Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Talking About Race is Part of Parenting--And My Fears That I'll Do It Wrong

Growing up, we talked very little about race in my house. I received platitudes based in vague notions of equality: "everyone is equal," "don't judge people by the color of their skin." These messages I took in as truth, but a distant, unapplicable truth. There were simply no people of color around to test the boundaries. There were a few black families in town and a few biracial children who were identified as black, but I didn't live in town. I lived on a rural gravel road, and I was painfully shy. My interactions with anyone who identified as non-white were extremely limited.

That made it easy to believe all those platitudes. It made it easy to ignore the race-based jokes I heard growing up, dismissing them as playful banter. It made it easy to believe the simplified version of race relations I received in school: racism used to be really bad, but it's better now, and anyone who tries to bring up racism as a problem is trying to stir up trouble. I didn't spend any time spreading this viewpoint, but I didn't have any reason to question it, either.

That's why Tomas Moniz's post Beautiful on All Sides really resonated me. It's part of a series at The Good Men Project  that examines race and racism from multiple perspectives. Moniz's contribution looks at a series of questions he's fielded from his multiracial children, questions like “Why is it that boys get into trouble in school more than girls, especially the black boys?” and “Why can’t everyone live in north Berkeley, if it’s this nice?”

The post is beautiful and nuanced, and I can't do justice to the whole here, so you should go read it.

Moniz explains that his "youngest daughter has entered the stage of seeing ethnicity for what it is—socially constructed symbols of meaning, ways of inclusion and exclusion; she now actively looks to associate things with ethnicity." And he sees her working in ways to align herself with whiteness, which he feels conflicted about:

And as an adult who has identified with my Chicano history and worked to understand my bicultural sense of self, passing has always been the bane of my existence. In this U.S. culture, race is fixed, static—you’re black or Mexican or Asian. And for white folks, U.S. culture (read: whiteness) refuses to see itself, and instead, white folks tend to buy into the belief in the universal, which of course is whiteness; that’s the privilege of being white in the U.S.—you don’t have to see it.

He ends by explaining that he "wanted to create an environment where ethnicity was so visible that it lost its meaning, and we became who we wanted to be, not limited by definitions but not a nebulous attempt at universality."

And that's why race is (or should be) an issue for every parent. It's forefront in my mind as someone who studies rhetoric and race and as the white mother of a child of color, but my own upbringing left me ill-equipped to deal with the reality of a multicultural world, and it's left me scrambling to catch up.

Understanding identity is a complicated maze of meaning that we all have to traverse in one form or another, and having conversations about the way identity is created and maintained is something we, as parents, should do.

That doesn't make it easy. I have a lot of fears about these conversations. I fear that I will say the wrong thing, as it is a complex topic that has left me shifting perspectives often. I fear that I lack the ethos to do it justice. I fear that I will expect too much analysis from my daughter, or not enough. But none of those fears outweigh the sense that this is my responsibility, and it is one I take seriously.


  1. This is a really lovely piece of writing about an issue that I've also been thinking about as a mother of two little girls. My girls and I are white and they are still young 3.5 and 1.5 and I desperately don't want them growing up oblivious to the construction of race because they happen to be on the privileged side of it.

    I also am a PhD student and mother and greatly appreciate your belief that you can do and be both. I am with you and sometimes see it as my most radical feminist act. Women lactating can think and participate in the community! Being pregnant doesn't discount me from participating either! It's very hard to feel isolated in this and I really appreciate your blog. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.

  2. Thank you! I think that the roles of PhD student and mother are sometimes particularly difficult to balance because both roles are somewhat all-consuming, especially when you are with other members of those groups. It makes sense for them to be that way, because both endeavors (getting a PhD and raising a child) take a lot of time, energy, and passion. Sometimes you have to take bold stands to show people in both groups that you still care just as much as they do about your child/studies, and that can be hard.