Skip to main content

Reflections on race

Published on: December 30, 2010

Theressa LenearFrom Theressa Lenear, director of diversity/inclusion for Child Care Resources:
“[I] remember the time that we were walking down a flight of stairs.  We were on a field trip from school. A boy behind us asked his mother why I was so dirty.  I looked up at you and you were looking down at me, your eyes full of love.  I have seen that face a lot through my life and see it in my mind when I feel down.” (My son Loren - May 5, 1998)

These words are from a letter my son wrote to me at a very low period of time in his life; it was very important to him - it evoked the importance we as humans beings having the need to feel safe, protected and loved; I clearly remember this event as if it was yesterday. I was a Head Start teacher in Fairbanks. Alaska and my three young children were enrolled in the program that served children 3-5 years of age. Our classrooms were heading out on a joint field trip. This was that moment in which I had anticipated while at the same time was dreading it’s arrival. I knew it would happen but prayed to God that there would never come a time where my children would experience being seen or feeling as something different.

I heard no response from the child’s mother except “hush” which reverberated loudly in my head. It was such an awkward moment; my emotions (anger, love, temperance, fortitude, anxiety) were in turmoil. My primal instincts kicked in - a mother protecting her young. My son and I had a conversation about what had happened and why in a loud but calm voice so that the boy’s mother could hear my words. In my head I was saying to myself, “why do I have to explain? Why do I have to prepare my children to be ready for this? It’s not fair!”

 As early childhood educators we have come to know and understand how all young children (children of color and white children) develop their sense of self, their cultural identity. Within our society specifically here in the United States, race, gender, and abilities are major identifiers that are shaping our children’s view of themselves and others in the world. We also know that there is a large window of time where children can benefit greatly from the positive guidance of the adults around them modeling the behavior and attitudes that speaks to and demonstrates what embracing the natural diversity that exists in our world.

As a parent it was essential for me to weave a cultural blanket that nurtured and supported my six children’s positive sense of self. As a parent it was important for me to help them learn how to navigate through a world that viewed them as different based on the mere fact of the color of their skin. As a parent it was crucial for me to help my children understand the rules of the game and to know the language of success – in other words to be bicultural. It also was important for me as their parent to impart my understanding and perspectives on the issues of equity as it related to gender, class, sexual orientation and other forms of oppression.

As a teacher, I continually ask myself “Are we creating global citizens?” Children have inquiring minds. They will regurgitate what they see and hear; what messages they have absorbed from their environment; what they have learned from the people around them. They will ask the questions early on whether with words, gestures, or body language. We the adults, whether family members, teachers, caregivers, community, neighbors, need to be willing to engage in the conversations with the children, answering their questions, speaking to the injustices and modeling how to take action to create positive change that benefits the collective. Are we challenging ourselves to talk about the issues (racism, classism, heterosexism, sexism) even when we feel uncomfortable?

Are we willing to take risks in reaching out to others with different life experiences, perspectives, or world views? Are we uncovering our own bias, prejudices and assumptions that get in the way?

My grandchildren are keeping my feet to the fire, holding me accountable to stay engage in the struggle with finding my answers to those questions.  What is your motivation?

 Wendy HarrisFrom Wendy Harris, teacher at the Kindering Center:
“Do you think we should play classical music during nap time?” I asked my co-worker Charlotte Jahn years ago when we worked at a multicultural child care program. “Which kind of classical music were you thinking of?” she responded gently. I felt immediately grateful for her kindness to me, and stunned that it had never occurred to me that there could be more than one kind of classical music. As a white woman raised in the midwest in a middle-class family, I had only ever learned of the classical music rooted in Europe. Until that moment I had been completely unaware of how “internalized white superiority” shaped me, and that my world view was incomplete, inaccurate and even damaging.

It has been a struggle for me to see and begin to unravel my internalized white superiority, a key aspect of my life as a parent and my work in early childhood education. I’d like to share a few of my dilemmas.

Where do my own cultural identity and internalized white superiority bump into each other? As a Jewish woman, I was raised in with communication style that was layered, fast paced, verbal, and often argumentative. While my cultural communication approach is not the norm in the Pacific Northwest, I have often defended it and pursued it, sometimes to the discomfort of others around me. And fortunately, I have also learned that in some settings my style may also convey that “internalized white superiority” which I long to dismantle. I have had to learn to slow down, listen better, soften, and wait. When I remember and try to use these skills I am blown away by the richness and complexity that comes with hearing more voices, understanding more perspectives.

