We’re back for Part 2 of the privilege and racism topic. Here is Part 1 on racism and privilege. Someclarifications, and then some practical tips.
To those of you who were ready for this and who’ve thanked me for writing it right when you needed it--you’re welcome! To those of you who said “tl;dr” but are then arguing in the comments, go sit down someplace else. If you’re actually advocating for following strangers around with loaded guns and provoking fights so you can shoot them, please leave my site and don’t come back. Everyone else, carry on being awesome.
I’m not here to talk about the FL legal system anyway, I’m here to talk about making the world much better for our kids than it is for us. Some notes from yesterday’s post:
1. I didn’t come up with the prejudice plus power equals racism equation. It's credited to Pat Bidol in 1970, and has been a theory in use since then. You may not like it. I didn’t like it the first time I heard it! I really really wanted to believe that the effects of prejudice were the same no matter who was prejudiced against whom. The problem, though, is that people of color in our current American society don't have the power to inflict widespread harm on white people. Having one Black president in power doesn't change that. Neither do isolated incidents of individual people harming others. It's an entire structure of our society that gives white skin more value than Black skin, in general. If the whole point is to understand how things work, then understanding differences in power and risk and authority are important.
2. I realized this morning that I never gave the answers to the questions about hockey and basketball! Sorry about that. (No, I’m not saying the NHL is an inherently racist institution. Poorly-run, yes--Gary Bettman is a menace. But that’s a different topic.) The reason most hockey players are white is that kids have to have access to ice rinks, parents with flexible enough schedules and time to take them to practices, and money for expensive equipment that needs to be replaced regularly. Or to live in a small town that has a huge hockey culture and a system set up to get kids in at an early age. This is an inherent bias against groups of kids who tend to live in cities, tend to have lower HHIs, parents with less free time, etc. And those excluded groups tend to have higher percentages of kids of color. THIS DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH PLAYING HOCKEY. It just means there’s a system going on (that the people who play hockey often don’t even see) that’s selecting for certain types of players. In contrast, there are basketball courts on every corner in every city in America, and all you need is one ball per group of kids, and balls are relatively cheap. So low barrier to entry means more types of people can play basketball. (As to why the kids who start out playing a given sport get into the pros, there’s even more going on there that’s systematic and cultural and a lot of other things that there's no room to get into here. But if you don’t even start playing, you won’t end up in the pros.)
I love this game of “Why does this happen?” I hope you do, too. If you’re looking for more categories to play, try “golf” and “appearing on Meet the Press.”
3. Being hurt by all of this is a good place to start. It gets easier the deeper you go in. I promise.
And now, party people, here we go. I promised you practical tips for exploring and ferreting out privilege, and detaching yourself from it inasmuch as possible. Remember: This is just what I’ve got. I'm not an authority on this, just someone who cares about it and wants to work at it. There are tons and tons of resources out there, and now you know to look out for them you’re going to find them.
First, some tips for you as you begin this journey:
1. Know who you are. If you’re feeling conflicted about your own thoughts, actions, opinions, and motives, it’s going to be hard to learn from others. If you feel like there’s stuff (from your childhood, from past experiences, from the situation you’re in right now) that’s preventing you from being able to listen to others without feeling defensive or raw, give yourself (and your kids) the gift of the time and space to work on that. It’s never to late to take care of yourself and become the person you know you can be.
2. Listen. Not everything everyone else says is about you, but it’s always about them. Listening to others is the best (and sometimes only) way to understand other experiences so you can see the entire picture, not just the little piece you have access to.
3. If it hurts, close your mouth, open your ears and heart, and lean into it. If you're feeling hurt or even just a little bit of friction, that hurt feeling is the signal that something important is going on. You know how when you exercise, if you don’t exert yourself to the point of being uncomfortable, you’re not building any muscle? Yeah, that. We tend to run away from pain, but sometimes having your feelings hurt is good because it signals you to slow down, listen more closely, and learn the bigger concepts. (That doesn’t mean letting people abuse you. But a stranger on the internet saying something to a general audience that happens to hurt your feelings isn’t abuse--it’s an opportunity for you to figure out why it hurt your feelings.) I can't even calculate the number of relationships I've saved by shutting my mouth and not saying anything when I felt a little hurt, and then figuring out what I was missing before I said anything damaging.
