Monday, January 15, 2018

Raising White Kids: A Reflection

“By the way, what color are [the children]?
“White.” She sounded startled. “Does it matter?”
“Yes, he said. “I have to know what color to get the doll.”

One of my favorite holiday traditions is to read aloud short stories from Katherine Paterson’s (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, The Great Gilly Hopkins) family Christmas book, Angels & Other Strangers (HarperCollins, 2006). The story “Maggie’s Gift” features Mr. McGee whose loneliness overcomes his crankiness when he agrees to take in an eight-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother, who have to vacate their children’s home on Christmas Eve.

I have read the story aloud on many occasions, most commonly to an audience of middle schoolers who I persuade to pretend they are first and second graders. This past holiday season my audience was five of my white grandchildren, including a real live first grader and second grader, along with a kindergartener, fourth grader and three-year-old. This time when I reached the passage quoted above, I had to pause the reading.

I blame Jennifer Harvey, whose new book, Raising White Kids:Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon, 2018), was looming in my mind. Harvey encourages parents of white children to take advantage of these moments to promote what she calls “race consciousness.” Harvey, a Drake University professor and mother of two white children, outlines in her book a rationale and process for promoting race consciousness in white children. For her, race conscious parenting involves “noticing and naming race early and often.”

I paused the holiday reading to explain to my white grandchildren, “When this story was written, most people believed that white people should have only white baby dolls and black people or brown people should have black or brown dolls.” I was secretly amused that I needed to explain this particular distinction between now and then.

Ten-year-old- Chelsea picked up the narrative. “Yeah, in those days black people and white people weren’t allowed to be together. Like if you were white and you wanted to marry someone who was black, you couldn’t.” She walked us through all the forbidden racial marriage scenarios she could think of. Then she said, “But Martin Luther King came, and he changed all that.”

Seven-year-old Elliott shouted, “Oh, Oh, I know him!” Chelsea continued, “Martin Luther King said that you can marry whoever you want. The color doesn’t matter. It’s like chocolate ice cream and vanilla. You can mix them together, and then you have caramel!” This was not the time to demonstrate how bad that analogy was; her loving and lovely sentiment came through.

Zoey chimed in, “My baby doll is brown.” “I know,” I said, “and I remember what you named her.” I know because the day she brought the baby girl home from Dollar General, she introduced us.

Zoey: Peepaw, this is my baby, and she’s like you. I named her “Moana.”  I’ll call her “my baby,” but you call her “Moana.” She’s like you. I was gonna get the white one, but it was too much.
Peepaw: Was the white one the same kind of doll?
Zoey: Yeah, but this one was almost free. The white one was ten dollars.
Zoey and Moana; Cayce and Firetruck
Once again, I chose not to engage our first grader in a discussion of why the brown doll was “almost free.” Our “race conscious” conversations don’t have to be inclusive of every possible concern. We can circle back at another time. And if we are paying attention, new opportunities will present themselves.

When I picked up Zoey and Chelsea from school one early January afternoon, I don’t think Zoey remembered Chelsea’s holiday-season synopsis of racial reconciliation. Zoey got in the car and proclaimed, “Peepaw, we learned about Martin… King… Luke…what is it?” “His name is Martin Luther King, Junior!” Chelsea corrected. “What did you learn about him?” I asked. Zoey told us about how white people didn’t let black people do things, like sit down on a bus or go to the same schools or play together. She told us that Martin Luther King changed all that. But then somebody killed him.

After she reported what she had learned, she had some questions. She wanted to know who killed him. She wanted to know why white people didn’t like him. I assured her that while some white people didn’t like him, many white people liked him and worked with him. Zoey's response, “Well I’m a white person, and I would like him.”

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Something Lurking in the Gym

Last Saturday I almost came to blows with an African American dad while I watched my white grandson play pick-up basketball. I have written before about how race sometimes “lurks” in our interactions. This race-laden incident threatened to steal the joy and spirit of our regular Saturday mornings at the gym.