How do we work against oppression without utilizing our internalized white superiority tactics? One challenge we bring as white people to the work of undoing racism, is that we are used to knowing the “right” way of getting things done.  We are well schooled in taking action, making things happen, getting results, following agendas, being punctual… And these skills are valid, but not the only approaches needed. Collaboration can be a slow and evolving process. Engaging multiple perspectives requires the room and time to hear and understand them. Cultural democracy will require that we create cultural spaces in which to do our work, play, loving and living.

How do we parent young white children without unintentionally transmitting internalized white superiority to them? We want all children to feel good about themselves and their families. One challenge with white children is how to help them to feel good, but not better than other people.  From early on we need to pay attention to how we might transmit fear or danger as even young infants can sense when we are experiencing enjoyment or distress. When crossing the street do we hold our child’s hand tighter if a person of color approaches? Or do we enroll our children in programs where they benefit from witnessing strong leadership by people of color, and friendships with children from all backgrounds. 

Parenting is such a hopeful and transformative opportunity. We can model our own process of learning, reflection, relationships, and taking action. We can support our children to understand their own ethnic and cultural heritages and give them respectful language to talk about the many aspects of peoples’ identities. We can share the history of all people working against oppression, including white people resisting racism. And we can talk about the ways our ancestors benefited from oppression and were also harmed by it. We can encourage our children’s wide array of feelings, including their outrage when things are unfair and their sense of hope that we can make the world better. And we can encourage and value their skills in collaboration as it will take all of us working together to end racism.

Naomi IshisakaFrom Naomi Ishisaka, journalist and diversity consultant:
Around the world, all babies have the same needs – to sleep, to be fed and to be responded to when they cry. As children grow, all parents face decisions regarding discipline, norms of behavior and how best to prepare their children for successful adulthood in their culture. Yet in the United States, Eurocentric, middle-class, culturally based judgments regarding the “best” approaches to child raising are presented as “conventional” wisdom in the numerous mainstream parenting books and resources available. Ubiquitous parenting books and magazines debate the merits of one parenting style or another. Put your baby in a crib or co-sleep? Negotiate with your child or set strict boundaries?

I believe the early choices we make in raising our children set the stage for the not only the child’s understanding of race and privilege but our own as well. We all transmit lessons to our children and each other about what is socially desirable, what we should fear, what we should aspire to do and be. How do these expectations and lessons either interrogate or perpetuate inequality? Is this something that we even consider as we go about our lives?

The most widely available resources for parents ignore many questions. Where do “norms” of behavior come from? Who decided that my child should grow, eat, behave according to these percentiles and milestones and what were their cultural values and perspectives? For parents of color, the situation becomes more complex. Our cultures bring with them thousands of years of human development from around the globe, with varying yet valid approaches to raising children. Yet, are our cultural traditions and expertise included in the canon of parenting resources used by pediatricians and child-development specialists? Are our styles of parenting seen as “wrong” instead of just “different”? How can we expand the notions of what is “right” to include the wisdom and experience of people across many cultures?

Unfortunately, the lack of research and discussion of these issues leaves many parents questioning their “unconventional” approach. Worse, the lack of culturally competent research can leave parents discounting all Western conventional wisdom. The stakes can be high for children, as practices such as breastfeeding have real benefits but suffer from continued stigma, the intentional spread of baby formula by Western corporations and a work climate hostile to nursing mothers.

For parents trying to lay are more culturally competent foundation for their children, the lack of culturally relevant parenting resources can be frustrating. While there are a few books pertaining to one culture or another, such as Gloria Rodriguez’s “Raising Nuestros Ninos: Bringing Up Latino Children in a Bicultural World,” few examine the cultural biases of the dominant culture’s parenting establishment. Even fewer look at the ways in which parents of color can preserve their cultural traditions as well as add others to their cultural “toolbox” as well.

Unexamined culturally based approaches to parenting can result in decades of misguided “authoritative” wisdom passed on by anxious parents and parenting experts. One such example is in feeding babies. In the U.S., the modern history of feeding babies has been fraught with stigma, Puritan mores regarding propriety as well the insidious influence of formula marketing that told American parents that breastfeeding was not only difficult and time-consuming but not as good as formula for babies’ growth and development. According to La Lache League, by 1956 U.S. breastfeeding rates were down to 20 percent. Today, the issue has come full circle, with breastfeeding advocates struggling to bring back breastfeeding and reverse the decline. Yet for many women of color, years of stigma around wet nursing and the “backwardness” of breastfeeding still linger, and women of color continue to have lower rates of breastfeeding.

