Columnist Intro: Deesha

by columnist Deesha Philyaw

I like to talk about race. I joke that, as a black woman, particularly as a daughter of the American South, I was born to do it.

I was born and raised in Florida by my mother who remembered drinking from “colored” water fountains, and by my grandmother, one of many women in our family who “scrubbed white folks’ floors for a living.” I grew up in a poor-to-working-class black neighborhood, and was bused to a white neighborhood for elementary school.

I’ve always identified as black, so imagine my surprise when I showed up on the campus of an Ivy League school for college—clutching a dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with my childhood friends’ admonitions ringing in my ears: “Don’t turn white!”—and discovered that “black” was a many splendored thing—emphasis on many. I met West Indian blacks; pseudomilitant blacks (who liked to question other people’s blackness); blacks who believed in helping homeless people and not turning your nose up at them; blacks who didn’t go to church; blacks who had Hollywood and Wall Street aspirations; blacks who read as voraciously as I did; blacks who dressed way better than I did; blacks who didn’t want anything to do with other blacks; blacks who had maids back home; blacks who would never willingly enter a neighborhood like the one I called home. Talk about an education.

Freshman year, some administrator thought it would be a great idea to create a mini-UN in my dorm suite. There was me; an Irish-Italian woman from Greenwich, Connecticut; a Chinese-American woman from New York City; and a Jewish woman from La Jolla, California. My big racial takeaway from that year was this gem from my Cali roommate who told me that the reason blacks and Jews don’t get along is because “Jews have all the money, and blacks are just jealous.” She was way out of line, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been listening to that Louis Farrakhan tape in our common room. (I had never heard of the man, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.)

Oh, and there was that time at lunch when I was talking about a friend (my Irish-Italian roommate), and one those pseudomilitant types chastised me, saying, “There’s no such thing as a white friend.” (He later became a venture capitalist.)

With this background, and as a freelance writer who, professionally, has written more about parenting than any other single subject, I find the opportunity to write a column for Anti-Racist Parent particularly rewarding, and I am thankful for it.

I like to talk about race, in part because so many people don’t want to talk about it. Anything that makes people squirm in their comfort zones (present company included) is worth talking about. Complacency is a high crime.

I’ve had people tell me (and I paraphrase), “I don’t talk about race because there is only one race—the human race. Let’s not see color and differences, and this whole racism thing will go away.” I tell them, “You let me know when you get the Klan to sign off on that, and I’ll be happy to follow suit.”

This color-blind approach is particularly disingenuous, particularly when you are dealing with children. When my oldest daughter, Taylor, was about two years old, she asked me, “Is Grandma white?” I didn’t even realize that she saw people in terms of “black” and “white.” We’d never had conversation about it, but of course little pitchers have big ears. Taylor, who was and is quite precocious, explained, “We’re black–but I think we’re really brown. And Grandma is white.” Even Grandma herself couldn’t convince Taylor that she wasn’t white, just light-skinned. Thankfully, we discovered a wonderful book called Shades of Black which using beautiful photographs of children to present blackness as a rainbow of different skin tones, hair color and texture, and eye colors. Later, when we adopted her younger sister, Taylor wanted to know if Peyton (who is as light as Grandma) was white. And on it went with Peyton asking the same question about Grandma, when she was about two.

I like Peyton’s preschool teacher’s approach to this. Within the first week of school, it was not uncommon to hear the kids playing amongst themselves, say, “We’re all different. Oh, well.”

My grown-up equivalent of this is: Race is everything, and nothing. Nothing because race is a mere social construct (more or less, depending on which molecular biologists and geneticists you talk to); everything because we live in a world where children’s picture books with titles like Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad? are necessary.

I like to talk about race because to talk about race is to talk about justice…and to talk about justice is to talk about what is right and fair for humanity…so to talk about race is to talk about what it means to be human, and how we should treat each other, on micro and macro levels, as human beings. How then, can truly progressive people not talk about race?

What I’ve observed is that whether the topic is race or poverty or Darfur or unjust wars, some people don’t want to talk about it because to do so might tweak their conscience, and they just might be compelled to do something, like be honest or be brave or look within or piss off their friends or be more generous and compassionate. They might just be compelled to do something like change if the solution to this whole racism thing goes deeper than people pretending to be color-blind and ignoring “race” And few people relish the idea of change, especially when it comes at a personal cost.

So often, instead of making personal change, people who don’t like to talk about race like to point out how much society as already changed. “Segregation laws have changed…so I don’t have to!”—is their unspoken mantra. But so much hasn’t changed. Racial disparities abound in housing, employment, the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, access to quality education—just about any measure you can think of exemplifies the persistent black-white racial divide in this country, and it’s not because the good folks at Anti-Racist Parent and other sites are talking about race. I think of progress less in relative terms, and more in absolute terms. I believe the line goes something like, “…and justice for all.” Until that day, we have not overcome.

Either all of the abovementioned disparities are coincidental, or race matters. My money is on the latter.

Only people who have the privilege of not dealing with racism think that “it will just go away if we stop talking about it.” Nice work, if you got it like that, but I don’t and neither do countless other people of color here and around the world, including the two little black girls that I’m raising in such a way that they will be agents of justice and progress when the world is theirs to run. They do not yet live in the world we are striving to create where race doesn’t matter, so as a parent, I must equip them to live, thrive, and affect change in the world we live in, right now, today. How will we ever get to a society where race doesn’t matter, if we keep telling ourselves that we’ve already arrived?

So…I like to talk about race. Because I want my children and their children to get there, even if I don’t in my lifetime.

Talking about race means embracing generations future and past. I am here on the backs and shoulders of women who could only dream of opportunities I take for granted. Talking race acknowledges their struggle, and is for me an act of gratitude and humility. This may not be everyone’s motivation for talking about race or pursuing an anti-racist agenda, but whatever our motivations and backgrounds, the important thing is to do the work. I look forward to dialogue here that is honest and challenging for all of us. And, as I hope this intro conveys, I do believe humor and levity and talking-about-race can coexist!

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

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