Sciencewomen

I always feel acutely ignorant when I begin to talk about racial prejudice, diversity or discrimination. I grew up in a blindingly white hometown. In elementary school, my best friend was Indian – but she was part of one of two Indian families in town – both there because a parent was on the university faculty. I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever saw a person of African descent, it was the child of another faculty member. I didn’t hear much explicitly racist talk from friends or family, but minorities were so rare that maybe it just didn’t come up as a topic of conversation.

My monoculture childhood lies in stark contrast with Minnow’s surroundings. We live in a city that is only slightly more than half white, in a part of the country where race relations have historically been troublesome to say the least. Minnow’s classmates, teachers, and neighbors are of many different ethnicities. She hears both English and Spanish when we are in the grocery store, and she can start taking Spanish classes at age 2 in her daycare.

I hope that early exposure to people of lots of different skin tones allows Minnow to grow up “color blind,” without the prejudices that have afflicted our country for so long. With teachers and nurses and playmates of every color and religion from birth onwards, I hope that she will always see people as individuals and never even think to stereotype by ethnicity, religion, or race.

But I also worry that bringing her up in a tolerant, multi-ethnic environment will not be enough to escape the prejudices that still linger in our culture. The low-skill manual and service positions in this community are still dominantly held by Hispanics and African-Americans. Even though Minnow will know plenty of high-achieving people of all colors, will the pervasive exposure to minorities in subservient roles bias her views of them? How do I explain why in a way that is appropriate for her age (as she gets older)?

And, despite me proclaiming that our school and neighborhood are well blended, they are still definitely majority white. Yet, they are better blended than a lot of neighborhoods, restaurants, shopping areas, and recreational spots that Minnow will be exposed to as she grows up. Should I call her attention to that to point out inequities and de facto segregation? Or will pointing things out make her view the world in a racialized way?

Finally, with the long and troublesome history of segregation and discrimination in this part of the country, it is unrealistic of me to expect that Minnow will never be exposed to subtle or blatant racist comments. I’ve heard them already. How do I respond to comments like that in the presence of the speaker? How do I talk with Minnow about them later?

I have so much responsibility to bear for raising my child to be conscientious and empathetic, color-blind yet not ignorant of the past. I know I’m bound to stumble sometimes, but I hope that in the end I do a good job. I truly believe that our future depends on it.

Comments

  1. #1 Nic
    March 10, 2008

    It seems to me that the younger generations seem to not care as much about race. The tolerance is probably coming from a more integrated society, more mixing of races (which makes it more difficult to pigeon-hole people) and broader representation in the media. I think ignorance will always persist to some degree, unfortunately.

    If a rude comment is made in my presence, I usually reply with something indicating that I am offended and generally the person is apologetic. I think indicating to Minnow that those types of comments are ‘mean’ and ‘not nice’ can get the point across on a basic level. She will probably associated it with learning that making comments about people’s appearances is rude (usually you hear someone making fun of the kid with freckles, wearing glasses, etc), and not associated with a racial issue.

    If anything, her relationships with those outside her race will make her acutely aware of the discrimination that is faced by certain races. I also grew up in a predominately white area and didn’t realize the extent to which racism existed until dating someone non-white. It’s one thing to hear and be aware of what people think but it doesn’t make it any easier when it is directed at you.

  2. #2 Addy N.
    March 10, 2008

    Nice post! I have a different perspective on all of this, even though I grew up in very white areas and went to very white schools, because my husband is from East Africa and our daughter is biracial. We live a small college town, which has a mixture of faculty kids and rural white kids. My daughter first encountered racist comments from kids last year (in FIRST grade). I feel ill-equipped to help her deal with issues , so my husband talked to her about more. I think if I were not part of multiracial family, I would have the same concerns that you do about Minnow. I guess, I still do, since my daughter pretty much only interacts with white people (other than my husband). We are very sensitive about not judging people or making comments based on people’s appearances, so I hope that translates for her.

