Friday, May 25, 2007

Children, Race, and Racism

The circumstances of the Jena Six, and particularly some of the comments have me thinking about the ways children of color versus white children learn about race and racism in the society. That's as clear as I can state that at this point--I'm still thinking and perhaps what I mean will become more clear to me as I write this.

The first time I remember thinking about race is when I was four, in kindergarten, and holding hands with my friend, a white girl named Robin. I remember quite clearly that we were walking from the main elementary building to the little kindergarten building at our school. I looked down and noted the color difference of our entwined hands. And I remember being a bit jealous of her lighter skin. I don't remember a time when I didn't know (and as a child, believe) what the children in A Girl Like Me know, that white was good and pretty and just plain better.

I learned about racism from my parents and older relatives, too, who taught me to be careful (always careful) and suspicious, to fashion "the mask"' that shielded the real me.

When I taught fourth grade, one little black girl in my class was incensed that another black student, in describing her recently deceased grandmother, said that her grandmother was in heaven. "That's not true," she told me privately. "How do you know?" I asked. "Because black people don't go to heaven." That was one of the things that almost killed me during my brief teaching career.

My son has not expressed (aloud, at least) signs of the inferiority complex yet, but he has expressed concern about the dearth of black teachers at his school and is beginning to get that awkward feeling when he is the only black child in a group of children. Last night, he cuddled with me for a minute and, knowing my usual summer pattern of nonstop Food Network-watching, asked why I wasn't watching the channel. "Nothing good on," I said. "No Paula or Rachael?" he asked. "Nuh-uh." "What about the Hispanic guy you like?" He was talking about Emeril. That floored me--of course I used cues like hair and skin color when I was his age, but living in a biracial town, I encoded everyone as black, white, or other. No other distinctions (even erroneous ones like his) for me.

And of course, these children of whom Vox speaks, have learned definite lessons about race and racism:
In the past two months, we’ve heard of Shaquanda Cotton (14, shoved a teacher’s aide, sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, released last month after one year), Desre’e Watson (6, threw a tantrum at school, charged with two misdemeanors and a felony), Lucilia (13, forced to have sex by pimp after running away from abusive home, in and out of prison for prostitution), Gerard Mungo Jr. (7, sat on dirt bike — not running at the time — on sidewalk waiting for father, arrested, processed, and let go; bike was confiscated), and the Jena Six (high school students, defended themselves against racist white bullies, charged with conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder).

And now an 11-year-old Ojibwe boy, whose name was not released, was arrested because he failed to appear in court as a witness (or rather, his mother failed to take him) in a case where a 13-year-old boy bullied him and his mother assaulted his attacker. Police handcuffed him and dragged him out of class.
I've said all this to opine that we know that children of color, sometimes from early ages, know about, experience, construct ideas about race and racism.

So where does the assumption, the expectation, that white children do not, come from? I'm thinking of LaSalle Parish School Board Superintendent who dismissed white children's (in Jena) hanging nooses from a tree with "“Adolescents play pranks... I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.” An of the case in Ohio, where after white children at a football game "yelled racial slurs, painted their faces black, beat on frying pans, and wore Afro wigs when their team played a predominantly black opponent"* the president of the youth football association said, “Their actions, albeit unwise, foolish and insensitive, were meant to be totally supportive and not intended to insult or offend anyone in any way.”

Let's, for a minute, pretend that the men who made these statements are sincere. How do we arrive at the conclusion that white children, who live in the same racially coded and stratified society as children of color, do not construct notions of race and hierarchy, cannot knowingly use symbols and language of racism? Of course, their constructions and personal knowledge are different than those of children of color, but to posit that they are absent?

I think it is related to the idea of colorblindness--who else cannot afford to see color? More generally, I think the assumption stems from the positioning of white as normative, as somehow not a race or color, and of "whiteness" as default rather than privileged. Of course, this obscures the works of "whiteness" scholars, who posit that whites spent (and spend) an inordinate amount of time creating and strengthening notions of whiteness and protecting its benefits.

