Deciding to talk about it

by guest contributor Tiffany Pridgen

As a child I was never specifically instructed on race or culture by anyone in my family, and I’m certain that is fairly unusual for someone from a family of color. The truth is, we just weren’t all that interesting as far as culture goes: the term “white bread” comes to mind. We were typical Southerners who attended Baptist church every Sunday (sometimes twice), and sometimes Wednesday for bible study (Jesus was all the culture we needed, apparently). My lessons were piecemeal, formed by my own infantile observations and born from a need to make sense of why groups of people always seemed to be so homogeneous. For instance, why weren’t there any white people at our church? I wish so much that I had learned from my family that there are bigoted jackasses in the world instead of having to encounter them without preparation.

I remember being four or five years old sitting on the floor in my bedroom with the contents of a Crayola 64 big box spread out on the carpet. I sat holding crayons up to my arm trying to see which shade I most closely resembled. I had been drawing pictures of my family and it dawned on me that people come in nuanced tones and that I needed to stop shading them in purple and green.

In a flash the figurative lightbulb clicked on over my head that THAT was what “black” and “white” meant. I held both shades up to my arm to judge which I should use for me in the drawing and couldn’t make either fit. The peach crayon came remarkably close to a colormatch, but wait – peach isn’t a skin color! The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. When applying the black crayon to my very dark-skinned grandmother, I was astounded to see she wasn’t black at all, either. Closer examination of the white crayon revealed that no [living] person could be that pale.

That self-taught lesson in color has always stuck with me: it’s all arbitrary. Standard skin colors (white, black, yellow, and red) are all extremes typically only seen in cariacatures.

Nobody ever talked to me about it. Everything I knew (and now know) about race came from outside of my home – the media, school history lessons, other kids… When I began to take notice of how people who are different keep themselves separate, I began to ask questions. It was almost a verboten topic of discussion and on the few occasions when I could extract a response it was typically something along the lines of “That’s just the way it is.”

Obviously there can be benefits to not burdening children with lessons on race: they won’t fear, condemn, or elevate other races (or their own) because they don’t know to. Since the subject was never discussed outright at home, it was years before I knew that loving someone who didn’t look like me was a decidedly taboo venture. In fact, my very first juvenile crush was Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice. My sister teased me relentlessly about this as she had opted for caution and crushed on Tubbs. I determined very early on what I was attracted to and those critera haven’t changed much since. I am, you see, married to a white man.

Because I had no preconceptions of what I should or should not consider desirable in a mate, I saw no reason to exclude other races from the dating pool. I had both black and white Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls and as long as they still had hair that could be combed and hadn’t been thrown up onto the roof (destructive little brats, we were), I didn’t really prefer one color over the other.

My husband and I have discussed whether we’ll talk about race with our children at all and have decided on nothing. We could let them form their own impressions of the workings of society, however a part of me feels that would be irresponsible. I know from my own experiences that race is still a heavily-ingrained issue in American society: you can’t utter “black people” and “watermelon” in the same sentence without making someone blush. I should prepare them for that so that they will be both sensitive and vigilant.

I know that when my son is old enough to think critically about what he observes, he’s going to question why Momma is the only brown-skinned person in the room when we’re visiting with Dad’s family and vice versa when visiting with mine. No matter how comfortable I am with the situation, he’ll eventually query why there’s such a big difference at all.

I dread having the “race” conversation with him even more than the one I’ll have with him about sex when he’s a teenager (you can encourage a teenager not to sleep around, but it’s pretty damned hard to explain to a six-year-old why skin color is still an issue). How would that conversation go when I do decide to broach it? Will I lay out a selection of carefully selected library books on diversity and read them as bedtime stories, or will I take a more organic approach and guide him through situations as they occur?

I involve him in playgroups that have other mixed-race children (and not just black/white mixes) so that he will from infancy on view multiracialism as a normal condition. He also participates in playgroups where the children are racially cut-and-dried, and I realize that in life, in this century anyway, that will be a more likely scenario to encounter. Either way, by the time he’s old enough to use color as a way to describe a person, he will have seen that sometimes pink and brown makes yellow, pink and pink makes more pink, and different shades of brown blend to create new ones. I think that will make the conversation a little easier.

I don’t ever want my children to know that skin color is sometimes pepetuated by racist intention rather than simple genetic outcome, but can I be so cavalier as to not have that thoughtful discussion about it with them that my parents never had with me? Perhaps they’ll be able to teach me.

Tiffany Pridgen is the mistress of a blog where she recounts daily the joys and frustrations of being a modern momma. She lives in Durham, NC (home of the Duke lacrosse team scandal) with her darling little boy and husband of five years.

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