A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Race from the start

“It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Rebecca Bigler ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color. The kids didn't segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. "The Reds never showed hatred for Blues," Bigler observed. "It was more like, 'Blues are fine, but not as good as us.' "When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they'd answer, "All of us." Asked how many Blues were nice, they'd answer, "Some." Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.”
[from Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, 2009]

Nurtureshock was such a good read that it may have persuaded me to stop hiding from self-improving literature.  It was entertaining enough to distract me (via mp3) from my poor snow-biking skills, and scientific enough to satisfy my nerdy skepticism.  It also prodded me directly in my liberal-white-middle-class-parent complacency.  Because, according to the authors – and they had some compelling studies to back them up -- kids are inherently racist.   

Wait, I thought (still pedaling along), not my kids!  Or… were they? 

At some level, I already knew that Bronson and Merryman were right.  Children, like pro-sports-team fans, are obnoxiously zealous in their us-versus-them labeling and loyalties.  It’s not that babies are born with a color preference; it’s just that as soon as the mental neurons start firing, they start categorizing.  Kids are obsessed with “good guys” and “bad guys.” They avidly sort the world into “like me” and “not like me.”   According to a wealth of studies, countering this tendency takes more than vague platitudes about diversity, tiresome Dora stories, and footage of President Obama.  Little white kids whose well-meaning parents Just Don’t Talk About It… end up Just Not Getting It. 

The data were pretty clear.  What wasn’t clear was whether I was one of those lily-livered parents.  Were Molly and Lizzy getting mixed messages about race, I wondered?  Were they getting any messages at all?

Oh, I’d made sporadic efforts, in keeping with the generally distracted and unplanned nature of my parenting. In preschool, my kids met several peers who didn’t look much like their mommies or daddies, and we talked about it a bit, in the context of explaining adoption.  One of their best friends since infancy looks – at least at a glance -- more like her Native Alaskan daddy than like her blonde mommy.  I bumbled my way through some rambling Fairbanks-centric history lessons, struggling with an audience who could not fathom how the “long ago” of the gold miners was different from the “REALLY long ago” of the Bering Land Bridge.  My children were interested in the idea that some people had lived here for generations following a subsistence lifestyle, while others had arrived far more recently, following a lifestyle that included canned Spam, an obsessive interest in shiny or stinky stuff under the earth, and bad politics.  Nonetheless, the kids were confused.  No one in Fred Meyer was wearing cool outfits like the ones on display at the University Museum, and (unlike the New York suburbanites of my own childhood) most of the white people they know pick berries and eat moose, too.  I felt kind of dumb for trying. 

Now I wondered how well my kids had processed all this partial information.  I dredged my memory for clues.

I recalled one summer day when I’d been cajoling my then-four-year-olds to do some actual scrubbing in the bathtub, rather than just playing with their massive fleet of plastic toys. Molly paused in her lack-of-washing and stared down and her small, pinkish self.  She gave herself quite a perusal.  Then she announced, “I wish I was Tim!” 

“Um…”  I could hear Freud snickering at me.  Tim was one of her preschool buddies, a precocious and outgoing little guy. At a recent playdate at his parents’ farm, all the kids had ended up joyfully naked. “Why?” I asked, carefully.

She looked up at me with the ‘you-are-stupid’ look that somehow she’d managed to perfect before hitting kindergarten.  “Because then I wouldn’t have to wear sunscreen,” she explained. 

Well, duh, Mommy.  Tim’s parents had adopted him from Ethiopia.

Ok, so at age four, my white daughter wanted to be a black boy.  An unlikely aspiration, perhaps, but not precisely a racist one.

Fast-forward a year or so. 

Lizzy stood at the cash register at Value Village, counting out three dollars in dimes. And nickels.  And pennies.  Coins accumulated in little heaps.  Occasionally she lost count and had to recount a pile. All the while, she was cradling her intended purchase -- gently but possessively – with its head nestled on her shoulder, amidst Lizzy’s fine pale hair.

It was a doll. Not a baby-doll, but a little-kid doll, perhaps intended to look about Lizzy’s own age – which, at the time, was only five. It had a soft, cuddly body and a plastic face with a sweet smile and wide eyes.  Its thick black hair was tied with ribbons, and its plastic-and-cloth skin was a deep shade of brown. 

Luckily, there was no line behind us at the register.  But still, I fidgeted anxiously, sure that we must be trying the patience of the young cashier.  Even I was getting twitchy.  (Yes, kid, I’m vaguely proud that you can count by fives so well, but can you do it faster?)

To my surprise, though, I found that the cashier wasn’t frowning or tapping her foot.  In fact, a small smile was playing on her lips.  “Is this your own money?” she asked her small customer.

Molly answered for her.  (This happens a lot. Sometimes I try to curtail it, and sometimes I give up; consistent parenting is not my strong suit.) “We saved our allowances,” she announced proudly.  Her purchase, an only-slightly-used-looking teddy, was already safely bagged. 

Lizzy had finally completed her laborious calculations.  Cautiously, she held out the doll so that its price code could be scanned ($2.99).  She used both hands, earnest as a new parent allowing a stranger to admire her infant.  Now, the joy of her purchase overwhelmed her reticence.  With almost palpable ecstasy wreathing her face, she beamed up at the cashier.  “Isn’t she beautiful?” she sighed. 