I think a question like "how do white children learn about and construct race and racism," is not solely what I want to ask--there are millions of individual answers to that one. I need to focus on narrowing my questions but also in examining, beyond these two examples, how this assumption is perpetuated.

Rachel's words from here.


Kate said...

I wish I had some clever way to contribute to this conversation and your great thinking, Elle, but I don't. I don't understand the desire to protect white children who are behaving in an explicitly racist way. I don't understand how white adults and white people in authority don't see how this promotes racism, patterns of excuses, and targets people of color. I can only say that, as usual, no white person wants to look at their racism because no one wants to look at the way they are oppressing other people. I don't want to look at my racism, either, but I do (and this isn't a pat on the back, because I don't think I'm that good at it yet).

Ok, upon more thought, I have one tiny insight: I am starting to remember all the times I have seen a very young child try to make sense of what they're seeing and say something that would ultimately be racist (for instance, an old hairdresser of mine once recounted that her son asked why the other baby had dirt on his face -- it was his first time seeing a person of color). I've noticed that some white people are absolutely tickled by these stories and find them hilarious. It's like a racist version of "kids say the darndest things," and I wonder if it's a way for white adults to indulge their racism without (they think) actually being racist themselves. Perhaps perpetuating racism by allowing children to be racist makes adults feel better, or helps them justify their own racism, or something? I don't know. I'll just stop here.

mixed chicks said...

great article. please do more.
here is an interesting blog on similar subjects...

elle said...

perpetuating racism by allowing children to be racist

hmm... food for thought. like you, i can't say much more now b/c my thoughts are scattered

thanks for the link, mixedchicks

Zan said...

I'm trying to remember when I made my first black friend. Or frankly, my first non-white friend. I don't think it happened until Junior High. I was looking through some pictures with my mom a few weeks ago, from when I was in elementary school. We had lots of pictures of my friends, and they were all white. I don't think that happened by design, but because I just didn't know any non-white children. I grew up in rural southern Louisiana, where things are pretty damned segregated. It never occured to me to be friends with black children, but it also never occured to me not to be friends with them either. I think I just never really had the opportunity until I was older. And by that point, I understood (as well as a junior high student can) racism. And, it seemed to me, there were two 'types' of black people. There were black people who were like me, just darker. And then there were those Other black people. The ones who caused trouble, who committed crimes, who were Bad. So, being friends with one type was fine and normal, but the Other type, I had to avoid.

I think you still find that a lot down here, particularly in the rural parishes. Now that I'm in a Real City, the attitude isn't quite as bad. It's still there, but since Baton Rouge is predominately a black city, it's not to the extreme it was in the more rural places I've lived.

I remember thinking it was kinda silly to be segregating people based on their skin color. Because when you have to figure out which type of black person you're dealing with, you've got to put them all in a box to start with, don't you? Until you figure out if they're the Good kind or not. Whereas with a white person? They were Good by default. Which even my child's mind could figure out was dumb, because didn't the white boys pick on me for being fat? Didn't they chase the girls around the playground trying to to pull our bra straps and touch our asses? I don't remember any black boys trying to do that to me. I remember lots of white boys doing it though. So, if the Good people were trying to hurt me, but the Bad people weren't, didn't that make the whole system fucked up?

Oh, also I remember that it was really about the Black Boys, not so much the girls. My father was terribly worried about me and Black boys. He was very afraid I was going to be molested or raped or something. Which, as I said, was funny because I was never harassed by a black boy, but the white boys liked to torment me.

I don't know if that helps, Elle. But that's what I remember from my childhood. I will say, however, that my neice, at 3, shows no signs of having noticed race. She notices other children, some of whom happen to be black or hispanic, etc., but she doesn't seem to notice or care. She plays with them like any other child. So....maybe there's hope?

