I was doing some online shopping the other day, looking at a number of black-owned businesses for our group post on our favorites, when questions started popping into my head: “Is it cultural appropriation if I were to wear a head wrap? There are no pictures of white people wearing them…” and “Are these shirts OK for white people to wear? None of the models are white…” And then it hit me, and my heart dropped into my stomach: this is what it is like for black people all. The. Time.
Of course, that one moment does not equal a lifetime of experiencing racism, and I’ll never know what that feels like. But the realization that simply seeing myself represented is something I’ve taken for granted my entire life — and that is like a punch to the gut. And in that moment I was humbled. To my core. I have to do better. We have to do better.
Shana and I grew up in Marquette, Michigan, a fairly white area–it may be the most diverse city in the Upper Peninsula, but that’s not saying much. My mom, who grew up in Menominee (another city in the U.P.) had never seen a black person prior to going to college here in Marquette. She had never seen a black person before the age of 18. Fortunately, Shana and I were lucky enough to spend a year of our childhood (’87-88) in East Lansing while Dad was working on his PhD at Michigan State University, and that was the first time we really experienced any kind of diversity. We lived in Spartan Village–the married student housing where families from all over the world lived.
My school, Spartan Village Elementary, had an event called International Night, where students would walk out with flags representing the country they were from, and we’d all perform songs and dances from those countries. Students would wear traditional clothing from their country (I wore a polka dot dress) and bring traditional foods that everyone got to try. It was like a crash-course in diversity.
I was one of a few white kids in my class, and I honestly don’t remember it being a thing–but I was in the first grade and hadn’t yet learned about racism. (And I realize that it is a privilege to learn about it instead of experiencing it first-hand.) That year, I was exactly the age my daughter Greenlea is now. And while I’m so glad I had that year to develop friendships with people of other races and religions, I’m worried that Greenlea doesn’t have that same opportunity. She is growing up in a white community with very little diversity.
Every time she asks me a question about what’s going on, I hesitate, not knowing how much I actually want to dive into The Issues with her, nor how much her little mind can understand. And truthfully, I don’t even know where to begin.
How do we make diversity a normal, everyday part of our lives when the world we live in is still so segregated?
I’m only now beginning to understand how difficult and complex the issue of racism really is. I mean, I was taught—in school? By my parents? I don’t even know now, but by well-intentioned white people, for sure—that I was not supposed to see color and that everyone is equal. I mean, it’s a great idea, but it’s just not accurate. We all see color. And we’re definitely not all treated equally. And I’ve only recently learned how destructive that line of thinking really is—how it fails to acknowledge and/or recognize the problem of racism in our society. I think this article from last year put it best:
I’m only now realizing how I’ve–at the very least–contributed to the problem through my own ignorance. Being horrified over the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and thinking “Oh my God, how long has this been going on? Why hasn’t anyone done anything?” and then moving onto The Next Thing in life without actually doing anything other than commenting on a few social media posts, thinking I was such a Woke Social Justice Warrior. It may be embarrassing, but it’s the truth–and there’s a whole lotta white women out there who are just like me. And it’s on us to actually do the work and to make the changes–not on our black friends and acquaintances to tell us how. This emotional labor lies squarely on our shoulders.
How Do We Raise White Kids To Be Anti-Racist?
So what do we do? I mean, aside from educating ourselves (and family and friends) by reading articles like this and watching documentaries like 13th and Burn MotherF*cker, Burn!. And aside from supporting black businesses (we’re increasing our coverage of black-owned business to 15% at TME) and donating to charities like Black Lives Matter or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Because while those are worthwhile steps we can all take that are more productive than social media commenting, it still doesn’t answer my question of how to raise my daughter–my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter–in an area where most people look like her. How do I raise her to be more aware and sensitive to the struggle of black people? If color-blindness isn’t the goal–and it’s decidedly not–how do I raise her to have relationships and friendships with people of diverse backgrounds in a place that’s not exactly known for its diversity, but for its homogeneity?
That’s not a question I have an answer for. I’m struggling. I want to get it right. Because this? Isn’t OK. And my desire to remain silent because I’m not sure how to talk about race with my kids or to rely on those comfortable, but inaccurate phrases like “everybody’s equal” isn’t going to make it any better…now that we know better.
So for what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’m going to do with my kids: I’m going to diversify their bookshelves by adding books that feature black characters and other POC. I’m going to actively seek out more diverse areas to travel with them. I’m going to share what’s happening in the news with them in ways that they can understand and TALK to them about racism, even when it’s uncomfortable and even though I don’t exactly know how. Because living in an area that isn’t diverse isn’t an excuse for raising kids who don’t know any better.
And suggestions? Always welcome. I’m listening.