It was spring break in Washington and we were headed for the Museum of American History. I was looking forward to seeing Dorothy’s ruby slippers and I asked our daughter what she wanted to see.
“The lunch counter where blacks had the sit-in,” she replied. “If it weren’t for them, mom, we wouldn’t be able to have dinner together.” She was 10 and understood what color meant in America in a way that I, her blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white mother did not.
I learned many lessons about racism from raising an adopted, Latina girl. It began when people would stop me as I was pushing the shopping cart and ask “Does she look like her father?” I became so annoyed with the repetition of this scene that I started answering “I don’t know who her father is,” which changed their looks from puzzlement to moral indignation.
The most significant lessons she taught me were of my own unconscious racism. I remember one day when she was running around shouting and screaming in delight and I heard myself exclaim, “You’re acting like a wild Indian.” Shocked at my own words, I became more thoughtful about my language especially metaphors, similes and color symbolism.
But I couldn’t know what it was like to live in her skin. I didn’t know how to have the race talk about how to walk, drive, or act in public. Hispanic parents shared stories about their children confronting disparaging remarks and insults about Mexicans, and I found myself at a loss. I couldn’t comfort them much less prepare my daughter for what to expect.
So I exposed my daughter to as many different people as possible so she could hear their stories, read about lives, about how they marched for causes and fought for rights. We studied history together and traveled to other countries. And most important, I listened to my daughter’s stories, affirmed her feelings, and gave my unconditional love.
I could lend her the privilege of my education and social class, but I couldn’t protect her from racist remarks and acts. Our milieu was white, professional, upper middle class — mostly university professors, scientists, engineers and educators. Her classmates were predominantly white. But because Tucson was around 40 percent Hispanic, she was assumed to be Mexican, with the stereotype of stupid, lazy, troublemaker and economically disadvantaged.
My privilege was a double-edged sword insofar as what often brought her pain was the invalidation of her experiences. She was called a liar when she talked about traveling with her family to Europe. Her self-confidence was eroded when her peers wouldn’t trust her knowledge and experiences telling her “you don’t know what you are talking about.” In the fourth-grade social studies, her class was doing a unit on Egypt. Our daughter was very interested in mummies, and told us “Can you believe that I am the only student in my class who has seen a mummy?” We had visited the British Museum often when we lived in London and had been to the Louvre in Paris. Later she came home in tears after telling her class mates about cat mummies, what mummies looked like and some details about the mummification process; they didn’t believe her. As a teen, classmates were talking about going to an all-day, outdoor concert. The tickets were $20. When our daughter said, “I have the money for a ticket,” a white boy said “Where would you get that kind of money?” and several heads nodded — the presumption being stealing or dealing.
As her experiences and background were dismissed, she became anxious and wary when interacting with people outside of family and friends.
To be sure, some will say that these incidents were not related to my daughter’s race and ethnicity, which is another way of denying her experience. Clearly, she has many identities and characteristics that were relevant in social interaction from gender, race and ethnicity to her personality and fondness for wearing black T-shirts. While many of these characteristics and identities may have been called into play in any given situation, the consistent, persistent pattern of implicit and explicit assumptions and stereotypes about race, color, and ethnicity were what my daughter (and I) experienced day after day.
President Obama in his farewell address said that race relations are better than they were, but if they fail, our democracy fails. He called upon us to examine and change our feelings and beliefs: “Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”
Let’s begin by listening to the experiences of others, understanding what it is like to “walk around in their skin,” and validating what they feel. You can’t make people feel better by minimizing their experience or explaining what might have been going on. Ask what you can do for them and follow their lead.
If you see someone being bullied, harassed, or ridiculed in public because of their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, abilities, religion, intervene. You can stand close to the person being harassed and ask them a question. Or stand up and speak out. Look the bully in the eyes and tell them to stop their behavior (“That’s not okay.”)
Examine and acknowledge your own privileges and advantages. This reflection is not aimed at making you feel guilty. As you think about your privileges, identify resources that you may have (social class, education, networks, affiliations, positions) and think about how you can use those resources in reducing racial divisions. Join groups and organizations where you can be an ally to people who have fewer privileges.
Reflect on your own language and behavior. Acknowledge that we are influenced by popular culture, language and the media to incorporate racists images and expectations into our thoughts. Ask yourself if you know enough about a person and situation to make a judgment?
If we each can become more aware of and vigilant about our own, unconscious racism, we can create safer, more welcoming and healthier communities where people of all colors experience validation and support.
Patricia MacCorquodale is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.
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