I Spy… race?

“Read me this book mommy!”

“This is an I Spy book, baby, it’s not really for reading. Do you want to play it?”

“Yes, play it!”


He hands me the book, climbs into my lap. I settle him in, open it up.

“Alright, choose a person to look for.”

He points at one of the cartoon figures sitting abstractly, devoid of context, in the box labeled “Can you find me?”

Oh. OK. I can do this. Nothing out of the ordinary. Deep breath.

“Right, so we’re looking for the black kid with the brown hair and the green shirt. Do you see the black kid with the brown hair and the green shirt in the picture over here?”

We’re sitting in our local coffee shop, ostensibly so that I can have some work time while he plays with their novel toys, but apparently actually so he can bring me new-to-him books to read with him — or Spy with him, as the case may be. This is probably the first time I’ve ever really used race descriptors with him, and I both dread and welcome the opportunity. The first question he ever asked me about race was just a couple weeks ago, while watching an old Doctor Who episode: “Why are those people green?” So, perhaps we were overdue for this type of activity, grounded in reality if presented cartoonishly, where we practice naming race as simply as we name shirts and hair.

This is not easy for me. I, like so many other middle-class white kids of well-meaning white parents, was raised under the belief that Good People Do Not Mention Race. My parents’ generation lived through the Civil Rights Movement, started raising children in the heyday of Free to Be You and Me, and desperately wanted to Do the Right Thing when it came to “race relations”. Somehow, Dr King’s dream of people “not be[ing] judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” was interpreted at a call to pretend those colors simply didn’t exist. In a culture with 64-color Crayola Crayons boxes, we were supposed to pretend that when it came to skin — and even more, to the culture and history and ongoing oppressions skin represents– color not only was meaningless and valueless, but unnameable, and to dare to name it was dirty and vulgar.

I don’t recall my parents saying anything specific on this issue one way or another. Indeed, I doubt that there was any conscious decision on their part, and certainly not a malicious one. Like so many people, they went with the default cultural script — which was to say nothing, or at least nothing specific — and so I absorbed the dominant messages of the time which were just: racism is bad. racism is judging people on their race (which was synonymous with skin color, more or less; any understanding of the difference betwixt these was one of the many casualties to this approach). so ignore race, because if race doesn’t exist, you can’t judge on race, and you won’t be racist, which is good, because racism is bad.

It did not — are you surprised? — work.

So I not only grew up lacking a vocabulary for race –

(beyond knowing that I was white, except for when I was Caucasian, or maybe ethnically European, and some other people were black, no, African-American, no, Black, but regardless never ever anything starting with an N, except when they were, and then there were Other People, and they were just named by where they came from, maybe with a -American tacked on if it were their parents or their grandparents that came from that Other Place, except when they didn’t and weren’t)

–but lacking a vocabulary for discussing my lack of vocabulary, and the vague but firm feeling that talking about any of this, especially the way some of my friends looked different from other of my friends, was tantamount to picking my nose in public, or maybe pulling my pants down and shitting on the dinner table. It was just Not Done.

Although the racist definition of racism I grew up with still prevails — leading to straight white cis Christian men on TV able to say with a straight face that the first Black president of the United States is racist — I have been humbled and blessed to have been exposed to other, saner ways of conceptualizing, and talking about, race and racism. This has left me with the desire to raise the Boychick differently, better, able to talk about race and racism, cognizant of the unearned privilege he possesses, and the responsibility to oppose it that it brings. I am even starting — barely, stumblingly, haltingly, flawedly — to learn the vocabulary and skills to do so.

But I still possess the deep-planted taboo against doing so, the shame that rises in my throat and makes my heart beat faster and harder in fear, the unshakable belief that leaves me shaking that says that by merely mentioning race to the Boychick, I am Doing Something Bad, something even Very Wrong.

It is kyriarchy that makes me feel this way, of course. It is the colorless, contextless definition of racism — which serves only to protect the real, longstanding, very much color-based racism — combined with a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective desire to do well, to have others’ approval, which makes this so hard for me. In short, it is my own internalized racism, and the protections it has built up around itself, which I have yet to be able to remove.

