Mixed Roots Festival: Race Is A Parenting Issue

This past Friday and Saturday I attended a fantastic festival called the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. The purpose was to celebrate the experiences of multiracial/multicultural people through film, readings, workshops and live performances.

My kids and my husband tagged along, and my hubby commented that he didn't think he'd been in a room with as many half black, half white people in a LONG time, if ever. I joked with him that we'd be nice and not jump him, but if he saw us throwing up secret hand signs to each other, he better run!

Really, there are no secret mixed people hand signs, and there were also people there who were part Asian and Latino. I have a LOT of thoughts as a result of the festival, so I think I'll tell you a little about them every day this week.

First off, yours truly helped present a workshop at the conference on Friday along with my fellow fabulous bloggers, Susan Ito, and our ringleader, Jason Sperber.

Our workshop was called Parent-Blogging at the Crossroads of Race and Family and it was essentially about how parenting isn't just about picking out a stroller or deciding how much TV time your child is going to have. Parenting is also about being able to talk to your children about racism and support them when they do come across racism in their lives.

I never gave a damn what kind of stroller I pushed my sons in. My requirements? Safe, inexpensive, not too big, rated well by Consumer Reports. But I'll tell you, from the time I found out I was pregnant, I thought about what I'd do if someone else's child called my child the "n-word"... especially since beating the other child's behind wasn't an option I could pursue without jail time.

In the workshop we talked about how in the parent blogging community there often isn't the acknowledgement that talking about race is also a parenting issue. Parents of color know this via experience, and they see their children face both direct and indirect racism. And if you're a parent of a biracial child, you have a whole other layer of race-related things to talk to your child about.

I didn't bring this up during the workshop, but I over the weekend I thought about some of the identity-based questions I grappled with before I'd even hit kindergarten:

1) What am I?
2) How come I have to say I'm black if my skin is so yellow? Why can't I just say I'm tan or peach when someone asks me what I am?
3) Why do the those kids keep calling me Oreo and zebra?
4) If Daddy's family is still alive, how come they never come around? Do they not like me because I'm black?

Anyway, my point is that parents of biracial kids also have to figure out how they're going to address these kinds of questions in a thoughtful manner that builds their child's self-esteem without making ALL the self-esteem come from racial identity.

I find myself wondering how often do most white American parents talk with their kids about race issues, whether that's coming up with ways to build race unity, or how to respond when another child tells a racist joke or calls another kid a racial slur? Do white parents tell their middle school boys what to do if they're with a black friend and the cops pull them over?

In my heart there's a whisper that says that people don't want to talk about race with their kids because of fear. They're afraid they'll say the wrong thing, or maybe they're afraid they'll have to take a closer look at their own heart.

I know I've had to. I have a white dad, a black mom and I still see color and have racist and/or prejudiced attitudes. I really believe that if you grow up in America, you're racist whether you want to admit it or not. Maybe you're not jumping up to join some sort of separatist group, but the racism is seeped into our very foundations so none of us is fully immune. I suppose the first step is to admit it and then you can move forward from there to heal yourself.

In any case, no one booed our workshop, thankfully, but wasn't till it was over that I really stepped back and thought about where I was: I was at a conference where everywhere I looked, there were people who smiling and laughing, and they almost all happened to be either "mixed" or half of an interracial couple.

I'm curious about your experience: How do you talk to your kids about race, or, if you don't have kids yet, how do you plan to talk to them about racism? What would you say parents of color need to say to their children about race nowadays? And what do white parents need to say?


nick said…
I doubt if many white parents here in NI talk frankly to their kids about racism, whether they're expected to have racist attitudes and if so how to deal with them. But racism is talked about at community level because there are a lot of racist attacks in some areas. Even some of the white loyalist organisations are taking anti-racist courses which is amazing. It's certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with as the number of black people here is steadily increasing.
Daniel said…
Los Angelista,
I'd have too much to write out, lol, hijacking your blog. Because I've got all 5 (yes, five) sides in this; my family history, my life experiences, the (failed) interracial marriage, biracial children and finally the other side (maternal) of the family equation and their rather different reactions to it all.

Sounds like a great workshop! Glad you got to participate and that the whole family joined in.

Give Snipes a Cookie. For makin' this far, lol!
Liz Dwyer said…
That's really interesting that racism is talked about at the community level there -- and white loyalist orgs taking courses? Wow, that is pretty impressive. Go, Northern Ireland!

Ok, why don't you have a blog? I'm sure the story is well worth hearing, from multiple perspectives.

Snips needs to go on a diet. She's getting fatter by the hour. Even my kids marvel over how she has to be the fattest hamster on the planet.
Sharifa said…
I bet your white relations will get in touch when you are a famous author!

