The other day, my four year old son began crying spontaneously. This is a daily occurrence, and the reasons for the crying are usually somewhat bizarre. This time, Simon told me he was worried about a black friend from school whom, he feared, would be all but invisible at night. “What if someone bumps into her?” he sobbed. I assured him that she would not be out walking in the road alone at night, and for events like trick or treat, it’s wise for everyone to wear reflective gear, even those of us with luminously white skin. Then, out of solidarity, I suppose, he suggested painting his face to look more like his friend, and I got into an overly detailed lecture on blackface and cultural appropriation.
Two days ago, he mentioned his friend again, only this time, it was to say, “I don’t like her. She’s too brown. I don’t like the color of her.” Turns out, this had more to do with her decline of his offer to play Harry Potter with him (she didn’t want to be Ron Weasley), but this, clearly, was not a conversation that could be dismissed with assurances about reflective vests. I told him the basics of our philosophy–that everyone is different, but that what we look like on the outside isn’t predictive of what we’re like on the inside. I asked how he would feel if someone told him she didn’t like him because he’s too white (“Bad.” he pouted back at me). Defending himself, he told me, “But I just wanted to know the secrets of being brown, and she said it’s private!” Ah, the secrets of being brown. Wouldn’t we all like to know.
I realize that at this point in his life, Simon’s attention span is brief, his comprehension limited, and his thought processes startlingly deranged. He’s just a normal four year old. Still, preschool kids are not oblivious to race, nor do they
live in some sort of harmonious United Colors of Benetton ad, as this review article points out. Simon is obviously thinking about race, and to dismiss it would be a missed opportunity. But as I began this foray into our many future discussions of race, I thought back to the coverage of the Trayvon Martin killing, and the Zimmerman trial. There was, at that time, a lot of discussion about “The Talk” — the sit down black parents have with their sons about how they will be perceived once they hit adolescence. Warnings about driving while black, tips on de-escalating encounters with police, how to make oneself appear as non-threatening as possible to a suspicious populace. Much as I might discuss race with my sons, I won’t ever have to have that talk with them. I looked at my son and realized what The Talk is for a boy like him. My sons were born with every ounce of privilege one can come by via genetics alone. They are male, they are white, they are blue-eyed with straight hair. One is even blonde. My job is to make them see their privilege, and not to feel guilty over it, but to know it for what it is. They won’t be grouped with hoodlums and criminals; they will be described as “All-American” boys. They will not be suspected; old ladies won’t cross the street as they approach, or clutch their handbags. Security guards won’t stalk them through the mall.
I teach biology, and we don’t get much into the cultural aspects of race in class, but we do talk about the genetic basis for skin color, eye color, hair color, and so on. We discuss the difference between the biological nature of variation between human populations, and the social significance that we append to it. What I am struck by is the blankness and lack of facility my white students express in these discussions. They tend to answer with something like, “I’m colorblind. Race doesn’t matter to me,” and we find ourselves in a dead end alley on the subject. I know what’s going on here; their parents fed them the line about “everyone’s the same on the inside” and “color doesn’t matter.” While this is an outright fantasy, it has real consequences. A belief that race doesn’t matter, and that we can all be colorblind, allows us white folks to deny our privilege. I have white students who tell me they’re “colorblind” and that “race doesn’t matter” and that therefore they resent affirmative action policies. We can debate the finer points of affirmative action, of course, but this sentiment demonstrates the hazard of the “we’re all the same” curriculum; it becomes possible to convince oneself that being white, or being male, or being American had nothing to do with one’s success. Of course, being white, or male, or both, doesn’t guarantee success, but it sure does make it easier.
I’m still working on The Talk, and like all momentous discussions with kids, this one will take place in many smaller talks over the course of the years. The balance I have to strike, with my Aryan looking boys, is between white liberal fantasies about equivalence, and white liberal guilt. So far, it goes something like this, “Boys, when you stand on the promontory and cast your eyes out to the horizon, and think on your limitless potential, and survey the world that lies at your very feet, please lift your boots a little from the necks of those oppressed others on whose backs your forefathers have long trod to bring you here.”
I think with a few edits, I’m there.