  3. #3 Ewan
    March 10, 2008

    My kid sister is black; 25 years ago, I spent a lot of time defending her from racist idiots and their culpable parents.

    My son is 5 (“No, Daddy! 5 point 3!”) – I don’t think that any of his friends or classmates, nor their parents, have ever made a single racist comment, and his friendset is widely mixed. It’s one of the things that has actually on occasion given me hope for progress in the world :).

  4. #4 agnostic
    March 11, 2008

    I hope that early exposure to people of lots of different skin tones allows Minnow to grow up “color blind,”

    On the contrary, it will make her more acutely attuned to the real differences between groups. We have no stereotypes of Martians (at least that we take seriously) because we have no experience of them. We become confident in our stereotypes when they are based on large samples across long stretches of time.

    The study by Putnam (of *Bowling Alone* fame) showed that trust levels are lower in more ethnically diverse areas.

    Inductivist went to General Social Survey data and found that a favorable attitude toward African-Americans correlates with living in an area that has few Af-Ams:
    http://inductivist.blogspot.com/2008/02/more-on-racial-idealism-agnostic-made.html

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    March 11, 2008

    It is important to recognize that “prejudice” is only one aspect of racism, and its elimination does not eliminate racism. The conflation of racism with “prejudice” is the root of a shitload of right-wing douchehoundery in relation to race.

  6. #6 Vancouver
    March 11, 2008

    I grew up in an ethnicallly diverse area – various types of white, Chinese, and Indian (from India). I find that I’m more colour blind that others who grew up in a homogeneous culture. For example, I have a friend from the Phillipines who always wants to know the ethnic background of others. I just don’t understand that perspective.
    When I was growing up, there were kids who celebrated Diwali, Christmas and Chinese New Year so we got to celebrate them all – a practice I’ve kept up. It may be easier because Canada sees itself as a mosaic and it isn’t strange to see different traditions.
    As a kid, I saw the differences in culture as something specific to that kid – just like some kids play soccer and some don’t. My parents never spoke to me about ethnic differences and that may have helped. When I saw ‘teasing’ about ethnicities, I thought it was like teasing about freckles and height. (If parents aren’t going to explain freckles, why would they explain wearing a turban? = kid thought)
    I don’t know if this helps you but I think growing up in a diverse neighbourhood helped me.
    (For the record: my husband is Japanese and we have adopted 2 children of different backgrounds (First Nations and West African) in addition to our biracial daughter.)

  7. #7 catswym
    March 12, 2008

    i grew up in a poor section of a neither urban nor rural city in CT which meant that the school and my neighborhood were fairly colorful. certainly the majority of folks were white there was definitely a significant population of people of color (mostly black and latino).

    anyway, my mom seemed to take the tactic of ignoring racism around me when i was very young. i’m white but several of my closest friends in elementary school were black. one for instance: my grandma is pretty racist and didn’t want one of my black friends hanging around her house with me after school. I noticed that my grandma was not friendly to my friend but i didn’t know why so i asked my mom. her reply was that “grandma just doesn’t like some people.” which made sense to me because i didn’t like some people too (no one likes everyone, right?). now i can clearly see the reasons behind it and i actually appreciate the approach my mom took because i feel like if she had said something like: grandma doens’t like black people it may have biased my own views.

    i was six or so at the time and obviously that approach is not appropriate for older kids.

  8. #8 Eric
    March 15, 2008

    Firstly-
    My son is 5 (“No, Daddy! 5 point 3!”)

    I hope my kids are like that! Oh wait, they’ll be my kids, they probably won’t have any choice.

    Secondly-
    I identify with growing up in a monoculture. We didn’t even have a large university to bring in a touch of diversity. However, I feel that I’m now completely insensitive to the subject of race. I can’t even really understand why people make a big deal about it. It doesn’t mean anything (to me), it is just skin color. I think this is common amongst people my age, but I am not sure if it is a good or a bad thing.

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