There is more diversity where I live now than there was where I grew up, so I hope my son will have an easier time and be comfortable around all kinds of people.
k. emvee said…
I don't think my white parents raising me in rural western Washington ever brought up the topic of race. But then again, it wouldn't have mattered much since I started bringing up conversations about sexism and racism from a very young age. Was my analysis deep or even correct? Not necessarily. But was I determined to do everything I could to make things "equal" in my eyes? You bet.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm still pleased that I started in on the social justice young, but I wish I had had a bit of guidance instead of having to figure everything out myself. I believe that talking with children about race, like talking about other taboo topics like sex, is best done early and often, increasing in complexity as is age-appropriate.
Shiona said…
I have to share a story that happened in my Womens Studies class. She did two exercises. The first was to divide the room into groups by race. Whites had their area of the room,as did Asians and Hispancics and Blacks. As far as the black students were concerned there were two of us that were black and two who were biracial. One of them came to our group automatically. The other girl did not want to choose so she was by herself. The teacher said she had to join a group but she didn't want to because she was black and white. The white group looked uncomfortable so finally we told her to just come over to our table because she was considered black anyway. She was like why and we pointed out the one drop rule. She said it shouldn't be like that. We all agreed but didn't really know how to respond.

We also did that exercise where we all go outside and stand in a line at the same starting point. Then the teacher says things like if your white take three steps forward and if you're a minority take three steps back. She had other scenarios as well (If you'd been treated differently because you were a woman, if you experienced racism, if you got a promotion, if you lost your job...) We were all at completely different spots when she was done. It really helped to put things in persepective as far as the experiences you deal with depending on your gender, class race and circumstancees.

Didn't meant to write a novel but I wanted to share mainly the first part with you.
Anonymous said…
ok, i read this post first thing this am but haven't been able to respond till now.

i do talk about race. my kids notice people's differences, and i simply say, "some people have brown skin, some people have black skin, what color is your skin?" what i find fascinating is that my son said "white" even though he had never heard anyone described that way, and he's definitely more pink or beige than white.

the election was a good time to talk about the history of race in this country because i was explaining why obama's election is such a big deal.

now, one issue we have is that our preschool is very persian, and that community tends to be very closed. we get excluded a lot, and i am uncomfortable explaining that it is due to ethnicity. i have a hard time because i feel like i'd be telling my kids that persians are mean or something. i don't know quite how to explain why he gets stood up for playdates all the time. i guess i am more comfortable talking about bigotry in the abstract or when we can judge the perpetrators and less comfortable when he will see the children of these parents in school the next day.
Camille said…
First, race is a social construct with roots in division of groups and oppression. There is a certain privelege when one is white in America. It is unwritten but recognized by all non-white Americans. White Americans don't necessarily have to talk to their children about race because their race will never be a barrier to their success. They never have to contemplate how their life may be different if they were born another race. It is what it is. In my household I speak in terms of people's character. My family and heritage includes Irish, Thai, Mexican, and Native American. That, to me is special but not unlike many African Americans who can claim a mixed heritage. For my children, since any efforts to raise them in an unbiased environment will be thwarted by the schools they attend and society, my focus is to raise them with a sense of self where they will never see their race as a barrier.
leila said…
"The mineral kingdom abounds with many-colored substances and compositions but we find no strife among them on that account. In the kingdom of the plant and vegetable, distinct and variegated hues exist but the fruit and flowers are not in conflict for that reason. Nay, rather, the very fact that there is difference and variety lends a charm to the garden. If all were of the same color the effect would be monotonous and depressing. When you enter a rose-garden the wealth of color and variety of floral forms spread before you a picture of wonder and beauty. The world of humanity is like a garden and the various races are the flowers which constitute its adornment and decoration. In the animal kingdom also we find variety of color. See how the doves differ in beauty yet they live together in perfect peace, and love each other. They do not make difference of color a cause of discord and strife. They view each other as the same species and kind. They know they are one in kind. Often a white dove soars aloft with a black one. Throughout the animal kingdom we do not find the creatures separated because of color. They recognize unity of species and oneness of kind. If we do not find color distinction drawn in a kingdom of lower intelligence and reason, how can it be justified among human beings, especially when we know that all have come from the same source and belong to the same household? In origin and intention of creation mankind is one. Distinctions of race and color have arisen afterward."

And my baby is going to learn history, the processes that brought us to this place. We are looking for a house right now, and the neighbourhood that we're angling to find a house in is the most diverse we've seen in this area (close to husband's work).

Every time we walk around there, we see different kinds of people in their yards, walking around, driving around. I don't want my child to grow up in a place that only has one type of person, to think that that type of person is the standard for normality.

The lesson that I learned from my parents was to treat all kinds of different people with equal love and respect and interest, and with hospitality---all kinds of people came to our home, and often stayed with us. That has been a major lesson for me.

