin color is not actually white, but a very light shade of brown. Annika, at only 3, has emphatically pointed out to me that she is not black, but she is “light brown” and her daddy is “dark brown.” And while she calls me white, because that’s what she’s heard us say about my skin color, she has also noticed that I am just lighter brown than she is.
When I read this story about the racist bake sale hosted by the UC Berkeley College Republicans, I was reminded of a case over University of Michigan’s law school admissions policy that went to the Supreme Court in 2003. In this case a white woman was passed over for admission. She sued the school,saying that if not for racial preference, she should have been accepted, but was passed over in favor of slightly less or similarly qualified black students who slipped by her with extra points for having dark skin.
At Berkeley the argument is over pending legislation that would allow university admissions to consider race.
It’s an interesting debate, and one that I will be watching closely. I don’t think that our country is ready to drop affirmative action policies. While they are not ideal, these policies are helping balance out inequalities that were ubiquitous in our country for hundreds of years. It’s not logical to think that after only one generation we are back in balance. Our wounds are still raw; racist history still too recent.
I have strong feelings on both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, I think this is a sign of progress. According to this news article, no violence happened. Students were angry, but respectful conversations happened. Debate ensued.
What significant is that they are talking about it. Nobody bombed anyone. People got angry, sure. But nobody got killed or hurt. For our country, this is progress.
Perhaps, this generation is ready to talk about race. The white kids are comfortable enough to notice and say that these policies are unfair. They are feeling a smidgeon of some of the indignities that their darker-skinned classmates past generations felt. An eensy, weensy smidgeon. It is unfortunate that they have to be the ones to pay for their older generations’ sins. But on the other hand, they are not suffering anywhere near as much as the opposite side has. That’s not really fair either.
So, it’s a significant that they are having this conversation. It is a sign of progress. Past generations discussed race with violence and hate. We should be proud of this generation that they have come to a point that past generations couldn’t. We are growing as a country.
On the other hand, I know how these kids feel, to some extent.
When I went to Wayne State University in Detroit, I had white friends who struggled to pay for school. They were given no preference and no scholarships without proving some sort of academic achievement.
I also I knew smart and worthy students of color who never would have made it into school without the help of their skin color as a basis for preferential treatment.
Personally, I watched as black students were given internships at the Detroit News and Free Press where I was passed over. In one instance, I was particularly angry upon hearing of one of my classmates receiving an internship at one of the papers. I knew for a fact that she could barely string a decent sentence together and wrote horrendously bad news articles pulling quotes out of press releases, never bothering to call sources. She was not only a bad writer, but a bad reporter. She had no business in a newsroom at all. I knew this because I was her editor at our school newspaper. And yet, she was given that opportunity because of her skin color. I was not given the opportunity, because of my skin color. (No, I’m not bitter. Not at all.)
Even so, I support affirmative action policies and organizations.They are important. They are still needed because even though poor white students who are not racists will be passed over, there are still a shit ton of prejudicial indignities in this country. It’s one area that we can thrive and grow, helping the balance out.
I also have selfish reasons to support these policies.
If there are still affirmative action policies in place by the time Annika reaches college age, I will encourage her to use all resources possible to raise herself into a comfortable position.
Is that really fair? She’s not coming from an underprivileged ghetto life. She won’t be one of those kids that’s just barely making it. From that viewpoint, it’s not exactly what affirmative action was installed for.
But on the other hand, there will be times in her life where she will be negatively viewed and judged based on her skin color, (and her gender). In that aspect, that is exactly why we have these programs in place for workplaces and organizations. It’s good to have a leg up from the start when you may have inequalities slap you in the face when you are least expecting it.
Giving students of color preference at prestigious universities is a good place to keep these programs in place and add to them.
Because, no, we are nowhere near ready for complete and utter equality. It just isn’t time. Yet.