Community building requires community healing. And what does that look like?

"Staying ‘home’ and not venturing out from our own group comes from woundedness, and stagnates our growth. To bridge means loosening our borders, not closing off to others….To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded."- Gloria Anzaldua

"Quedarse en la casa'' y no aventurarse fuera de nuestro propio grupo viene donde estamos heridos y proviene nuestro crecimiento. Para hacer puentes signifa que abriemos mas de nuestras fronteras y que no cierremos a otros… Para hacer puentes es intentar comunidad, y para eso tenemos que corre el riesgo de ser abierto a personal, político y espiritual intimidad, a correr el riesgo de ser heridos. "
Gloria Anzaldua

Everybody is waiting for the movement to happen ! And we dont realize we are the movement. Its me and you coming together and having some honest and maybe painful truthtelling between us. But there is probably some beautiful thing we will create together as a result. I want to speak to each person in my community.Let's get the party going.

Todo el mundo está esperando a que el movimiento a ocurrir! Y nosotros no darse cuenta de que somos el movimiento. Comienza la communidad cuando usted y yo tienemos algunos conversaciones doloroso pero verdarosos . Pero es probable que algunos bellos cosas que es probablemente vamos a crear juntos . Quiero hablar con cada person en mi communidad.Vamos a comienzar esta fiesta !

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How Do Children See Race?

by Dr. Marguerite A. Wright

Printed with permission from Dr. Marguerite A. Wright's book I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla, available here.

Note: This section, titled "Do White Children See Race Differently?" concludes the first section of Dr. Wright's book, in which she outlines the developmental steps in which young children first perceive skin color and race, and the meanings they attach to these attributes. Dr. Wright has outlined her advice on how to raise black and biracial children (and indeed, all children) with as little racial bias as possible in our race-conscious world, and ends her section on preschoolers with this passage. We highly recommend the book to parents of every ethnic background.

Johnny Lee, a white man who was a former imperial wizard and a founder and recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan Youth Corps, vividly remembers his experience when he was five and saw a black man for the first time. Johnny said to his father, "Look, Daddy, there's a chocolate-covered man." Daddy replied, "No, son, that's a nigger." Lee said that it was at that moment that "the seeds of hatred" were planted that resulted in his life in the Klan, a life he later repudiated.

Unlike young Johnny, white children who have not been sensitized to race ascribe little importance to skin color.

Relatively few studies have been done on how children of other races, including whites, become aware of racial differences. Those available suggest that skin color is not as salient an issue for white children at the early grade-school stage of development as it is for blacks. It is understandable that young white children do not tend to regard skin color as important, since racial prejudice is generally not a factor in their lives.

I am impressed by how little race seems to matter to many of the white young grade-schoolers I encounter. Most of them, from families of friends and acquaintances, attend integrated schools or live in mixed-race communities. Their answers to my question about race are similar to Ian's, a six-year-old white youngster. Ian described the colors of the white and black people as, respectively, "whitish" and "brownish"; he can identify the "Chinese" people and says that he has friends who speak Spanish, although he doesn't have a special name for them. Like black children who do not come from racially obsessed families, Ian did not spontaneously describe or categorize people by skin color or race. Despite my repeated promptings, Ian could not think of a single way, other than skin color, in which blacks and whites differed. Although his level of understanding about how people get their color and his awareness of the existence of different racial groups was similar to that of black children, skin color did not seem as emotional an issue for him as it was for some blacks.

I have heard of Latino and Asian children for whom "race" became an emotional issue when they were subjected to teasing and other mean behavior because of their accents, their limited fluency in English, their different types of dress or the lunches they bring to school. Fortunately, however, most early grade-schoolers, regardless of race, do not seem to have stereotypes of themselves or of people who are different colors. Like preschoolers, they are inclined to see people as individuals rather than as members of a group--color, racial or otherwise. Because of this developmental advantage, these early years are an optimum time for children of different races to get to know each other, before they become aware of the stereotypes that in time will rob them of their racial innocence.

I suspect that children in other countries with a history of racial discrimination develop race awareness in ways similar to American children. Several years ago, I met a lovely white six-year-old at the home of friends of friends while visiting Australia. From the start, she seemed very comfortable with me, unlike a few of the adults, all gracious people, who it seemed to me were trying a little too hard to appear at ease with a black person. Circumstances led to my spending much of the afternoon talking and playing games with her. It wasn't until much time had passed and we rejoined the adults' conversation that she began to ask me about myself.