I do not want it to be so hard for the Boychick. I do not want him to absorb the dictate of silence, the disaster of squeamishness, the — let me name it — racism, that I am inflicted with. More to the point, I do not want him to contribute to others’ suffering through ingrained ignorance, as I assuredly have. And so I struggle to seem nonchalant, work hard to appear off-hand.

He points to a person in the crowd.

“No, that’s a white kid with reddish hair in a blue shirt” — he’s not very good at this game yet — “Do you see the black kid with the brown hair and the green shirt? Yes, that’s right! You found him! Shall we do another?”

He nods, picks out one from the box again.

“Alright,” I say. “That’s a white kid with blond hair and a blue shirt. Where’s the white kid with blond hair and a blue shirt?

I adjust him in my lap, as together we start searching — him for a white kid with blond hair and a blue shirt, me for the confidence to help my white kid with blond hair name that which I cannot without panicking. Later it will get more complicated, of course. Later we will talk about privilege, and racism, and the words he can never use. But it starts with this, with simply saying that race can be spoken; it starts with giving him the words to name that which he already notices. It starts here, at 28 years old, with a 2 year old in my lap, and an I Spy book in his; it starts with a deep breath in and the determination to fake it well enough that somehow, someday, he’ll make it.

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16 Responses to I Spy… race?

  1. This is an exceptionally moving, honest post. I expect nothing less from the awesomeness that is your blog, but this post really spoke to me. You communicate ideas that bang around in my head too, but you are able to name them. Thank you!

  2. Thank you. Thank you for stating so eloquently the dilemma that so many of our generation and race face, realizing that “color-blindness” doesn’t work and trying to figure out what to do next.

    I only found your blog recently and am thrilled with it. I have a three-year-old son, and much of what you write I would have written if I could only have found the words.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I go through a similar thought process in my head. I only want to be respectful and kind and honest about any person including and regardless of their race, but I’m not sure what is “right”. I’ve seen many debates over using color of skin as a descriptor and I’m not sure where I stand on it.

    • Here’s the thing: as noted in the above link, ignoring and silencing the topic of race and identifying race simply doesn’t work as a tool for eliminating racism. It was a well-meaning theory, but it is thoroughly debunked.

      It’s like: if I am in a room of people all wearing bright yellows and reds and whites and I’m dressed in my usual black, you aren’t going to fumble around saying “look for the sort of slightly tall woman with the mousy brown hair and the metal rimmed glasses”, right? You’re gonna say “The woman in black”, because it’s an easily distinguishing feature. If there are a few other people wearing black, it only makes sense to say “The fat woman in the black shirt”. If there are a few other fat people wearing black, it makes sense to say “the fat white woman in black.” None of these has any judgments attached to them; none of these are a big deal: they’re just facets about me.

      But if we ignore one of them, it becomes a really big deal. We routinely ignore race (and fatness, for that matter, but that’s another, related but different, issue). Race becomes That Which We Cannot Talk About, and kids try to figure out why, only they’re doing it without our help, because we’re refusing to talk about it. It becomes laden with meaning which we, with our magnificently smart brains, try to tease out. And we adults, pretending not to notice anything, then have no influence on what kids are figuring out, because we’re not talking about it other than mealy-mouthed feel-good phrases like “everyone is the same”.

      And furthermore, race DOES matter. There is a very real, very pervasive, very significant power and privilege differential based on one’s race in the US (and in most if not all of the rest of the world), where white people have privilege (are oppressing) people of color. If we do not acknowledge that, we cannot deconstruct or oppose or dismantle it — and we cannot acknowledge that if we first do not acknowledge that people come in different races, and learn to name them.

      What I think is most telling in these discussions is who’s advocating which position. In general, it is well-meaning (but generally clueless) white people who advocate the ignore-race approach; in general, people of color, to whom race is made into a big damn deal every day without their choosing it, are in favor of naming race. That says a lot to me, even if I didn’t have both objective evidence and person anecdotes that “colorblindness” fails, and fails fully.