Sara said...

I'm kind of struck by the fact that all of your examples learned about racism via the law, while the comments about white kids and racism come from these school-related authorities. This is where I learned about racism from, as a child: in school I learned that white kids go into gifted classrooms, while the Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino kids stayed in the regular classrooms. I remember that classroom separation as the moment that skin color started to make a difference to us, because you could literally tell how smart the rest of the world thought you were by the color of your skin and the shape of your eyes. But it was always, if there is such a thing, a benign racism that came from parents and teachers and never from cops, so it never occurred to me that racism could be affiliated with the law. Racism was more a way of life, not a traumatic event, if that makes sense. Maybe I'll go ramble about this on my blog, but I hope you write more about this.

elle said...

And, it seemed to me, there were two 'types' of black people.

Zan, I think I was "taught" that, too. That was the reason for wearing the mask--you never, ever showed anything less than perfect behavior b/c 1) you'd be considered one of the "other" type of black person and 2) white people would take any misbehavior on your part and generalize to all black people. I got that message very clearly as a child.

And that about black boys--I mentioned here: (in the second paragraph) the extent people felt the need to go to protect white girls' honor from black boys in my hometown. blech.

Thanks for your story--I really am interested in individual stories.

Sara--thank you too. Please post! I learned a lot about race and racism at school, too, from the link I posted in this comment to the continual amazement people expressed at my existence as a gifted black child--I think adults in the schools positioned me as definitely different from the white children, but different from the black children, as well, an alienating experience. I think their attitudes are part of the reason I still question and second guess myself and my work.

But it was always, if there is such a thing, a benign racism that came from parents and teachers and never from cops, so it never occurred to me that racism could be affiliated with the law.

I think the idea of racism as "benign" is definitely not one many children of color absoerb/construct. In my case, even when I used to try to dismiss it ("oh that's how it is here" or "oh that's how they were raised"), always, in the back of my mind, was the knowledge that the most "benign" racism could lead to horrible violence/the support and sustenance of horrible violence.

Mathochist said...

Ugh! This whole thing makes me sick to my stomach! It is THE ONE REASON I am extremely glad I am not raising my children in south La.!!! OTOH, I wonder if being back there, teaching my childen (and eventually their friends) that God created us all beautiful and unique and special, would make a difference. However small. I doubt it. Not that it matters since DH's job is here.

My first experience with racism that I remember was around age 5, hearing my grandmother use the term "those d@mn black Africans!" with disgust. And I remember when my grandfather went opossum hunting he would keep the hides and bring the meat to a black family down the road. I got the idea from my grandmother that black people could/would eat opossum, but white people were too good for it.

As I got a little older, it confused me that an otherwise faithful Catholic Christian woman would harbor hate for anyone - much less a whole group of people - for no apparent reason. And when I asked she couldn't articulate why they evoked that reaction in her. One time I asked her, "Didn't God make them too?" She softened a bit, and said, "Yeah, I guess He did." But I suppose it's hard to overcome a lifetime of ingrained thoughts. However wrong you know they are.

Regardless of the fact that I knew whites were no better than blacks, I didn't go out of my way to hang out with them or get to know them better. They all seemed to want to keep their distance, anyway, and I was too timid to upset the equilibrium that existed between their community and mine. And most of the black kids in my small community seemed to be self-fulfilling prophesies. Their grades were on the lower end of the scale. They seemed to misbehave more (though now I wonder if their misbehavior just wasn't called out/punished more..) They were mean (but maybe that's 'cause everyone else was mean to them...)

My first black friend was in the 6th grade. His name was Jermone. One time I wrote his lines for him. I usually charged people to write their lines, but I did his for free because I didn't think he deserved them. I don't remember why. But I was sure it was unfair of the teacher. We got caught and the teacher made him write them himself, and then some. In retrospect I think it's a little fishy that for all the peoples' lines I wrote, the only one I got caught/reprimanded for was the black kid. It's not like my forgery skills were THAT good. (Although I liked to think they were at the time.)

