By: Heather O’Neill
I was having dinner one night a few years ago with two young men who I have known for the past 20 years. I met them when they were about 13 and they have now become part of our family. We were discussing some of the events that were happening across the country and how race played into how people were reacting to the events. I remember proudly stating that I was raising my boys, then about 3 yrs and 5 yrs, to be color blind. Reiterating how I didn’t want them to look at someone, seeing their skin color first and make a judgment. The two men nodded and looked away. I felt I had said something wrong, that I had offended them, but wasn’t sure what it was. These were two people who I had watched grow up, were like uncles to my boys and whom I deeply respected. They are black, we are white. I knew I had said something off, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. I didn’t address it, we continued dinner, said our goodbyes and time went on.
As the years have gone on, and our country has been faced with numerous events that have ripped apart communities, I now realize that I can’t raise my boys to be colorblind. For them to appreciate and respect the differences among us they have to recognize and honor the differences in our races. They can’t overlook what makes us different, but need to celebrate those differences and understand, as best they can, how we can all live together.
I’ve done a tremendous amount of work myself these last few years. Trying to look at my own values, biases, ignorance and privilege. It hasn’t been easy discovering that things I took for granted for so long were because of the color of my skin. For example:
- Shopping at a local pharmacy/convenience store and choosing a makeup foundation that very closely matched my skin tone and finding a multitude of hair products that were made for my hair in the aisles;
- Entering a store and thinking that the salesperson, who was standing a little too close, was just looking to earn a little more in commission;
- Browsing the aisles in the grocery store for our favorite foods and not having to look to the “ethnic food section”;
- Driving, probably a little over the speed limit, and thinking getting a ticket was the worst thing that was going to happen to me as the blue lights flashed behind me;
- Seeing people that look like me in movies, on television, and in print ads;
- Living life expecting my needs to be met, and not having to search for, or justify, what I need.
Growing up, whenever we discussed reasons for racial tension in a class or with friends, I remember thinking that “I wasn’t the one” who participated in those heinous acts that have continued to divide our country, why would someone think I was racist? Or, “I come from a single-parent household too” and “I worked my way through college, shouldn’t we all be afforded the same opportunity for employment?” How foolish I was to ever think it was even close to an equal playing field. I won’t even use the word “fair” as that’s more a chapter book to discuss, rather than a blog.
In our family, we have lots of discussions. We discuss racism, sexism, differences in how families are made up. I want my boys to realize why it’s important to recognize and celebrate differences rather than take for granted the doors that will open for them because of their race or gender.
One night a few weekends ago we sat down to watch a movie, searching Netflix for something good. I saw that the movie 42 was available. I knew the story of Jackie Robinson and have wanted to see this movie. I also knew the boys would like the movie because it was a baseball story. I paused before clicking “OK” – I knew the story, knew there would be segregation, probably some language and that this would be a heavy topic. Did I want to tackle that on a Saturday night?
Yes. Yes I did.
I was aggravated with myself for even giving a pause.
These aren’t just issues from 1946. This is still the world we live in. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. What should have been a 2 hour movie took us about 3 hours to get through. Lots of pausing, explaining, reviewing, questions, and answers as best we could. I’m sure my husband and I didn’t explain it all perfectly – and trying to explain some of the actions of the past to children of today was a little horrifying – but we didn’t avoid it.
If, after reading this, you are wondering where you can start as a parent? Here are a few tips:
- Where do you stand?
- What is your comfort level with discussing race – both privilege and racism? (hint: they do not mean the same thing)
- Educate yourself
- Teaching Tolerance is an exceptional (and free!) resource for parents, students and educators. Check them out at www.tolerance.org
- Urban Intellectuals has 4 volumes of Black History Flashcards. Great visuals and conversation starters. Check them out at www.urbanintellectuals.com
- Listen and Observe
- What’s going on in your family?
- What’s going on in your child’s school?
- What’s going on in your community?
- Your kids are always watching.
- Show them how to be the people we need to move us all forward to a more peaceful, kind and respectful future.
In these years of self-reflection I have “felt the feelings” – guilt, shame, discomfort, confusion, irritation, disappointment. I don’t think these are useful feelings. Just because we are uncomfortable or confused, doesn’t mean we should shy away from conversations or actions.
Buckle-up and enjoy the ride. Teach your kids. Let them teach you.
If you’re wondering, the young men I referenced above are still close family friends. They continue to be human jungle gyms for my boys and exceptional conversationalists for me. I continue to value their perspective and patience.