  4. I don’t really have anything to add, other than “rock on!” I really liked this post.

  5. I just finished reading Po Bronson’s new book, NurtureShock, and in one of the chapters they talked about race– how white people have this utter inability to talk about race, as if even mentioning it is evil (as you so well described). And how, according to recent research(I think they actually looked at the very experiment in the link you posted), this approach fails miserably because kids will always notice these differences and if we don’t point them out to them specifically, and make a point that different skin color doesn’t mean anyone is better or worse than anyone else, they’ll end up making their own assumptions.

    And so, I feel a bit like you– I am partially looking forward to being able to pass these lessons on to my son (20 months old now), but also know it will be much more difficult than I can foresee. So, I think I totally failed in actually saying anything new in this comment, so I’ll just close with saying THANK YOU for writing this, and perhaps you can give me tips on navigating these awkward but powerful discussions in the coming months. ; )

  6. I remember when this came up with K a few months ago (he will be four next month) while looking at “Where’s Waldo”. It was a very fumbling, awkward conversation. This helps me understand why it felt that way; thank you.

  7. Pingback: Talking about racism « The Turtle and the Wren

  8. Wow. This is awesome! I laughed outloud at the dinner table comment. I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so hard for white folks like ma’self to talk about race, and you put into words some of my discomfort. Thank you! My hubby and I are adopting two kids from Ethiopia and sure as heck want to be more fluid and comfortable talking about race.

    • Hers is an open adoption, but I really recommend reading This Woman’s Work for a really great, aware approach to raising an adopted black girl as a white woman. I really admire her work, and her approach to helping her daughter talk freely about race and adoption, among other things.

      And you’re very welcome. :)

  9. When I worked in an upper-middle-class, mostly-white high school, we didn’t talk about race. Because, as you said, talking about race = you notice race = you’re racist. When I worked at a lower-SES, mostly-minority high school, the kids talked about race openly, unabashedly. (They were baffled that I was white, but I was Hispanic. How could I be both?)
    Race, and racism, are facts of life. Attempting to deny race, by not talking about it, denies those who are oppressed, it denies their struggle. It may make us privileged, white-skinned people feel better, but it’s a lie and it perpetuates the problem.
    Not that this makes it easier to talk about, or know how to explain it to your child… especially when you’re in a crowded coffee shop and who knows who might come up to you to tell you how evil you are by even uttering the words “the black kid.”
    Thanks for writing this,and good luck! (We all need it.)

  10. I thought of this post while reading this article today. I wonder if you had read it? I found it very interesting, and, of course, it shows that science supports your philosophies. :-)

  11. This is a conversation that I approach from the unusual, but not unique, position of having been a white girl in a neighbourhood that was peopled mostly by non-white people. What I did have in common with the folks I grew up with was poverty and being the children or grandchildren of immigrants from other countries (my mother was born in post-war Germany.) Race, colour, whatever you want to call it, was a major part of my everyday life and something I needed to be very aware of. At one of my high schools, my nickname was literally Chick Whitey Gal. I kid you not. Oddly, my sisters and I have all been confronted by situations in which our frank discussion of, or even notice of, race has been called racist. And often this accusation comes from people who know very little about the cultural influences and histories of what we are discussing. The thought that I might have an opinion on issues regarding race is treated with suspicion, because I am supposed to be race neutral, as a white person.

    As a grown up, I live in a one of the “nicer” neighbourhoods in my city and, not shockingly – though sadly, it’s predominantly white. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent. Like I’m disguised. This isn’t who I am. The things people say in front of me, with the tacit implication that I will agree, would be amusing if they weren’t so ignorant. I even worry that I’m doing my future kids a disservice if I raise them here, where their practical perspective will be so much smaller than mine.

    So…yeah. Kudos for discussing it at all.

  12. Pingback: A Tale of Two Slayers: on speaking race and white-as-default « Raising My Boychick

  13. Pingback: How to Pick an Anti-Kyriarchy Preschool, Part One: Why « Raising My Boychick

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