I thought my family was going to disown me when I took Dondre to Winter Formal. I didn't think it would be an issue, but they were all apparently closet racists.

I am extremely glad for my multicultrual experiences at LSMSA. I learned that there were a lot more cultures in the world than black and white. I learned that they all have their merits. I learned that black people CAN be just as smart, or smarter, than white people. And latinos, and asians, and...

I just hope that my kids won't grow up with the taint of racism.

Thanks for posting, and letting me ramble on a topic I don't otherwise have much cause to think about here in liberal CO.

AcadeMama said...

My oldest daughter, H, was about 2 yrs. old when she was first able to articulate her recognition of racial difference. Her best friend Joy, a South African girl, had thick twists in her hair. H came home from daycare and asked two questions: "Why is Joy's skin brown?" and "Can I have hair like Joy's?" I think it's interesting that she used the word "brown" instead of black to described Joy's skin color. She still maintains a very strict distinction in terms of skin color, refusing to call herself white. She is adamant that she is not white! She is "peach."

And even though she lives in the South, we live in a university town, which means more diversity around the elementary schools. H's class is literally split into 1/4 white kids, 1/4 Asian-American, 1/4 Middle Eastern, 1/4 Latino/a. She doesn't seem to recognize any one particular group as different from a normative racial group. Rather, she recognizes each person as different from her in a variety of ways (skin color, hair style, etc.). Most importantly, though, is that I have noticed her tendency to generalize/link behavior with skin color. For example, when she was in first grade, she automatically linked the bad behavior of an African-American boy (T) to his race. I had to point out several other boys (including a couple of white boys) who'd misbehaved in the same way for her to understand that there is no inherent connection between race and T's behavior. Aware of my position (and my daughter's), I always wonder if I'm doing the right thing to have these kinds of conversations with her so early?? Or, will she figure this out as she goes? Will she be smart enough and sensitive enough to recognize difference with letting it pre-determine her relationships with people of other races?
**Sorry, didn't mean to hijack your comments**

AcadeMama said...

Sorry, that should be "*without* letting it pre-determine..."

AS said...

My gut says something similar to what Kate came to: people who excuse children's and adolescent's rascist behavior, are simply giving breath to their own unconscious, or maybe conscious, beliefs.
Thanks for bringing this discussion to life.
My personal story: I grew up in the north, but my experience with children of color was limited as my community was largely white. It had what I deemed, by the time I was leaving high-school, "token" blacks and asians. I think I thought at the time that it made us all feel better, like we actually weren't a racist community because there were these families among "us."
It wasn't until I was in college that I began to make friends with blacks, and ran into some blacks who were really angry about racism and at white people. I was intimidated and scared by those folks, and began to finally have a glimmer of understanding about racism and their rage.

Anonymous said...

thanks, as always, for wonderful and insightful reading, elle. having been im my fieldwork ctry bubble, i have missed some of the stuff going on, esp Jena 6, and i appreciate your blogging it.

changeseeker said...

"Let's, for a minute, pretend that the men who made these statements are sincere."

Personally, I think this is giving them WAY too much lee-way, but Joe Feagin does suggest that White people develop what he calls "sincere fictions" about themselves and their Whiteness. Again, I think this is too kind.

Actually, your question is so intensely interesting to me that I've written an entire book on my experience (working title: Reduced to Equality: My Odyssey to Renounce Racial Privilege~and Find Myself). Unfortunately, it does not, as yet, have a publisher, though I've had excellent responses. Ah, well. Eventually...

Kate217 said...

This is a different Kate than the one above.

In answer to your question, children are taught racism, just as they are taught so many other things.

My mother (who was born and raised in Memphis) would have washed out my mouth with soap had I ever used a racial epithet. I was very fortunate in that from my earliest memories, I have had friends of all colors and cultures. It was something that my parents actively encouraged.

