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.