Race is Not a Four Letter Word

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula, originally published at Heart, Mind and Seoul

Let’s say you and your young child decide to go on a picnic at a park that happens to be within walking distance from where you live. You carefully pack up all of the necessary items that you require for your outing and you decide to leave the stroller at home so that your child can stretch her legs in earnest. Soon enough, you and your child come up to an intersection, and though it’s not a heavily trafficked area, there certainly are enough cars that do frequent the road – some of which travel at a pace that could be considered downright dangerous. You immediately recognize the opportunity for a teaching moment to introduce your child to the importance of road safety. You quickly weigh your options in how to best convey the most effective message about keeping your child safe around moving automobiles.

After evaluating your options on how to proceed, you eventually decide to take an unconventional approach and let your child cross the street by herself, just to see what happens. Sure, you know it’s probably not the smartest thing to do, but you feel fairly comfortable in your assumption that most drivers will be responsible enough in looking for kids in the crosswalk. Besides, it just takes so much time to have to teach a child about ALL of the different case scenarios in road safety. And who wants to talk about a topic that be downright depressing and even uncomfortable, you know, having to talk about fatalities, accidents and such. And after all, your hunch is that your child probably wouldn’t be too receptive to it anyway, so why bother in the first place?

And inevitably, as your child wanders aimlessly into the road, completely oblivious to her environment, she does unfortunately happen to get into an accident. Well, you think, she’ll just have to learn to do a better job of watching where she’s going or develop a thicker skin. After all, who’s to say that the driver wasn’t just having a bad day or that his speeding wasn’t as serious as it appeared, I mean it’s not like there’s verifiable proof that the driver was intentionally trying to hit your child. Drivers will be drivers, you tell your kid. No need to be so sensitive, especially if it’s not a full-blown, overt and obvious kind of impact to your child. Getting hit by a car is just a normal part of growing up; there’s no good reason to make it a bigger deal than it needs to be. Bottom line: There will always be bad drivers out there regardless of what you do or say. It’s best just to accept it, bandage up your wounds and move on.

Of course it’s ridiculous to think that any parent would ever send their child out into a street without any kind of preparation, any kind of guidance, any kind of modeling or any kind of instruction that would help protect their children’s physical safety. But what about the kind of preparation, guidance, modeling and instruction that helps protect and defend our children’s emotional and psychological safety when it comes to confronting and addressing the impacts of racism, prejudice and discrimination?

In a comment I left on Jae Ran’s recent post over at Harlow’s Monkey, I referred to a message I read that was written by a parent of a child who is adopted transracially. The parent talked about hoping that her daughter would never get teased, feel “that” out of place or be the target of racism, discrimination or prejudice and would try to do everything possible to prevent any racist or discriminatory act from ever happening to her little girl.

With all due respect to that parent and others who may hold the same sentiments, I personally feel that any energies expended in sheer “hoping” could be better utilized by actively working towards giving their children the language to recognize, address and validate what I believe are the inevitable acts of racism, discrimination and prejudice that their children will face one day. And trying to implement every last precautionary measure to successfully prevent any kind of exposure to racism, discrimination and prejudice is, in my opinion, an impossible feat at best and nothing more than an exercise in futility. To me, it’s akin to saying that you’re going to do everything possible to prevent your child from growing up.

This is a topic I am quite passionate about simply because I hear all too often from a number of parents – some whose children are already in grade school – that talking about race, racism, discrimination and prejudice is just too difficult, too uncomfortable, too awkward and too time consuming. And I can’t help but think how the attitudes those parents hold toward race will impact, and have already impacted, their children. Some white parents have expressed that they feel too inadequate or under-qualified to talk about such topics with their children of color. A small (okay, very, very small) part of me can understand where they’re coming from – parenting is hard work – and there certainly are additional and complex layers present in transracial parenting. And everyone’s lives seem so busy these days that there hardly exists enough time in the day just to take a deep breath, let alone talk about any of the heavy issues. But you know what? Tough. We’re the parents. We signed up for this. We need to do the hard, uncomfortable and awkward stuff like talk to our kids about race, racism, discrimination and prejudice and how it will affect them. The onus is ours and to me that duty is non-optional.

Because when no one is talking, guess who absorbs and retains 100% of the impact when – not if – a child finds themselves on the receiving end of a racist remark or discriminatory act? Guess who ends up having a greater propensity for feeling guilty, responsible, abnormal, confused, isolated, hurt, angry, crazy, ashamed, dirty, blame worthy, inferior and completely lost when no one is talking?