I remember looking at a newspaper in 1990, over my father's shoulder. My dad said, "He is going to be in the news for the rest of his life." "Why?" "He was in prison for a long time, and he didn't do anything wrong." It was Mandela.

I was a child at the time, but i remember this very clearly. My parents talked about the equality of people, and talked with me in age-appropriate ways about injustices and inequalities without resorting to stereotypes. I hope to do something similar with my own. But LIZ! this is such an enormous topic.

Nerd Girl said…
Wow. I don't really talk to my daughter (4) about race, because I haven't had to. Right now, her days are filled with her friends from school and her cousins - most of whom are black. She has asked questions about why somebody has tan skin, or why daddy is so "chocolate," etc., etc. I can easily explain that with a quick genetics lesson. But I know that I will have to broach the race issue in the next few years. When she starts kindergarten, she will move to a more racially mixed, but predominantly white school. I have no idea what I will say to her when she is teased about her skin, her ethnicity or called the "n" word. It is a difficult subject to broach and discuss. I don't want her to have an us vs. them mentality but at the same time she will experience racism and I want her to be strong and prepared for it. I don't remember my parents talking to us about racism but we were very, very steeped in African and black history and culture so we had very strong senses of self. I do know that helped.
tamigill said…
Great post, Liz!! I must say that I agree with Moosiko and Nerd Girl on the point that being raised with a strong sense of self is a strong barrier to so many issues. I know this firsthand.

Since I've been married and began having kids, it's come to my attention that I've never struggled with many of the issues that many blacks in America encounter regularly. I've gone to majority black schools, majority white schools, been in ballet classes where I was the only black child, majority white college campus, job, etc...and to top it off, I live in the deep south. So even though I'm well aware that racist attitudes and behavior still exist all over, I began to wonder why I never personally felt offended, damaged, and never felt a need to think about and discuss race issues all of the time.

Once I had my kids, I determined that this must be because my own parents were able to raise me with a VERY strong sense of confidence in who I was. And who I was just wasn't tied to my race. It was truly about my special God-given gifts and talents, and character. So when I hear people making offensive comments, or getting caught up in someone's race, hair, etc...it just bounces right off of me and doesn't raise my ire at all.

This is how I'm raising my kids, ages 5 and 4. I pray that they will be able to focus on what's important in their lives without race being intricately woven into every single area of their lives. I'm sure that everyone doesn't have this luxury, so this is just a personal choice for me based on how I was raised.
Katherine said…
Thanks for the question. I'm middle-class white, and raising 2 white boys with a white man. And it's something that we are figuring out. Race was not discussed when we were growing up, and an understanding of the various aspects of our privilege (race, gender, nationality, sexuality) has only developed through taking Women's Studies. So I feel that I have 'academic' language for it, but I am working on the 'how to have everyday conversations' that are meaningful to a 3 year old ...

But we aim to make sure that we talk about race and privilege, to discuss the specific historical contexts of our family stories, to share the discussions my husband and I have about race/gender etc. I think mainly to share that there are no easy 'rules' with easy answers to stop us being racist/sexist/patricarchal etc.

Involving the kids in some kind of activism. Talking with them about what it feels like to be at events where they are the minority / how that might feel uncomfortable / how feeling 'uncomfortable' for a white family is something very different that for a person of color feeling - and being - unsafe in other situations.

Using adverts/ images from the media around us to talk about issues of race/ gender/stereotypes.

I have ideas. And I hope that we can figure it out as we go along, with blogs like yours to inspire us and remind us to question the images around us.

Liz Dwyer said…
I love your comments... sorry to have been offline and not reply... I have had a severe migraine that is just now starting to go away. I'll reply when I get back from volunteering at my boy's school!
allison sara said…
LosAngelista, thanks for contributing your voice to this festival, and sharing it with us.

I think it is important to talk to kids about what's out there, from the point of view of giving them a strong sense of themselves.

I like the way you framed your question - to white parents, and to parents of color. It implies a push to examine our own relationship to race, and how it impacts children. It also means that my husband and I will have different experiences of race as a parenting issue, and that's worth remembering. (so I don't get caught up in thinking it has to go my way!) Which points to having conversations with white friends about race as a parenting issue.

As a white person (ok, as any person), this is a day to day choice for me - do I take responsibility when racism is being expressed and do something about it, or do I hide in the comfort of my whiteness? And what do I do proactively to promote an appreciation of all people? For me the answer is love and honesty. Compassion for what people are going through, and really being with it. Having the courage to hear the painful stories and not write them off. That's the courage that pushes through the fear.

I'm curious to know, how can we support each other in having these conversations? LosAngelista, any ideas? Was that the topic of the workshop?

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