Last week I talked a bit about how often I notice people dancing around racial descriptors, and how this has led to some awkward interchanges. A friend pointed out that perhaps I was glossing over the context of racial descriptors, and so I want to talk a bit about that. In fact, I think it’s relevant because I think some of the negative context around pointing out someone’s race is what has led to the general unease about acknowledging or discussing issues of race in today’s society. I think many of us probably grew up hearing people use racial descriptors in a negative way. I can certainly remember my grandparents doing it:
Another black family just moved in. They’re taking over this neighborhood! Those Puerto Ricans behind me were talking so loud. I nearly got in an accident with someone today! He was Asian.
Hopefully I don’t need to explain how these are examples of inappropriate racial referencing. In this instances, the race of the individual is irrelevant, but included in the conversation to confirm a generalization or prejudice. The reference to race is not about describing the other person, but rather about ascribing a stereotype or judgment to the situation based on another person’s race. As a result of growing up with this kind of racism, many of us had well-meaning parents or teachers who wanted to create a better environment, but in doing so we were taught that we should ignore race. “Race doesn’t matter” . . . we were told. Everyone’s equal. Don’t notice someone’s race, and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it if you do. This is the credo that I think a lot of white folks were raised on, and while it’s certainly an improvement over the more overt racism of racial ascription, it has (in my opinion) created a generation of people wearing a set of blinders to the real and ongoing issues of prejudice that people of color deal with. It has also created a society in which mentioning someone’s race is deemed offensive. Which is kind of a problem when a black friend tries to describe her experiences of subtle racism, and her white friends argue with her that no one notices race, and that she’s being overly sensitive. Or when I talk to a preschool teacher about my son’s experience as the only African American in his class and it results in an awkward conversation where the teacher feels as though I’m being confrontational. Or when I mention my concerns about the prejudice my sons may face and I’m told I’m just being paranoid. The idea that race doesn’t matter is a lovely dream, but the truth is that it DOES matter. Still. Today.
Another way I see this sense of racial denial play out is that people frequently relate stories to me about how their kids don’t notice race, as if this is a confirmation that their children don’t hold any prejudice. But here’s the kicker, that I think both children and adults need to learn:
It’s possible to notice race without prejudice.
In fact, it might even be optimal to notice race. According to Nurture Shock, parents who don’t talk to their kids about race are setting them up to view diversity as a negative thing. Not to mention, I believe that every child notices race on some level . . . it might not hold much weight, but I think if asked, most children could point out what children of color are in their class or friend circle. That doesn’t make them budding racists. So, to sum it up:
People shouldn’t be judged on race.
BUT Race does matter.
Everyone is equal
BUT Not everyone is treated equally
I get the collective cringe when someone is described according to their race. For many of us, there is a deeply engrained notion that it’s wrong, and depending on the context, it sometimes is. Therefore, it’s really important to recognize context, and not presume that every mention of a person’s race has a racist undertone. Sometimes it’s an apt way to describe a person’s appearance (as my children do, all the time, in regards to children of all races). Other times, it’s appropriate to acknowledge race to promote cultural sensitivity. Culture and race are a part of identity, and when we pretend that we don’t see someone’s race, in a way we are denying a part of their experience. Last night, I took the kids to see the Alvin Ailey dance company. At intermission, India pointed out, rather loudly, that all of the dancers have brown skin. I felt that familiar cringe creep up . . . my first instinct was to shush her, or to whisper, or ask her to be quiet. I felt a little squicky about the people around me hearing her say this so directly, and worried about what they thought of her for being so direct. I could have easily said something to shame her observation in that moment, but instead I fought through my discomfort and baggage and acknowledged what was an innocent observation on her behalf. “You’re right – this is a mostly African American cast,” I answered, without whispering. Then we had a discussion about who Alvin Ailey was, and why his contribution to the African American community was so great. On the way home, we continued our discussion. I explained more about the Revelation dance, and how the spirituals in that number were songs that were sung by slaves as a way to express their hope and faith in the middle of a horrible circumstance. It ended up being one of the best discussions I’ve had with the kids about historical racism, and I felt glad that my daughter was able to freely make observations without my discomfort shaming her into pretending not to notice.