In this week after the #WhiteSupremacyTeachIn, I’ve been pondering all the many ways I fail, over and over again. It’s a long learning process, one I’ve been working on for many years, and one that I will continue to work on for the rest of my life, I’m sure.
During my childhood, I absorbed so very many messages about race and people from my family and the adults around me. Body language spoke volumes. Sometimes the words were explicitly negative, other times the message was implicit. At some level, they all entered my psyche and made an impression on me. The ideas tend to bubble up at the most inappropriate times.
The worst are the subconscious reactions. Or the times I solidly insert my foot into my mouth. Luckily, my children are excellent at calling me out. Last year, waiting for pizza to be made at a local restaurant in New Jersey, I remarked on how strange it seemed to see an all Asian crew working in an Italian pizzeria. It was a little bit of cognitive dissonance – in NJ, mostly Italian families own pizzarias – but it was a lot more about cultural assumptions made subconsciously.
It’s a small example, and it shocked my kids. They whirled around and said (imagine this in tones of complete teenaged outrage), “MOM! I can’t BELIEVE you said that!” And while I call it a small example, it might have felt painful for the staff to hear me say that, it showed my insensitivity, my complete obliviousness to that potential pain, and a whole lot of assumptions made.
I’m proud of my daughters for calling me out, for recognizing the unacceptable words I spoke. We’ve been talking about injustice, racism, classism, sexism, and all the other -isms all their lives. It started one day when I took my eldest daughter out for breakfast as a preschooler, and she asked me why the owner, a woman of color, didn’t have a waitress dress on. I was gobsmacked, and after I hauled my jaw back up from the floor, apologized to the owner and explained to my daughter that anyone can own a restaurant, and anyone can be a waitress, and we shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on the color of their skins. We never did figure out what caused her to develop that assumption, but that’s the kind of ideas that our children absorb when we don’t talk about race and justice issues.
Over the years, I’ve made sure we have books for all ages that represent all kinds of people, of many colors and cultures and genders and orientations. We talk about incidents of racism and gender issues all the time. We talk about injustice that we observe, and we talk about how we can make positive changes, both for ourselves and our family, and what we might do in the larger world.
I still receive many outraged “MOM!” reprimands. Hopefully they are becoming less frequent. My kids didn’t even remember the conversation at the pizza place when I asked them about it. They did remember the conversation we had a few weeks ago about differences in how we thought about school dress codes. That one also involved a horrified “MOM!” reprimand.
How are you talking about issues of racism and white supremacy culture in your house this week? What are you doing to walk the talk, yourself, and with your family?