Monday, April 19, 2010

Wanted: For Being Criminal? For Being Cute?

Last week, my son’s daycare celebrated the Week of the Young Child with an assortment of special activities. The committee of teachers who planned the activities decided to organize around a theme, and chose a sort of cowboys-meets-wild-west theme. I thought it was an odd, slightly dated choice—I mean, do most young children living in the Midwest even know what cowboys are? (my son sure doesn’t)—but I didn’t see any harm in it as long as there wasn’t any cowboy-and-Indian nonsense.

I am happy to report that there was absolutely no cowboy-and-Indian nonsense. There was, however, an art project that I found very troubling. A week before the special celebration, a piece of paper appeared in my son’s cubby one afternoon; it was printed to look like a blank Wanted poster and was accompanied by a note: "Please decorate this however you would like." These ambiguous instructions seemed somewhat disingenuous, though, as the blank white rectangle in the middle of the page looked like it was meant to be occupied by a drawing or photograph, assumedly of a “criminal” on the lam.

My response to this assignment was immediate and visceral: no way am I putting a picture of my child—my black, male child--on a wanted poster. My child is not a criminal, and it’s not cute or funny for me to imagine him as a criminal, when I know that plenty of criminal assumptions will be made about him as he grows up.

But what to do? I thought about how we could alter the assignment to make it work for us. Perhaps I could alter the text to read “Wanted more than anything in the world by his family” or something like that. A friend suggested substituting a peace sign for the photograph. Another friend with a dark sense of humor suggested using a photograph of the governor of Virginia. I briefly contemplated a photo of our family dog, whom we could legitimately and comically accuse of biting off the button eyes of most of my son’s stuffed animals.

In the end, somewhat paralyzed by discomfort and doubt (and too exhausted as usual by normal life to want to use any additional energy on this), I did nothing. And, judging by the number of completed Wanted posters that lined the hallway (not even approaching the number of children at the daycare), we were not alone. There were, however, quite a number of families who participated quite enthusiastically. One drew a villainous mustache on a photo of his son. Others added cowboy hats. I was interested to see that families of color participated as well, although two black families had put photos of the entire family on the photo rather than singling out the child. One black mother, though, seemed to have no discomfort, writing “she is on the loose!” next to a photo of her daughter.

I know I have some basis for my discomfort. My American Indian colleague, whose daughter attends the same daycare, also did not participate, and when we chatted about it, her reasons were similar to mine. And I noticed that one parent of a white child who did complete the poster was careful to write “Wanted: For Extreme Cuteness” above a photo of her daughter. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I overreacted, made something of nothing, projected all sorts of adult fears onto an innocent assignment. I would be grateful, readers, to hear what you think.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The "crime" of living while black

There is an important conversation going on right now at Stuff White People Do (SWPD). The post addresses the "a common white tendency to attach negative value to brown or black skin, regardless of context or other cues to the contrary." The author shares some of her own experiences in the post, and readers also contribute their own stories in the comments. These stories are heartbreaking and utterly infuriating. When you read--and, of course, dear fellow white parents of black children, I do advocate that you read--I suggest a tissue in one hand and something breakable to throw at the nearest wall in the other.

It's not news to me that my son will face this stuff, but reading these personal experiences has brought it home to me in a new way. And it raises one of the familiar transracial parenting questions: how do I prepare him for experiences that I have never had? At a minimum, I want him to come through these experiences alive. But also, I would like him to come through with as little psychological damage as possible, although this seems like a somewhat impossible wish. So I invited the good commenters of SWPD to weigh in here.

My questions are these, although commenters are welcome to pose/answer others that seem relevant:
-Are there ways that your parents prepared you to encounter and cope that you are particularly grateful for?
-Are there things you wish your parents had done differently to prepare you better?
-What other advice do you have about preparing children?

Comments will be open, but trolls will quickly be shown the door.

Thank you, in advance, to all who contribute.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Black history you'd rather not know but should

I used to have this notion of lynchings as rogue affairs, carried out furtively in the dead of night by small groups of men. That is, I assumed there was some level of secrecy and shame attached to the act. How naive I was. Turns out that lynchings were well-attended public events. Apparently onlookers sometimes brought food. And their kids.

I learned an additional horrifying fact today: the lynchings were often photographed and the photographs were printed as postcards. Yeah, postcards. You know, in case you wanted to let your buddy or your grandma know that you'd been there. Heck, one imagines that there would have been t-shirts too, if t-shirts had existed in this era.