The cashier smiled back down at her as the scanner beeped.  “So… you got to choose whatever you wanted, with your own money?”  She relinquished the paid-for item back to its new owner.

“Yes,” my daughter breathed.  “I chose her all by myself.”  She clasped the doll to her chicken-ribbed little chest.  “Isn’t she BEAUTIFUL?” she repeated.

The young woman’s smile was large and genuine as she smiled at this tiny little blonde person and her wealth of pennies.   Her own hair was thick and black.  Her own skin was a deep rich shade of chocolate brown. “Yes,” the cashier said.  “Yes, she is beautiful.” 

So far so good.  Such cultural sensitivity!  A happy parenting moment!  Then the doll came home.  I asked Lizzy what name she had chosen.

“Gingersnap,” Lizzy announced with finality.

I winced.  It sounded like some kind of weird condescending southern nickname.  Why ain’t that swee-ut, Aunt Jemima makes pancakes, and her little pickaninny Gingersnap bakes cookies!  I teetered on the brink of trying to explain this to Lizzy, of trying to convince her to name her doll something respectable like Rachel or Susan.  But I knew that to her, the name was mellifluous, delicious, complimentary, and utterly without stereotype or association.  Growing up, I played with dolls named “Bedtime,” “Good Girl,” and “Fat Doll.”  Who was I to talk?  Besides, I couldn’t find the courage or the words to explain hundreds of years of enslavement, oppression, colonialism, and hatred to someone whose concept of bad human  behavior included hair-pulling or sneaking a piece of candy.  Gingersnap it was.  And Gingersnap was beloved.

Soon after the purchase of Gingersnap, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (2012) rolled around.  It occurred to me that I should talk about race, and the shameful underbelly of American history.  I made a feeble attempt to start a discussion.  But my kids beat me to it. 

“Oh, we already learned all about him,” Molly told me, with the kind of confidence of knowledge that is only possible among people who have recently lost their first baby teeth.  She rummaged in her ladybug backpack and extracted a coloring page.  It depicted two boxes of crayons – the kind of simple eight-packs that were the industry standard in her kindergarten class.  She had colored the first box entirely blue.  The box itself was blue.  So was every crayon.  The second box was more standard, a rainbow of hues.  “It’s better if you have all the colors,” Molly explained. 

I have a dream…

“Yes,” I agreed, both pleased and disappointed by this opportunity to duck the uglier side of the subject.  “All colors of crayons, and all colors of people.” 

Both kids nodded, beaming because Mommy understood the lesson.  With a mental nod to Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, William Paul, and thousands of others -- the President not the least of them -- I reassured myself that my kids, while possibly deeply confused about the role of Crayola in civil rights, were not racist. And I left it at that. Again.

But that was last year. 

Martin Luther King Day rolled around again in 2013, and now the kids were six – a whole twenty percent more mature.  Now they rode the school bus.  Now they shared recess with second and even third graders.  What had they already overheard?  What might they overhear in the future?

Too clearly, I recalled the divisiveness that gradually encroached throughout my own childhood – not just with regard to race, but with regard to practically everything.  In first grade, I played with Aaron, with Daniel, with Doris (who was Hispanic) and with Yvette (who was black).  But after about age six or seven, social pressure dictated that boys didn’t play with girls, and the Puerto Rican and Haitian kids started socializing mainly amongst their own groups.  I remember telling my mother that Aaron could not come home with me on the bus to play, because other kids would make fun of us; we were eight.  I recall the second graders who had received First Communion surrounding shy Jennifer, who had not, and telling her that she was going to Hell.  Even the arbitrary division of the Reds and the Blues by Coach Mitchell for Field Day resulted in vehement Us and Them cliques on the playground.  I was discomfited. 

Then I read Nurtureshock.

I started talking with my kids.  We talked about the real Martin Luther King Jr., not the crayon version.  We talked about slavery.  We talked about civil rights, and segregation, and Whites Only.  We talked about women’s suffrage, and No Irish Need Apply, and the broad swath of our pock-marked, ugly, struggling history.

A few days ago, I read my children a bedtime story about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.  When the story was over, both kids looked troubled, and thoughtful – especially Molly.  She’s prone to empathy.  At last she said, “I don’t think people will ever be that way again.”

Oh, Molly…

I would have liked to have agreed with her, and left it at that.  But if we’re going to continue changing the world, then pretty soon, my generation is going to need her generation’s help.  So I told my six-year-olds about extant racism, modern-day social injustice, and ongoing efforts to educate away hatred – close to home, and overseas. 

It broke my heart.  But it also felt deeply, wonderfully honest.

I tucked the kids into their little-person-sized bunk beds, top and bottom.  Under her fuzzy blue blanket – the one that used to be Daddy’s when he was little -- Lizzy cuddled up with her doll.  Her beautiful doll.  Her doll with the dark eyes, indubitably tangled black hair, and deep brown skin. 

Sleep tight, Lizzy.  Sleep tight, Gingersnap.

1 comment:

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