Further, as babies grow older, pediatricians and child experts advise the addition of rice cereal to supplement a baby’s diet. However according to a recent story by the Associated Press, much of what is accepted wisdom about baby food is not based in science. Dr. David Bergman, a Stanford University pediatrics professor, says, “There’s a bunch of mythology out there about this. There’s not much evidence to support any particular way of doing things.” The story reported that there is no scientific basis for rice cereal and bland baby food as the first foods that should be introduced to a baby and that the conventional wisdom – repeated thousands of times by Western pediatricians and others – that spices are bad for babies is largely unfounded. The researchers found that across the world, parents feed their babies largely what they are eating and children suffer no ill affects. The researchers also found that children who are exposed to a range of food, including spicy foods, develop more advanced palates in later years and are then able to enjoy a wider range of food options. This flies in the faces of decades of conventional wisdom in the U.S.

There are a host of reasons why Western concepts of parenting are considered conventional wisdom in the United States. The dominance of Euro-American traditions and values in the U.S. social and political landscape as well as the continuation of unexamined practices have led to the current climate. But as the ethnic landscape of our country is changing, so must experts in the field of parenting change to accommodate the new wealth of traditions and cultures.

As our country becomes ever more diverse, so do practices of all kinds, including child-rearing. What most parents around the world have foremost in mind is what is best for their children. And what is best may be to get away from the dominant mainstream message that’s out of balance for families from non-European cultural backgrounds. What may work best may be a judicious mix of the old and the new, of the tried and true tips and practices from all cultural backgrounds that can be used to bring up healthy, well-adjusted and happy children.

Excerpted from an article by Naomi Ishisaka and Teru Osato Lundsten originally published in ColorsNW Magazine titled “Culture Clash: Pluralism and Parenting”

Heather ClarkFrom Heather D. Clark, Ph.D.:
When I first saw the topic that was to be discussed in this special issue of ParentMap, I was actually surprised because historically racial politics are not addressed head on in the Northwest—we are known for being passive aggressive when it comes to addressing race/ethnicity. It seems as if people in the Northwest would rather ignore the issue and simply hope it goes away.

At the height of segregation in this country, in Seattle there were no “whites only” signs in public establishments African Americans would simply be ignored by the wait staff until they decided to leave on their own. This method has tacitly been passed on in this area from generation to generation. People in the Northwest proudly tout themselves as being colorblind, meaning no differences of race/ethnicity are noticed or recognized, all of us have equal access to resources and are treated equally. It is the individuals who are race cognizant—accept and recognize the differences—which have the problem.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that ParentMap was tackling the issue of racism; however, once I saw the question to be addressed I was somewhat disappointed. Are we born racist? I am not convinced this is the best question to ask when trying to begin a dialogue on such a complicated issue with a long history.

When I first saw the question several others came to mind such as: who is the audience for this question? How is racism being defined? What makes someone a racist? Is it one overt action towards another of a different race/ethnicity or does one have to behave in a consistently negative racist pattern? What about the covert racial actions someone might do out of ignorance? Would they be considered racist? Is the question trying to figure out if we have racial tendencies and where they stem from?

I was trained as a cultural anthropologist generally and a linguistic one more specifically so I am interested in language and how it is used in defining culture. From my perspective these subsequent questions are vital if we are to even grapple with the original question of are we born racist. I believe the question in its original form does not leave much room to explore the complexity of race/ethnicity in this country. If I was to answer yes, I am born racist it would not be the worst thing to acknowledge about myself. However, for the many white anti-racist people I have known, taken classes with and encountered, this statement would devastate them because they have spent so much time and energy on trying to live up to the definition of what a good white person is supposed to do and be the best white people they can be so to have the question answered in the affirmative would leave many of them hopeless and apathetic. So in some ways the conversation is halted, I also think if the question is simply answered yes, then that takes away the individuals’ personal agency to actually address and change personal behaviors that can be considered racist.

There are teachable moments on a daily basis where race/ethnicity is brought up and can be addressed in a way that can change the attitudes of individuals where they feel empowered and that they are making a difference—even if it is a small one.

On the flip side of this question if I was to answer the question no, I am not born racist then people can get consumed with trying to figure out how is racism learned. Who is doing the teaching, how can racism be unlearned and ignore the very real fact that people have racial tendencies and are overtly or covertly offending people of different races/ethnicities. I have also experienced some anti-racist white people who believed they were not born racist because of the friends or partners of color they have had all their lives, because of where they lived or the schools they have attended, so when I confronted them on their racism they were offended that I would even do such a thing. So once again the conversation is at a stand still.

