“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.
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.