Some context: Every Saturday morning when my white wife, Laura; my white grandson, Damon; and I walk into Coleman Community Center, I am reminded of the history told to me by Doug Williams. Doug is a white administrator at a local state university. Years ago when I was out of work he agreed to meet with me for an informational interview. He ended up granting me way more than the 20 minutes I asked for.

Doug talked about growing up in the 1960s. He had graduated from Glencliff High School the year before the all-white school was forced to integrate. Doug told me about the time in his high school years that he received a phone call at home. His mother answered the call and hailed him to the corded phone in the kitchen. When Doug arrived in the kitchen, Mom, with her hand over the phone, whispered, “He says it’s Leroy.”

“Okay,” Doug said.
“Who’s Leroy?”
“I’ve told you about Leroy. We play basketball together.”
“Is he… a Negro?”
“You never told me he was a Negro.”
“I didn’t know it mattered.”

Doug told me that during the segregated Glencliff/Coleman community of youth, the only place black teens and white teens interacted was in the gym at Coleman Community Center. The center was the place that Doug regularly played basketball with black guys.

The Glencliff/Coleman community has grown much more multicultural in more recent years. Glencliff High is an international center. Coleman Community Center also reflects that diversity…except in the gym.

When Laura, Damon and I arrive at the center on Saturday mornings, we observe a predictable scene in the gym. There are often single players each claiming one of the six goals, while being trained by a dad or a personal trainer. Players and trainers are all black.

Damon and I usually find an open goal and play one-on-one before others arrive, especially if Akam, the Kurdish eighth grader, hasn’t arrived yet. We might get in a game of two-on-two or three-on-three before the high schoolers and young men arrive. It varies week to week, most Saturdays, except for Damon and Akam, all of the gym-dwellers are African American.

Damon has earned the respect of all of the players. The boys have fun. There are the usual disputes about who knocked the ball out or whether someone was fouled. Most of the time the offender knows he is wrong, and sometimes laughter ensues. Disputes are resolved quickly; everyone just wants to get back to playing. And when the games are over, there are fist-bumps and high-fives all around and promises of “See you next week.”

Last week I was watching the boys play five-on-five. I looked up and saw a familiar African American dad, who had been coming with his son the past three weeks. In those weeks I had struck up conversations with him. We had recognized each other because I had taught his eighth grade son when the boy was a sweet first grader.

On this day I tapped the dad on the shoulder and said, “Hey.” He barely looked at me and grunted. A few minutes later he turned to me and started badmouthing Damon under the guise of “coaching.” The smirk on his face betrayed his real meaning. While his son strutted and taunted on the court, I decided to return (grand)parental fire (because I am such a calm and gracious guy). I commented on his son’s “attitude” on the court.

So it was ON. This dad is a big guy, and he thought (I assume) that if he abruptly moved closer to me while spewing, I would be intimidated. He didn’t know that I am both too old and too young to be intimidated. After a heated exchange of words, I eventually walked out of the gym.

When I came back with a calmer demeanor, the dad just started talking smack every time his son came up with a good play or Damon missed a shot. I was sitting behind and away from said dad, so he had to turn around to keep making his comments. I finally asked him to stop talking to me. He asserted his right to say whatever he wanted to. My loving wife encouraged me several times to not engage him at all.

The game ended, and his victorious son unleashed this lengthy angry taunt into the gym. It was unlike anything we’ve seen in the weeks we have been playing light-hearted Saturday morning pick-up basketball. Ignoring my wise wife, I turned to the dad and said, “That’s the attitude I’m talking about.” I honestly don’t remember what else transpired before we were up in each other’s faces, but a shouting match ensued.  And management came. I took another walk.

While outside I spoke to another African American dad, whom we had befriended in earlier weeks. One week he had asked Damon to play one-on-one offense so that his son could work on his defense. On this Saturday, I asked this dad if he had witnessed the scene I had just caused. He hadn’t. I apologized for it anyway. Then he said, “You know, in days like these it is disappointing when we start at EACH OTHER like this. It’s enough to have to deal with that treatment in general society. You would think that at least WE could keep it together.” He meant, of course “we black folk.” It was lament, not criticism.