I truly believe that in the absence of honest and straightforward dialogue with children about matters pertaining to race, a message is still being delivered loud and clear. The message that tells children that this is their burden to carry, their problem to deal with by themselves and their responsibility to make the best of it, alone and as quietly as possible. Bottom line: that their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences and their voices don’t matter, nor do they count.

I know there are plenty of parents who take a very active role and approach towards educating themselves and their children about the complexities of race and race consciousness in this country. And yet, one does not need to look far to find scores of other parents who write or talk about how shocked, surprised and ill-prepared they feel about a racist statement or discriminatory act that happened to their family or to their child. Inevitably, accompanying commentary includes remarks such as: “Who knew that my family would have to deal with racism in this day in age?! Thank goodness my child was too young to understand what that ignorant person was saying. I can’t imagine if she was actually old enough to realize what was being said – hopefully she’ll never have to hear words like that again. I just want her to stay innocent forever! Why do people have to be so mean? I never dreamt that we’d encounter anything other than positive experiences from being a transracial family. I sure do hope and pray that this is our first and last incident with such ignorant people.” Though I’m empathetic to a degree as a fellow parent who obviously doesn’t want to see his or her child get hurt, each time I read or hear about a similar situation I can’t help but be a bit surprised that the parent is so surprised that these kinds of occurrences do indeed take place. Yes, even in this day in age.

Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t think any level-headed parent makes a conscious decision to throw their child into a situation where their son or daughter is rendered completely and utterly defenseless and unprepared to protect him or herself. But one’s intentions don’t count for much when a child finds himself being called a racist slur, or is told that his “kind” aren’t allowed, or that “foreigners like him” is what is ruining this country. It’s one thing to be somewhat prepared, informed and aware about the potential existing dangers pertaining to racism and quite another to feel as if you’ve been blindsided by an 18-wheeler without so much as even a seat belt or an airbag to help mitigate the impact.

Perhaps one reason some parents don’t “go there” with candid and open conversations about race is because there is a case of mistaken identity on the part of the parent. That because the parent does not see or “remember” (yes, I hear this from parents quite often) that his or her child is a person of color, the parent may feel that others do not discern any noticeable difference in their child either. Or that because their child never talks about race, and has never reported being teased, harassed or bullied because of his/her race or ethnicity that it must mean that their child has never experienced anything negative associated with his or her racial or ethnic identity. And quite possibly, there could be white privilege at play here as well. By that I mean if a parent who is white has had little or no experience with being a direct target of racism or discrimination, the very act itself could potentially be minimized or even negated entirely by the parent who thinks their child is overreacting and being overly sensitive or that their child just simply misunderstood what the other person was saying or doing.

Our son and daughter, ages 3 and almost 6 years old respectively, are old enough to know exactly what topics, interests, values, morals and ideals are important to our family simply by the amount of time and energy that we invest and expend talking about them. Subject matter like adoption, racism, stereotypes, sexism, poverty, equality, discrimination and other topics that some may deem as too “heavy” for children are spoken about in an age appropriate manner with our kids and are integrated into as much of our regular family conversations as is appropriate given the context in that particular moment. Admittedly, much of the content is still beyond our son’s comprehension, but our daughter is already very astute to many of the social, racial, ethnic and economic distinctions that are present in her classroom and in her school.

Frequent and honest conversations about race and race consciousness hopefully conveys the message to our children that words like racism and discrimination aren’t scary or taboo words that they need to be protected from. Most importantly, as their mother, I want my children to know that their experiences, their voices, their thoughts and their feelings are worthy of being validated, believed and heard, especially in matters pertaining to racial and ethnic identity. I feel I can help advance those goals by giving them a safe forum to express themselves, on their terms and at their individual comfort levels.

Sending a kid out into the street to fend for himself without any guidance, any information, any background knowledge, any language, any practice, any concrete examples of how to best protect himself and to best navigate the traffic so that he can retain at least some level of control, confidence, dignity and personal safety is unfathomable to virtually every parent.

I feel the same way about sending a child out into a setting where he is just as vulnerable simply because of the color of his skin.

I believe it is in the best interest of a child to do our level best to give her the guidance, the information, the background knowledge, the language, the practice, and concrete examples that she can use to best defend herself and to best navigate the racially charged environment in which we live so that she can retain at least some level of control, confidence, dignity and personal safety.

In my opinion, both scenarios are unsafe and unwise for a child to enter into ill-prepared, naive and unaware. And in my opinion, it’s high time they both deserve to be recognized as such.

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