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.”

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