The rest of the of the conversation was typical. We talked more about our boys and their basketball experiences. Then, newly calm, I returned to the gym.

The “my boy/your boy” conversation is one I have had with dozens of parents. Three weeks ago I launched into that conversation with Dad #1.  But whenever I complimented his kid, he criticized Damon.

So why was this dad all focused on Damon? He made no comments about any other kid out there. And in three weeks he and his son had become increasingly anti-social, and the son had become increasingly angry on the court. Aside from Damon’s obvious talent, I can think of only one reason he was singled out for this constant criticism. It was something lurking.

By the middle of the first five-on-five game last week, Damon didn’t want to play anymore, but, as he told his Meemaw, “I wasn’t gonna go out like that.”  He finished the game, and his team handily won the next game. Still Damon was disturbed.

I own my part in the drama. The following week the whole scenario occupied a lot of my thought life. I first apologized to Damon and then tried to encourage him, “We can’t let them steal the joy of our Saturday mornings. We do this for fun. Don’t let them take this from us.” But I had no idea how I could instruct my own emotions before the next Saturday. I did pray. I did consider whether we should show up at all. I did think of what I wanted to say to reconcile with this dad, but it would all be built on how wrong HE was. And I had already committed to a wise woman that I would not speak to the man at all.

I did go over the past three weeks in my mind trying to figure out what went wrong before I had decided to “return fire.” And why was I so inconsolable after the incident?

I think the discomfort was based in something more than immediate. It drew on the historical romance I had been told about Coleman/Glencliff. It was the sense that this place of peace, this place of community against the cultural odds, was being turned into a place of conflict. And the battle was engaged against me and my grandson for no respectable reason.

By week’s end, my emotional energy had dissipated and I had pictured for myself how I would act. First, I would get back out on the court myself. No-one can take the game too seriously when I am on the court.

As it turned out dad and son didn’t show. I don’t think anyone spoke of them or of our incident. But there was a palpable relief hanging in the air. The boys were lighter than usual. They played hard, but they laughed as hard as they played. And there were fist-bumps and high-fives.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Charlottesville Reflections: Ancient Thoughts about Equality, Relationship and Community

Add An officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. Jill Mumie 

There’s an uncomfortable verse in the Bible that says,

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26

The literal meaning of this verse is “If you want to follow Jesus, you must hate people, especially your own family (not to mention yourself)."

But the original meaning was probably more like, “If you want to follow Jesus, your love for Jesus should be so great all other ‘loves’ diminish to hatred in comparison.”

A verse in the biblical book of Galatians deserves the same treatment.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” –Galatians 3:28

Taken literally, this verse sounds like “All distinctions totally disappear ‘in Christ Jesus.’ We can’t tell men from women; we can’t see ethnic differences, and we can’t discern the difference between a worker and their supervisor. Everyone is exactly the same.”

But the original meaning was probably more along the lines of “Equality, relationship and community ‘in Christ’ diminish the distinctions among those groups.” The differences don’t disappear, they simply hold different meaning.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, two stances concern me. The first is the one that disturbs many Americans: that stance that says some Americans are inherently superior to others. That view flies directly in the face of this Galatians passage.

The second disturbing stance is the one that says, “There is only one race: the human race.” Semantics around the word “race” aside, this view is unhelpful in the current conversation. It is supported by that misguided, literal reading of Galatians 3:28.

In my TEDxAntioch talk, I make the statement “Race is not real, but race does matter.” I support my assertion about race’s non-existence with scientific discoveries about the nature of “race.” We could substitute misreadings of biblical passages to make the same case. But in either situation, the non-existence of race is irrelevant because “race” continues to exist in our lived realities. Charlottesville proves as much.

Race continues to matter in American society. And we continue to have opportunities to enter into the discomfort to address the difficulties. We need only the will.