“I’m Kendra, the Vampire Slayer! I’m a girl! I’m Black!”
This was the child’s refrain nearly non-stop for three days last week. We’d watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer1 with the other Slayer, Kendra, and he latched on to her immediately. Why? No idea. But it was an interesting few days.
After a while, he stopped (she only shows up twice before dying herself), and the refrain was replaced with “I’m Buffy! I’m the Slayer! I’m a girl!”
Notice what’s missing?
While I’m pretty pleased that the Boychick is willing to name race at all, he only does it for the Black character — the Other.
“You’re Buffy, huh? What race are you?”
Silence. Try again: “What color are you?”
“I’m the same color as you.”
We’ve had this conversation a dozen times now. Sometimes I ask him what color I am; sometimes I tell him (“So you’re white, like me, and like [the Boychick].” or “Well, my skin is a light pink, and we usually call that white.”). He is unafraid to name her gender, unafraid to correct his father or I when we use the wrong pronoun (“I’m a she!”). But her race, to him, is invisible. It is the default.
And that’s a problem. That’s my problem, inasmuch as I have allowed and encouraged it. Because there is this: if his race-less Buffy-play had not been preceded by race-named Kendra-play, I wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong. I wouldn’t expect him to name Buffy’s race, because white, to me, is default also. It was only in the juxtaposition, in the so-loud silence after the uncomfortable-speaking2, that I could see the damaging ideas already taking root in my child’s psyche: White is default, unnameable; Black can be spoken, and is therefore other.
Up to now, we, like many bathed for a lifetime in white privilege, have named race only when it “came up” — meaning when a non-white person or persons entered a situation (real life or television). And when it does, we name both white and, as best we can, nonwhite. But still this is based on white-as-default, and communicates so much to the Boychick about what we take for granted, “normal”, and what we see as Other. It is, to put it plainly, based on racism.
To some extent, his belief in white-as-default is normal. To some extent, we enter the world incapable of believing that anyone is not-like us. But he is entering a phase where this is no longer entirely true: within the last month (around when he started naming race regularly at all), he has started announcing he is a boy, and when he plays Buffy or Kendra is a girl, which is different. And furthermore, it is white privilege that has allowed him to be race-ignorant for this long: children who do not see themselves so represented in their neighbourhoods, their television, even their books, have race-knowledge forced on them much earlier. And still more: because of that privilege he has (we have) even more of an obligation to counter ignorance, to do better, to be a decent human being. Because that’s really what this is all about.
I’m not entirely sure what to do. Or, I am, and I am terrified to do it: the solution is to name race more. To name race when everyone in the room is white. To name race when almost everyone in the room is white and not starting-and-ending with that “almost”. To name race as easily as we name hair color, clothing, gender, height.
This terrifies me not just because it is so taboo in “we don’t see race” “anti-racist” white circles, but because I am so afraid of doing it wrong.
Because it is so easy to do wrong. Kendra and Buffy I got down: Black and white. Not too hard3. Diego4 is Latino, or close enough (I hope). And anyone who we know well enough to tell us their race, then we use that. But people on the street? In a crowd? Is that person black? Arabic? Indian? (Is that even an appropriate term?) He looks Native American — but what about his tribe? Does he prefer Native American or American Indian, or…? And her: is she swarthy and kinky-haired and white? Black, white and Jewish? Him: Aboriginal? Actually African? And oh lord I think she’s from East Asia, but where? Is Asian enough? (Why can I probably get right French or English, but not Korean or Japanese?) How the hell do I do this??
I don’t know. Truly, I don’t. Race and ethnicity and nationality and identity are complicated enough when one can tell another clearly the words and terms one prefers; leave it to Clueless White Girl to name, or approximate, or guess, and, well… it’s not pretty. Or, possibly, wise. And yet, what are my other options? To remain silent, and let kyriarchy colonize my child unopposed? To pretend race doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter — or doesn’t affect him –, thereby guaranteeing his racism?
As always, it seems, I am left with this: it has to be enough that I am trying. It has to be enough that he will see the process, learn the reasons, if not be raised well then well enough to continue on the path towards basic decency himself. It has to be enough that when he says he is Kendra and he is Black he is affirmed, and when he says he is Buffy, he is asked her race. It has to be enough, because it’s all I have.
But I’ll keep looking for better.
- Take criticisms of my child’s viewing habits elsewhere. Or better yet, stuff ‘em. I’m not gonna defend it, I just don’t wanna hear about it. ↩
- Because speaking race is still uncomfortable to me, though getting ever less so the more I practice. ↩
- USians, quite rightly, are sometimes criticized for seeing all race issues as black and white (pun intended, I think). And while this has something to do with our long and ugly history of slavery and segregation (ignoring our long and ugly history of genocide and colonization), I sometimes think it’s also, in part, because clueless white folks (like yours truly) stand on far firmer ground naming “white” (us) and “black” (everyone part of the African diaspora, tribes and ethnicities and families and lineages ripped away from them, freeing us from having to make any finer distinctions). It’s not at all an excuse for not doing better, but I wonder sometimes if it’s part of an explanation. ↩
- From his video game, Diego Does Dinos, or whatever it’s called; he hasn’t seen Dora or Diego the shows, and I’m quite happy to keep it that way, thanks. ↩