4. Be deliberate about finding out. A few weeks ago I was at my 97-year-old grandmother’s house in a small town in Minnesota. We were watching the nightly news out of Chicago, and she said, “There are so many Black people on tv nowadays.” I responded, “I know. It’s good that tv is starting to represent the way the population is now.” She replied, “I suppose that’s true, but here where I live there are no Black people, so it seems unrealistic.” Then we had a conversation about sample bias (seriously--I come from a geeky people).
My grandmother lives in a place in which almost everyone is white. But you, friend, are on the internet, so you have the entire world available to you. That means that hearing different perspectives is just about clicking and reading. And how will you know about anything else if you’re only receiving the messages from a system that looks transparent to you? So make a deliberate effort to read and watch--regularly--other perspectives. Choose channels you normally wouldn’t watch. Buy magazines and newspapers you never noticed before. Make specific choices to click over and read articles and posts on the internet that you wouldn’t have been attracted to.
If you’re on Twitter, I made a list of some people I follow that I think are brilliant and tweet stuff across the spectrum of life and politics and day-to-day experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily get on my own as a white woman in a small city in the Midwest. Check them out and follow the ones that cause the most friction for you: https://twitter.com/AskMoxie/perspectives
5. Don’t try to tell your story unless asked. Yes, your personal story is both deadly dull and completely fascinating, as is everyone’s, because that’s the way humans are. But you don’t have to justify your existence or your interest in not being racist by explaining yourself, so spend your time listening and learning instead of offering up your story as a way of trying to earn the right to listen. You’re enough just as you are. (Plus, people of color already know your story. They’re force-fed the white story every day just by living in America. They can probably tell you your story already.)
6. Read stuff. What I’m reading now is Greg Carter’s The United States of the United Races: A Utopian History of Racial Mixing. It’s an academic book about the positive history of racial mixing in the United States, and it’s fascinating. Yes, it’s fairly academic, but Greg is both a good writer and a good storyteller, so you’ll enjoy it and learn aspects of the way our country tells stories about itself that you probably didn’t know. (And your kids will be fascinated by the cover illustration.) Having this background of how we got to where we are today is going to be enormously helpful as you work with your kids.
If you’re really ready for the pain and you like fiction that spanks you a little (think Nabokov or Murakami), you might enjoy Mat Johnson’s Pym. It’s really hard to describe, and I’ve now tried six times and deleted them all because they got too convoluted. If you were an English or lit major in college or are obsessed with explorer stories (like Kontiki or Matthew Henson or Shackleton) or just really hate Thomas Kincaid, you will laugh like a fool through this book. I started laughing on the first page and never stopped--it's as if Mat Johnson sucked up all of American culture for a 200-year stretch and then sneezed it all out into this delight.
Regular AskMoxie reader Pooja Makhijani’s book Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America is written for Young Adult level readers (and a great resource for talking to teens about race), but is perfect for adults, also.
Another reader suggested the book Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall as a great book for people who are starting out and for people who’ve been at it for awhile. (I now have that book on my to-read list.)
If there’s stuff that you’re reading (non-fiction, fiction, instructional, whatever) or sites that you follow or thinkers that you like, please put them in the comments.
For your kids. I am so not the expert on talking to kids about race and racism, although I am the expert on talking to *my* kids about it! Here’s some stuff I’ve done with my kids, and some links that I found that might help you become the expert in talking to your kids about it:
1. Talk about a lot of stuff, all the time. Speculate, and get them in the habit of speculating. By doing this you set them up to notice clues and to follow them, on any topic, for the rest of their lives. The “Why does this happen?” game from above is excellent for this. My kids and I play all the time, in all kinds of situations. Sometimes there’s a really good, logical reason why everyone in a certain place looks alike. Sometimes it’s more complicated and when we talk about it we expose some systems that the kids decide aren’t helpful. Giving kids the freedom and space to inspect and talk and examine gives them critical thinking skills.
