August 19th–I was sitting at my laptop when Elanor came over, dressed in her gymnastics uniform. I glanced up, half hoping I could finish my tweet or my facebook comment–or whatever it was I was doing–before she was ready to leave.
“Am I black or white?”
I looked up at her. “What?”
“Am I black or white?”
I’m not ready for this conversation. I thought it would be years from now. Fuck. I have to talk about racism. How do I–as a white parent–explain race and racism to a five year old biracial child? Shouldn’t Ravi be the one to do this? Why isn’t Ravi here? Do I mention Ferguson? If we were in the US I’d have taken her to Ferguson rallies. What about the “no indians/no prcs” in the rental market in Singapore? The Little India riot? I don’t know what to say. I’m not ready.
All of this flashes through my mind as I try to come up with an answer.
“Well, you’re not black. Your dad is Indian and I’m White–so you’re biracial.”
“So am I Indian or am I White?”
Please let that be enough. Let her be happy with that answer. Give me time to figure out what to say next. To talk to Ravi, to P, to other non-white friends and ask for help.
I’ll spare you the full conversation. But it was deep, and it was hard, and I was brutally aware of my white privilege for every last second.
I read Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman at some point in the last year. They discuss (among other things) research that has been done into how white parents do and don’t talk about race. The following quotes are all from Chapter 3.
“…Hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles in the home–like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin we’re all the same”–but they had almost never called attention to racial differences.
They wanted their children to grow up color-blind. But Vittrup could also see from her first test of the kids that they weren’t color-blind at all.
More disturbingly, Vittrup had also asked all the kinds a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people.” If the white parents never talked about race explicitly, did the kids knwo that their parents liked black people? Apparently not: 14% said, outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38% of the kids answered “I don’t know.”
In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions–many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.
Combing through the parents’ study diaries, Vittrup noticed an aberration. When she’d given the parents the checklist of race topics to discuss with their kindergartners, she had also asked them to record whether this had been a meaningful interaction. Did the parents merely mention the item on the checklist? Did they expand on the checklist item? Did it lead to true discussion?
Almost all the parents reported merely mentioning the checklist items, briefly, in passing. Many just couldn’t talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the vague “Everybody’s equal” phrasing.
The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don’t have to talk about race–in fact it’s better not to talk about race. Just expose the child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal.
I have talked to Elanor about racism before. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize I’ve presented it as something that was in the past. It used to be against the law for Mommy and Daddy to be married because we have different skin colors. Before Martin Luther King, black kids couldn’t go to school with white kids. A really long time ago white people thought it was okay to own black people. Our interracial marriage is legal. Kids of different colors go to school together. Slavery is over.
I don’t believe we–the US, Singapore, the world–are post racial. But I haven’t been ready to tell that to my five year old.
Recently I said to a friend that before I could talk about privilege, I need to point out the ‘isms. I’m comfortable talking with Elanor about sexism and heterosexism. Unintentionally, I’ve not brought racism to her attention. I never mentioned the Little India riot last December because we were in the US and I could shelter her from it. I haven’t talked about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri because we’re in Singapore and I can shelter her from it. Racism has been the elephant in the room.
Fortunately (?) I had two examples to share with Elanor about how people make assumptions based on race from the finalization of our PR status at the ICA.
When we got the paperwork with the details that will appear on our identification, we found two errors.
Ravi’s language was listed as Gujurati.—He doesn’t speak it, at all.
My religion was listed as Christian.—I am an Atheist.
Both errors were clearly the attendant’s assumptions. The paperwork that was sitting right in front of them clearly stated that Ravi’s primary and only language is English and that I am an atheist. I know this because I’m the person who has filled it out. The file is over an inch thick, and every last line about language specifies English and religion specifies Atheist.
I looked at everyone’s paperwork. Ravi–Free Thinker (closest thing to Atheist here, apparently). Elanor–Free Thinker. Rhiannon–Free Thinker. Me–Christian.
