Teaching Race to (Your) Children

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by Oliver Wang

Allow me to reintroduce myself...[1]

I'm Oliver Wang, full-time sociology professor, part-time journalist, all-the-time record junkie. I originally guest-blogged for TNC last summer and feel honored to be asked back, especially in the wake of last week's all-star team.

My daughter, Ella, turns six in a few weeks and she's currently in kindergarten. As with most schools, major holidays are folded into the curriculum and MLK Day was no exception. Last week, the school librarian read Ella's class a book on MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights movement; afterwards, she came home and explained what she learned, and I had to come to grips with the fact that my daughter now has become introduced to American race relations and identities. I've been dreading and postponing the day until I had to break this down for her. Now, I realized, "oops, someone did it for me."

Let me pause for a moment to point out some obvious ironies: my PhD is in Ethnic Studies, my college minor was in Asian American Studies and I was hired at Cal State Long Beach specifically to teach classes dealing with race/ethnicity and popular culture. My mentor/advisor, Michael Omi, literally co-wrote the book on contemporary American race theory. To boot, my wife writes on race and art and both sides of her family were interned during WWII.

So yeah, I knew, eventually, this day would have to come. And believe me, I'm definitely not one of those folks arguing "we should all strive to be colorblind!" just because they don't want to deal with the realities of racism. But it's one thing to try to tackle race amongst adults vs. trying to explain it to a child, let alone my child.

Consider: prior to last week, Ella's perspective on race was more or less this: "my friends S___ and A___ are very tan" (they are African-American). Prior, Ella saw skin color, not as something immutable, let alone tied to an identity, but rather, just a physical feature. She, like her mother's side of the family, tans easily and quite darkly (unlike my I-burn-under-light-bulbs melanin), so having "very tan" friends didn't seem to make them fundamentally different from her.

Frankly ... I loved this quality to her world view—that peoples' appearances weren't intertwined with group identification—and that terms such as "black people" and "white people" wouldn't have held much meaning for her. They do now, though: she knows that, "once upon a time, black people and white people couldn't go the same schools" and that "white people had nicer drinking fountains than black people" and that "white people got to sit in the front of the bus and black people had to move to the back ... until Martin Luther King."[2]

Of course, I think it's important that she know this history. I think it's absolutely crucial that, at some point, she understand how race works in America, not the least of which is because she'll inevitably learn it the hard way (and I suppose it says a lot about how sheltered a life she's had thus far that she hasn't been confronted with it)[3]. Most importantly, I want to raise her with an investment in social justice and that means she's going to have to intimately understand the history and function of race and racial inequality.

I just hoped this would all come "later."

The truth is, I doubt my pedagogical skills in this realm. I hadn't figured out how to explain to her what I break down to my college-age students all the time: that race is a biological fiction that attains reality because we, as a society, have made it real. I teach that there's no inherent logic to race aside from our own propensity to create and sustain differences between people but nonetheless, that social reality has very real, pernicious and horrific consequences. Thus, we have to do this delicate balancing act between dealing with the realities of race whilst simultaneously denying its reality. I trust (hope?) my 18-21-year-olds "get this" but when it comes to trying to explain it to my child, I just didn't feel confident that this paradox is something I could communicate and have her comprehend.

At this point, I no longer have the choice to postpone; the moment (the first of many) is here.[4] And I hope I'm doing an "ok" job in explaining to her that the categories of "white people" and "black people" are ways in which we have unjustly treated people and that the categories shouldn't matter...but do. As she gets older, I'm sure we'll have more of these conversations and that she'll learn to process all this better than I probably could have at her age. For now, I have to take a deep breath, try my best, hope for the best, and nod vigorously when she repeats the other thing she learned last week: "friendship isn't based on color."

I'd really love to hear from other parents—including TNC—about their own approaches to teaching race to their kids).


Notes:

[1] Along with LL's "don't call it a comeback this ranks as one of the most re-usable opening rap lines, ever.

[2] At some later point, I'll have to school her on the fact that the good reverend didn't exactly accomplish any of this alone. I wonder how early I can get her reading I've Got the Light of Freedom.

[3] This isn't completely true. This past Halloween, after costume shopping and seeing a parade of Aryan-featured poster children modeling princess dresses and fireman uniforms, Ella told my wife, "blond hair is better than black." We assume she came to this conclusion because she didn't see anyone who vaguely resembled her reflected back to her on the costume packaging. Regardless, we were both horrified and tried to disabuse her of this notion. As I began reminding her, black is the color of (both) my true loves' hair. And then Sesame Street came to our rescue too.

[4] Just so I'm clear on this: I'm not at all upset that her school wanted to talk to students about the meaning of MLK Day. I could quibble with the fact that I'm sure they've elided the fact that, in Los Angeles especially, many white children and black children (to say nothing of brown and yellow children) still attend different schools. But that said, I appreciate that they're willing to talk about Jim Crow to a bunch of 5 year olds rather than acting like our adult, elected leaders in brushing the uncomfortable parts of American history under the rug.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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