2. Talk about race and color. (And sex and gender and sexual orientation and bodies and all kinds of other differences.) When we read the book Nurture Shock together a few years ago and talked about it here, one of the chapters that was so surprising to me was the “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” chapter. In it, the authors examine a view that I think is pretty common in the US, that if we expose our kids to varied groups of people so they get used to seeing a wide range of skin tones and looks, our kids won’t grow up with prejudice. But it turns out that this isn’t the case, when you look at the research. (The book is fantastic and all the research is referenced in it so you can see the entire line the authors draw.)
It turns out that kids do see difference on their own, even from a very young age. And if they aren’t told what to think about that difference, their human minds create “good” categories (of people who look like them) and “bad” categories (of people who look unlike them). It’s normal, but not what we want to have happen. In contrast, when kids are told how to interpret difference specifically, they don’t create a good/bad dichotomy. The takeaway is that we can’t just put our kids in situations with diverse groups of people--we have to talk to them specifically about differences and help them create those positive categories in their minds.
With little little kids this can be as simple as talking about a friend with different skin color and asking if your child thinks their friend is the same on the inside, and talking about how all humans have the same blood and organs, etc. Talking about where your own ancestors are from (if you know) and where friends ancestors are from is a good conversation, too, because it reinforces the idea that everyone has their story, and everyone’s family comes from somewhere. Any kind of "we're different in some ways but the same in a lot of ways" conversations are going to reinforce for your child that people can look different from you but still be like you.
3. Rehearse what you want your kids to be able to do. Rehearse the language and the actions and the habits. I am enormous fan of rehearsal, for my kids and for myself. When my older son was around 18 months (maybe even younger than that) we were getting on the bus in NYC and he was strapped to the front of me facing out. He grabbed the Metrocard out of my hand, oriented it correctly, and dunked it into the reader to pay our fare. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been, because when kids see and hear things all the time, they know how to do them and can do them with ease. Making friends, having conversations, reading for pleasure, thinking (out loud) about tough issues, questioning motives, using correct language--all this is stuff you can practice every day with your kids, so they (and you) get great at it. If you're not already, get into the habit of talking your way through processes that you do normally of keeping in contact with friends and especially anything you do to notice or combat racism, so that your kids can understand what you're doing while you're doing it.
4. Take responsibility and let your kids see you doing it. This one can be really hard. We all have family members and friends who say things and act in ways that are completely inappropriate (the things some white people say when they’re around only other white people is appalling). When your kids are around you can’t let them hear that stuff without acting in some way to put a boundary around what was said so your kids know that a) it’s not ok to say or do that stuff, and b) to show them that they can respond and act when they hear it from their own friends later on. I feel you cringing. I’m cringing, too. But if you think of it in terms of drawing a line around what was said to not allow that, instead of confronting a person, it might be easier to find ways to say it that still maintains a relationship but doesn’t allow racist language.
I wish I had some good language for you to use. I may or may not have uttered the sentence “If you say the phrase “welfare babies” one more time I’m sending you to your room” to someone who was older than I am, last Christmas Eve. I’m not tactful when I’m pushed. I have more faith in you than in me, though. Maybe something like, “We don’t use that kind of language around the kids” would work. Or even something as simple as, “Please don’t say things that aren’t true about other people.” Or, “You know why that happens, right?” It doesn’t have to turn into a thing. Just pushing back enough times that it becomes not worth it for the people to say around you. Or you could threaten to send someone to their room like I did.
5. Think about where you’re spending your time and money and be deliberate about it, with your kids. You’ve been playing the “Why does this happen?” game and maybe you’ve exposed some stuff that makes you feel not so comfortable about some of the places or groups that you’re used to frequenting. Use that as a conversation and action plan with your kids to talk about how you could change things (lots of times people don’t have any idea that they’re reinforcing barriers and would be happy to brainstorm ways to reduce privilege and racism in their organizations once someone brings it up). If there isn’t a way to change things, you may need to spend your time and energy and money someplace else. Being part of these discussions and decisions gives your kids a roadmap to making decisions about how they create lives for themselves as adults, too.
6. Use resources! Here are some that people have sent me since yesterday. If you’ve got more, share them in the comments, please.
Please, if you have more resources or book lists for kids, add them in the comments.
I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a system that’s transparent for everyone. So instead we can work to make sure that everyone sees the biases in the system and can work to eliminate them (or at least compensate for them). I veer from feeling completely hopeless about it to realizing that we’re all smart and thinking maybe we can do it. Maybe we can?