“We did everything…” from the book Lord Of The Flies by William Golding 1954
I saw a post on Facebook that read “if black and brown children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it.” In Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, her whole premise is that white people believe themselves entitled to safety and comfort when it comes to confronting race. Since white is seen not as a race itself, but merely the baseline for humanity, white people who’ve grown up cloistered with only other white people see themselves as innocent of any knowledge of or complicity in racism. Black people who’ve similarly come of age in all black surroundings are not afforded the same pass. Therefore, as it concerns children, this innocence we speak of appears to only be a birthright of whites.
There are a lot of videos on various social media platforms with very young children of different races holding hands, embracing in enthusiastic hugs, or claiming to be undetectable twins because they’re wearing the same outfit. They usually have captions about the beautiful naivete of colorblindness. One of my favorite memories is of an afternoon I was at the home of a white friend whose baby was just at that stage where she was experimenting with this whole thing called “walking.” I was on the floor, back against the wall with my black legs stretched out. She wobbled over, bent down, stretched out her tiny little index finger and swiped my shin. She looked curiously at her finger as if expecting some of my color to rub off. She stared confused for about ten seconds, decided this mystery of why I was so much darker than anyone else she knew wasn’t going to get solved today, and went on as unattached as anything to the next grand curiosity of life puzzling her. What was so humorously beautiful about that encounter for me was witnessing this child noticing our difference, but with a complete lack of needing that difference to mean anything. About me, or her. Kids are aware of differences. Earlier than we realize though, they pick up some notions about what those differences mean.
In my 20’s, I and a white girlfriend were poking around the tourist-y part of Niagara Falls with her two children. I was holding the hand of her little boy. He was walking but not fully verbal yet so I guess he was around three years old. As we strolled from shop to shop it became impossible not to notice that white people were observing the two of us out of the corners of their eyes. I could feel it through the back of my head even, as if they were wondering “is that her child? What decent white man lowered himself enough to impregnate that trash?” Without me saying or doing anything, even the three year old picked up on their reproaching glances. Just to be a little smarty pants he giggled, squeezed my hand a little tighter, and at the top of his lungs shouted “mommy!” He wasn’t old enough to put together coherent sentences, but even at that age he was already aware that the two of us together meant something and he was in a position to screw with people about that meaning. That kid was not innocent.
For years I worked as a live-in nanny. I was in a white suburb with a well off family from India. In some random conversation, the American born ten year old daughter said to me just as matter of fact as you please “everyone knows it’s all the black people committing all the crimes anyway.”
Everyone knows, she said. She was getting this message, with certainty, as were all the kids she associated with. I was caught quite off guard. The rules of engagement under white fragility were well understood by me to mean that I couldn’t make her uncomfortable in any way or my livelihood and living situation could be in immediate jeopardy. She was entitled to her “innocence,” born of ignorance. I was deserving of no more than as much would protect the innocence of her youth, and it was my job to bear the sting on my race and keep the peace.
I worked for another white family where the mom was a Harvard educated doctor with the CDC. There were three kids. I usually had my wards address me as Miss Nan. Adding Miss lets the kids know look, I’m not a circus clown your parents hired to entertain you. I’m a grown-ass woman. When I tell you to do something, it’s because I’m responsible for your safety and well being. I don’t imagine they called their teachers at school by their first names so surely the idea of adding an honorific when addressing an adult was nothing new to them.
Ay dios mio, the hoops these kids jumped through to avoid calling me Miss were insanely extravagant. When speaking to me, they’d start in the middle of the sentence and skip over mentioning my name all together. If they were a distance from me where they’d need to call me in order to get my attention, they’d instead stop what they were doing and place themselves in my eyesight before starting to talk. Anything to avoid the debasement of addressing this lowly house worker with some dignity and respect. Already they knew they were white, I was black, and that distinction had meaning.
I was teaching the kids a new card game. While dealing the next hand, the ten year old boy prattled “this must be some affirmative action kind of game and that explains why you’re winning.” Dr. Mom was in the room and didn’t utter a word. With having a roof over my head on the line, I understood that it was my job to lodge this kid’s “innocence” and bear the tasteless joke with grace. If he felt a plenary lack of censure saying that not only to me but in front of his mother, imagine what the non-white kids in his circle are expected to put up with on a daily basis. The white fragility rules of engagement are learned early by them too, and they understand they’re not entitled to the same “innocence” as their white friends.
In the late 90’s I was a regular attendee of a Unity Church. My white boyfriend Donald was the coordinator for kids’ learning. One Sunday morning I was sitting next to Donald, and in answering a white kid’s question he very ordinarily referred to me as his girlfriend. “That can’t be your girlfriend,” the white kid blurted out. I asked why not. He just sat there closed mouthed and dumbfounded. He knew there was something out of place about his white teacher and a black woman being together but he didn’t have the verbiage for it at the tip of his young tongue. Despite our involvement in a particularly progressive church, there was nothing innocent about the racial messages this kid was already picking up about the world.
Kelly Ann Lamb of Easton, MA, founded an organization called Raising Multicultural Kids after she and her husband, both white, adopted three children. The oldest two are of mixed heritage with skin that easily blends into their 90% white town without notice. The youngest, “April”, is as dark as me. Kelly told us in one of my Sunday webinar sessions of “April” being followed around at a children’s party by a white boy calling her mud face. Another white girl told her daughter that, because of her skin color, she looked like poop. For nearly two weeks, whenever the family went out together “April” refused to remove her coat and show her dark skin. Already the white kids around her were picking up the societal message that the difference in their skin colors meant something and that could be used to hurt others and elevate themselves. Already “April” was learning that it was her job to change and shrink herself to manage white people’s discomfort around her because her very safety was at stake. It doesn’t matter where in particular these white kids were getting it from. DiAngelo says messages of superiority rain down on white people from everywhere in our culture. Those messages reach babies as young as three, as the Niagara Falls episode shows us.
On their last day of kindergarten, a white classmate called Kelly’s daughter a nigger.
I want you to really chew on that. The last day of school. That kid was so aware of the power of that word, he consciously sat on it until the last day of school when he could know the repercussions of using it were unlikely to have time to blow back on him. Kids raised in all white enclaves are not innocent folks, not at all. They’re just misinformed, because the comfort and investment in an aggrandized self identity as good people on the part of the adults in their lives is more important than telling kids the truth.
Kelly’s message is a paraphrased version of the Facebook post I quoted at the beginning of this piece. If her child is young enough to be experiencing these racially insensitive occurrences, with such frequency no less, then your white children are cognizant enough for you to begin to have real conversations with them about race. As for how to go about these conversations, hey, I’ve done my work for the day. Now it’s time for you to Google or make the trip to your local library or bookstore. I will say though that I think the most important change you can make is this. Look around at your social circle and begin to be intentional about making access to non-white people common place in your family’s every day lives.