A four-year old recently announced to her mother, “I have white skin so I am special.” The mother, instantly horrified and confused, asked on social media how her child, raised in such diversity with equality minded parents, could make such a proclamation of preference? How does she explain to her child: It’s not about skin color? How does she open the conversation of racial equality with a four-year-old? She doesn’t understand. Her child’s daycare is diverse. Their friends are diverse. Why would, how could her child come up with this idea?
Even as the most liberal, accepting, diverse white community member you can be: actively listening and speaking up against racial inequality, leading your neighborhood in posting Black Lives Matter signs, talking to the police about non-violent communication, ensuring all the non-white kiddos get invited to your kids’ parties, pointing out possible cultural appropriation of Kwanzaa and Dia de los Muertos. Even when you do all that and painfully wince at your white privilege: You are still white. Painful as it might be to your liberal sensibilities, white America is special. It isn’t about what is right or fair, it is simply the current climate of this land.
Allow me, for a moment, to return to the four-year old’s statement. What she said is a fact of American life, observable by a four-year-old. Let that sink in:
I have white skin so I am special.
With storms there is often a last violent surge before the storm loses its power and passes, leaving bad memories, but a brighter future in its wake. This country’s race relations have been in a tumultuous storm for the last sixty years. We have made enormous strides toward equality and basic human rights to all. We have made strides, but we are not there yet. Often, not even close. Let it not be forgot, there are grandparents amongst us who can recall acid being added to pools to keep Black families out and lynchings along highways. This country and its Really Bad History is figuring out how to do things right, but it is nowhere near finished.
As good, common sense grown folk, we know our neighbors’ differences do not reside in the color of their skin. There is no difference, yet there is great discrimination. At this moment in American history, I choose to believe America is experiencing a last violent surge of its race storm. It seems, during the pre-cameraphone calm, we lulled ourselves with a post-racial campfire song of equality and a great fairness that was now the streets of America. As that fire was fanned with growth and goodness, the truth was burned away by a new technology. The streets were now being filmed in real time and the live feed revealed discrimination and a criminal hatred still burning. Now, the storm of America’s injustices pushes back with one more violent surge and we have to keep up the fight for equality or lose our heart. We are still broken. Race is still very much a divide.
Young children see people on TV, the politicians & talking heads. They see who is on street corners and who drives fancy cars. They see who teaches them and who cleans up after them. The children see who we talk to, where we share our time and voice, who we feel sorry for, who we endorse. The children witness our glances, hand wringing, our pop culture choices. They see who is cast as the criminals and winners. They know who is picked first in class to answer questions and who is thought to be best at sports. They hear the news and our deep liberal sighs of “wish we could do something” when another Black child is reported shot by a police officer. They hear the news when a Black mother is killed in her home. They see the video when a boy like their big brother is killed while wearing a hoodie and kept his hands in his pockets too long. A boy like his brother, except with Black skin so not special enough to live.
So yes, yes, that four-year-old white child may say, “My skin is white. I am special” and that child is stating a heartbreaking truth of America 2017.
As parents who say we want to be the change, we must embrace those statements. We must lean into the discomfort and fear that we feel when we hear them. We have the ability to embrace and shatter those statements, transforming those painful moments into sharing and explanations of equality. For our children, the effect of those words has not yet been locked down so we have the ability to destroy the fabric of our cultural divide and weave something new. But we must be active in our actions. Eliminating discrimination is not just about protests and liberally-appropriate posts on Facebook, eliminating discrimination is a slow process that begins with breaking down cultural misunderstandings and getting to know the people we discriminate against for who they are. If you know a person, they are not the shell and stereotype of our perception. When you begin interacting with people they become the people. We the people.
We must be able to see and call our children on societal bullshit that seeps into their (sub)conscious reality. We must get off our attention sucking devices and away from our televisions in order to watch and interact with our children. Take them to places to naturally interact with other kids – not simply curated play-dates. Go to public swimming pools and museums and open concerts with outdoor picnics in new neighborhoods. Make it a habit to visit libraries in new neighborhoods and go to story-time with kids that don’t look like your kids. Talk about the world and your experiences together. Talk to strangers, meet the people who share your space. Lean into the unknown and remove yourself from isolationism. Kids know when we create bogus actions to feel good about our cultural quota. Admit to our children that our culture is fucked and segregated. Do not paint it pretty. Let it be known our wrongs are only reason to do more and be more aware.
As white folk, we are a culturally designed special and we have a responsibility to use that special to bring the oppressed to an equal footing – to deconstruct the oppressor. If we are in a position to hire, we can refuse to review resumes with names. If we teach, we can encourage non-white children to excel simply by calling on them more often in class. When we walk down a street, don’t cross over if a non-white is headed toward you – instead say hello and keep on with your business. Don’t assume you know how to help. Don’t put yourself in someone else’s place. You will NEVER be in that place so instead ask and listen.
I feel like an ass for even writing the last couple paragraphs because I know I haven’t done enough to listen, to build bridges, to create the change I espouse. I believe it’s not too late to try. It’s not too late to try again and fail and try again.
To shift a touch, in February of this year, in Austin, there were several weeks of intense ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) activity involving raids and deportations. My daughter has a friend at school whose family all speaks Spanish, very little English. One night, my daughter told me, “I thought some of Lydia’s family might be undocumented. I asked her if everyone is ok. She said everyone has papers and gave me hug.” My child is eight. There is nothing she could do to help, but she reached. She said, “I hear your story.” That may be a place to start.
I want to hear your story. I want to try harder. Can we begin there?