I think the most shocked I have ever been in my entire life was when I was 12 and visiting my great-great-aunt in Memphis. When she used the n-word, I was completely horrified. It was never allowed in our house. I loved her, but lost a lot of respect for her that day.

Professor Zero said...

It's one of the more obvious features of U.S. society and that is why I started noticing it early on. In school, of course, you were not supposed to be racist and especially when we were little there was that stage of not noticing race yet.

But just as I noticed that men went to work and women stayed home - as was the case in our neighborhood - I noticed things such as, white men went to white collar jobs and men of color went to blue collar ones.
And that adult friendships were pretty segregated. And so on. It was *very* clear that race was a visual marker of difference and that that difference mattered - people didn't have to say racist things or defend the system for me to see how things were configured and how racial meaning was assigned.

They think kids don't know for the same reason they think they don't know about sex, or about any number of things. "I don't want to look at the issue, and they are kids so they wouldn't know if I hadn't raised it explicitly, and I haven't, so they cannot know." Maybe it has to do with authority, and fantasies about the "innocence" of children, and as you say, with the idea that white people don't have race and are not racialized, and therefore could not know about it (a set of assumptions that is full of fallacies).

I'm rambling!!!

elle said...

You're not rambling. I appreciate all that has been written here. The historian in me loves the stories of the personal experiences. Thank y'all for stopping in.

ecoflame said...

Jezzus! I'm with Kate, I wish I had something meaningful & clever to articulate and contribute.

Got here via 'My DD' per suggestions by readers there...just in case you were wonderin'. I love history, BTW, and came this - that close to getting a BA in History, but switched to Religious Studies.

How can I break this subtly? Hmm, I'm from Idaho and I went to Ohio for drug & alcohol treatment for a women's program thru the VA. Outside Cleveland actually. I've got stories, let me tell ya! I've been many, many places and it was the first place I'd ever thought about who I am racially. I would get shit for being from a state that's been connected to white supremacists (Aryan Nation), but very few actually know that the AN lost everything in a lawsuit brought against them by a mother & son. I was appalled at the level of racism that existed everywhere there. I moved to Bedford/Solon area which isn't far from Hudson. Hudson is quite exclusive, very wealthy, very white. And what I found even more appalling was the further south you went towards Columbus, & further down to Cincinnati, it got worse.

Your stories about your grade school chum, reminded me of when I was in grade school in Boise, 4th or 5th grade (1964/65) and we had a school assembly. The reason? We were getting a black student whose father was to be the new minister for the local AME Church. The law was laid down - there would be no trouble, which was confusing because some of us were convinced it was because the man was a preacher. I don't think any one of us realized until we saw that poor girl that it hAd to do with race and not religion. It's a bit reminiscent of when my youngest nephew was 6 and while spending the night once, he saw a bit of 'Eyes on the Prize' on PBS. He was stunned that anyone would have fire hoses used on them for any reason. He was mesmerized in disbelief.

I worry a lot about the direction of this country, and the reason is because we have a family baby who is probably not much older than the little one on the front page. I just want the world to be better.

wwwmama said...

Great discussion. My belated addition is a memory this discussion has brought back to consciousness. Growing up in Ireland, the only time I saw a black person was on a visit to the States, but there was a time when there were two children of a traveling community in Ireland who came to our school for a while (the community is sort of like gypsies and the closest thing Ireland had for a long time--not anymore--to a group of people being racialized as "other")
Anyway, we had an assembly and everything to introduce them and I remember everyone talked about them and made a big deal. They were clearly poor and different in how they talked and dressed, but they were also targets for the nuns who ran our convent school because they had had no exposure to Christian teachings (VERY unusual in our community). All the kids wanted to be friends with them because they were seen as sort of exotic and cool. The whole thing was probably my first experience of learning about cultural differences.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...