I look again to see if Ravi’s was the only error in language.. Me-English. Elanor-English. Rhiannon-English. Ravi–Gujarati.
I pointed out the errors to the attendant and had her fix the paperwork before I signed for myself and the girls, and called Ravi over to sign his form. End of story. I never thought that the attendant was pursuing a negative agenda–they just filled out the forms without thinking. White person? Christian–after all, most are. Indian of Gujarati heritage–must obviously speak Gujurati because most do.
Ravi and I discussed the incident quietly while the girls were singing along to Frozen in the backseat after our appointment. But it was a very short conversation that can be boiled down to “Well, that was racist on their part. Shrug. Sigh.” Then we moved on to what was I going to cook for dinner, and what was the game plan for the upcoming weekend–did we have plans yet? Neither of us mentioned it to the girls.
Today I shared those microagresions with Elanor–an illustration that even though we want to live in a world where everyone is treated the same, people still make assumptions based on skin color. Sometimes those assumptions are irritating but not dangerous, and other times they can hurt people–a lot. I didn’t get into Ferguson, although if the drive had been longer, I might have.
I taught Elanor one of the most important lessons I feel I can impart to her–to answer the question “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” with Why do you want to know?
I told her that people will want to ask her this question because they can’t immediately put her in a racial box. That sometimes it will be a relevant question–maybe if she’s talking to someone about India or she’s talking about her family’s history or something like that–and if she’s comfortable, she’s free to share. But that other times–MOST OF THE TIME–it will be totally irrelevant to the conversation, and she should ask them that. That she is allowed to say “I’m not going to discuss that with you,” or “I don’t think you need to know that,” or to keep asking Why do you want to know?
Ellie kept asking about colors–about what she was.
I showed her a picture of President Obama. I told her that like her–his mom is white. That his dad is black, and hers is Indian. Her response was “He’s so cute!” which is Elanor-speak for “I like him because I can identify with him.”
She asked again if her dad was black. I reluctantly used the word brown, but said that we don’t use that word–we identify with ethnicity. That Latinos, Indians, and many South-East Asians are similarly shades of brown. That her dad is Indian.
“What am I?”
I give her options–that she can identify as biracial, as white, as indian, as eurasian (explaining what eurasian means), as mixed. That it’s partially up to her.
“I’m going to say I’m Indian,” she tells me. I’m not shocked, as she has a strong connection to her Indian heritage.
In that moment, though, I was thinking about Rhiannon, who is so light skinned she is assumed to be white. While Rhi has the option of identifying as Indian, I wonder if she will. As Paula commented on the National Identity post “I can relate to R and her potential issues of being half Indian (for me Native American) but looking more Caucasian and how that can make you feel a bit of a disconnect from the rest of the family who are “darker”. Its insulting and disheartening when you are viewed as “not native enough” by those outside of the family because of it.”
I am very lucky to have a supportive network of friends that cross all sorts of lines–class, religion, education, background, sexuality, and race. I try to be aware of my privilege. I try to address racism when I encounter it. I consider myself an activist (although more in the realm of feminist and LGBT issues). Yet, like those parents in Nuture Shock, I am uncomfortable talking about these issues with a five year old. If she were a 10/11/12 year old like the ones I used to teach, or older, I could do this so much more easily. My five year old who is currently asleep and eager to check her tooth box in the morning to see if the tooth fairy came? I wish I could fall back on “Everybody’s equal.” But I don’t have that luxury.
Much like national identity this will also be an ongoing journey of identity and discovery for Elanor, racial identity will be a long term journey for Elanor. How will she identify? How will she handle all those inquests about her racial background because she looks exotic? What sort of racism will she encounter in Singapore? What sort of racism will she encounter in the US? How will she deal with it? How different a journey through these identity issues will her sister have? What will these conversations look like in a year, in five, in ten?
In the end, all the discussions I have had/continue to have about race, the reading, the listening, the learning? I still feel unprepared and lacking confidence when talking about race/racism with Elanor. But I’m going to have the conversations anyway.