Anyway, a gentleman named James Allen collected these postcards and recently published them in a book titled Without Sanctuary. The photographs, and a flash movie based on them, are online here:

If you're a white person living in this country, you should look.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Words of wisdom from Ta-Nehisi Coates

"Likewise, I think in my best writing here, in the writing that really matters, I've worked to steer us away from the reductive parlor game of "Is this/he/she racist?" It's useful to a point, but ultimately self-serving. It underestimates our demons and it underestimates how an entire system warped nearly every institution in this country, and continues to warp it to this day. What I'd rather we us understand is some sense of the big system, some sense of American white supremacy as mechanized racism."

Read more.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Please help Anti-Racist Parent be EVEN BETTER

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Myopia of Privilege

[Note: This post is part of a roundtable at Anti-Racist Parent on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece by Michelle Hiskey titled “Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion." The piece describes a white father, Clifton Green, and his care for his black daughter, Miriam's, hair.]

In a bizarrely topsy-turvy take on post-racial America, Michelle Hiskey appears oblivious to the possibility that her audience for her piece "Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion," may include people of color. (And this is the Atlanta Journal Constitution we're talking about here.) She further assumes--which is ironic, given the article's focus on transracial parenting--that her white audience knows nothing about black hair care. In fact, I suspect that Hinskey is guilty of a common, though problematic tendency in conversations about race: conceiving of white and black as polarized monoliths, and assuming that her experience is representative of all white experience. Thus projecting her own ignorance onto her audience, she leads us through a rather laborious guided tour of one family's version of black hair care. And so we are treated to facts that are supposed to be news to us (presented in problematic language, as Tami has already pointed out so clearly): that black hair will become dry if shampooed as frequently as white hair, that black hair is fragile and breaks easily, that black hair may take longer to rinse than white hair, and that particular products exist (also oddly described and exoticised) for styling black hair. None 0f this--I'd be willing to bet--is news to any of the Atlanta Constitution's black readers. Nor is this news to most white parents of brown children. And for those white readers for whom these facts are news, what, exactly, do they contribute to the story except for a sense that black hair is an exotic animal that requires involved and mysterious care and feeding? But more than that, what are we to think of an article that so blatantly fails to consider a significant portion of its audience? What should we think of an article that neglects to include even a single phrase, like "as mothers of black children know. . . ," for example, that would at least attempt to include the Constitution's readership of color? What should we think of an article that is incredibly myopic in a way only those who hold white privilege can be?

I'm not going to answer these questions--at least, not right now--because I have more to say about myopia and privilege. Another thing that I find extraordinary about this piece is the way it elevates a mundane act of caregiving to the remarkable. A parent doing his child's hair becomes newsworthy because the parent is white and the child is black. (Patriarchy, of course, plays a role here, too, with the hair care becoming doubly newsworthy because the parent is a white male, but my focus here is race.) One imagines that, as Hiskey observed Green braiding his daughter's hair, black adults all over Atlanta were combing, parting, braiding, and twisting the hair of black little girls, producing styles as "perfect" as Green's. These mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers, and cousins, however, are conspicuously absent from this story because Hiskey--in her white priveleged myopia--does not see them. Or, perhaps, she believes (as, apparently, her editor did) that a black adult doing a black child's hair is not newsworthy. She may be right. And this should make us very sad, because it so clearly delineates the ways in which whiteness privileges and blackness devalues. For, why wouldn't a black mother doing a black child's hair be newsworthy when a white father doing a black child's hair is? One answer, I fear, is that black children are valued in this country only when they have white parents. Another is that a white parent, in caring for a black child, is understood to be doing a charitable act by offering the same care he would to a biological (white) child to a child that is understood as lesser, either because of the child's race or her "orphan status" that preceded her adoption. (Note: I don't see any evidence that Green holds these views.)

I have leveled my criticism so far at Hiskey and the ugly, nearsighted, and--let's be honest here--all too common perspective that she represents. I reserve, though, a question for Green: What responsibility does Green hold in the production of this article and its perpetuation of racist and white privileged notions? The easy answer is that Green could not have forseen how Hiskey would represent his care for his daughter. In fact, it's probably fair to say that Green believed he was telling a love story; he wants his children to feel as his father made him feel--"as if he had hung the moon." Fair enough; I do not fault Green's intentions. I can't dismiss, though, the gnawing sense that he should have been more wary of the reporter's advances, alive to the possibility that his privilege was the principle attraction, that he would be cast as hero while hundreds of black adults combed and braided away with as much devotion but without similar recognition. And that raises questions for all white parents of brown children, especially those of us who strive to be anti-racist: How do we become unwittingly involved in perpetuating privilege and racism? How can we do better?