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.