I am encouraged that the question is even being asked given the racial politics/history of the Northwest, but I believe if we are to have a conversation there are questions we need to ask ourselves before we begin an honest dialogue with someone else. For instance what racial prejudices do we have? What have we experienced in our past that make us sometimes question the motives of people of different races/ethnicities? How has our culture/beliefs influenced our perception of people different from us? What are we doing to change our racial prejudices? Why is it important to acknowledge our part in racism? How do we benefit from racism?

I know there are several books out there on the topic but the two I have found extremely useful and accessible with people I have engaged in this work are: Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall and Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel.

Any good conversation starts with the acknowledgement of the problem so I applaud ParentMap for acknowledging racism is still prevalent in our society and that there must be something we can do to address this issue.

Heather Clark was born and raised in Seattle; she still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up. Ms. Clark received her Ph.D. in Sociocultural anthropology from the University of Washington in 2010.

From Fran Davidson, author of That's Not Fair! A teacher's guide to activism with young children:

Learning and Unlearning Whiteness

Several years ago I came across a book (Learning to be White by the Rev. Dr. Thandeka, 1999) that turned out to be pivotal to my understanding of the competing, confusing and contradictory themes residing in my childhood household.  Put simply, the theme of Christian love – love that is full of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, grace and humility, was practiced publicly at church, school, and at some community events (raising money for the less fortunate for example); and at home at bedtime, before meals and when we played favorite  hymns to our grandparents after church each Sunday.  There was a comforting predictability in these rituals that I looked forward to. And yet in those same minutes, days,  and weeks there could also be a jarring display of hostility, mockery, and yes fear I think, that was directed at people who were different from us, mostly represented by physical differences (skin color, eye shape, etc.), language differences (didn’t speak English, or spoke English “with an accent”) and religious differences (scorn directed at Hindu and Jewish people).  Basking in the love and approval of our grandparents as we sang and played  familiar hymns each Sunday after church,  and then, not long after,  being party to jeers and insults directed at the Chinese and Japanese vegetable farmers (making their way to the public market) as we passed them in our car on our way home was jarring.  As I looked back at those years I wondered how we siblings and cousins dealt with these contradictions – how we made sense of these conflicting themes operating around us much of the time. I struggled with these thoughts both as a parent, parent educator and early childhood teacher.

Now a days parents and educators who are concerned about how young children develop bias (no, children are not colorblind!) have learned that at 6 months babies are noticing differences. As they grow and develop children make sense of their world by sorting, matching, classifying and labeling differences. They are mostly comfortable with differences and delight in pointing them out. At the same time they are developing theories around what is fair and not fair and call it out: He has more fish crackers than me! People shouldn’t be hungry!  She always gets the blue trike! Everybody needs to live in a house!

Taken together – noticing differences and calling out unfairness, gives adults the opportunity to support young children to develop deep empathy around differences and to stand up to bias and injustice. Four and five year olds can do this! But, and at the same time, they are also vulnerable to absorbing the values that the larger society – including their families and communities, attach to differences. This works out fine and for the greater good when what children are noticing and calling is compatible with the beliefs and values about differences and injustice that the family and community embrace. But what happens when they are not?

We know that from birth (even before some would say) children are driven to survive and make every effort for that to happen. They seek love, they seek security, they seek safety. When young children are faced with contradictions that would alienate them from those who provide for them, they resolve this disequilibrium by squelching what they are noticing, and start down a pathway of conformity to family/cultural values and practices.

What Thandeka helps us to understand is that as parents and educators of white children we have an enormous responsibility around ending racism. How? As children “learn to be white” the content of that learning can parallel what they are already noticing and calling out about differences and unfairness. Our own carefully examined values and practices around social, political, economic and environmental justice can be the fertile ground for growing their ideas about what is just and fair for all who live on our planet.  Over time they can learn the history of injustice in this country even as they embrace its goodness. Learning how whites have benefitted from institutionalized racism gives them a platform of honesty and integrity on which to build equitable relationships and seek cultural democracy in all that they do.

Fortunately, for me, my disequilibrium wasn’t easily resolved; and with the loving support and guidance of colleagues and friends who believe and behave differently from my family and community of origin I am “learning to be white” in ways that don’t exact the same high cost as that of my forbearers. And I’m passing that learning along to my children and grandchildren.

Share this article with your friends!

Leave a Comment