First, she asked questions about my skin color (like "How did your skin color become brown?" and "Will it change back?"). Next, she asked me about my full lips. Her parents understandably were discomfited by her questions and took turns trying to dissuade her from asking me anything else. Actually, it was quite amusing. The parents were growing increasingly tense trying not to offend me, while their daughter, oblivious to their discomfort, became increasingly more persistent in her questioning. To make matters worse, their guest was not being very cooperative with the parents' efforts to restrain their daughter.

In spite of my assurances that I didn't mind answering the questions, the parents continued to try various strategies to silence their daughter, all the while doing their utmost not to appear anxious. Eventually, they found some pretext to escort her from the room. She had never seen, much less talked to, a black person before, and her curiosity was perfectly normal. I knew that to her, skin color and lip shape were just physical attributes, not the hot potatoes they were to her parents. When we said good-bye later that day, I felt a tinge of sadness; I wondered if I visited her again several years in the future whether she would see my color more than she would see me.

Even at this stage of development, children who have not been exposed to the racial prejudices of their family and society retain the remarkable gift of obliviousness to the social baggage attached to race. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, author and nationally syndicated talk show host, once told a marvelous story on her show about a childhood incident that illustrates this point. When she was a girl, she had a piano teacher named Charlie. Whenever he came to her home to give her piano lessons, he greeted her younger sister by hoisting her on his shoulders. One day, about a year after Laura had been taking lessons, Charlie did not hoist her sister on his shoulders. Instead, he bent down and gave her a candy. Her sister said, "Charlie, your hands are black!" This was the first time her sister had noticed Charlie's skin color despite all the time they has known each other. Although she had been oblivious to his different skin color when she was younger, as she grew older, she was developmentally able to see the difference. Dr. Schlessinger concluded: "Racism is not congenital; it has to be learned."

Inoculating Our Children Against Racism

by Patty Wipfler

Children are not, by nature, racist. Nor are they born with damaging assumptions about people in any definable group. We all begin with a winning trust in others, an expectation that people will be good to each other, and that life with others will be safe and fun. When a child feels close to his parents, gets to play freely with lots of laughter, gets plenty of affection, and has sensible limits set by grown-ups who don't attack him, a young person can feel at home with himself, and relaxed with others.

Contrary to popular belief, children have a keen inborn sense of justice. They are built to protest loudly when they or someone else is being treated badly. This sense of justice runs deep. You probably can remember times in your childhood when you or someone you cared about was attacked, verbally or physically. You didn't have to be told that this treatment was wrong and should be stopped immediately. You just knew. We don't have to teach children respect for people of other races and abilities: we simply need to preserve their trust in themselves and others, and their inborn sense of justice. If a child feel safe and strong, he will respond with indignation to racism, whether it's directed at him or at someone else. He will know that the racist attitude he has witnessed is poison, and won't adopt it as his own.

Treating Children with Respect

Children are able to retain their keen sense of justice if they are treated with respect. Respectful treatment that inoculates a child against racism means several very specific things:

  • The child is appreciated for who he is, regardless of what he can or can't do.

  • The child is not typecast: generalizations like "shy," "loud," "bossy," are not used, and put-downs like "bratty," "whiny," and "stupid" are also off-limits.

  • The child's curiosity is supported: when questions are asked about why people look or act the way they do, those questions are warmly answered at a level the child can understand. In other words, it's OK to be interested in all aspects of being human.

  • The child is not compared to others, and judgments like "bad," "good," "better," and "best" aren't used to classify him or other people. This means, for instance, that when asked why some people have to go to jail, saying that those people have done something seriously hurtful to someone else, not that those are bad people. Or asking a child who is kicking others under the dinner table to wrap his legs around the chair legs, rather than telling him he's a bad boy.

  • The child is not intimidated for having upsets about the things that matter to him. In particular, the child is allowed to express feelings with crying, tantrums, and "freedom of the mouth" while crying or tantruming. You, as parent, will often set limits that upset your child: that's your job, and it's an important one. However, your child's job is then to blast away the bad feelings that those limits bring forth, so he can recover his sense that you care and that his life is a good one. Crying, tantruming, and raging with permission, during the upset, to tell you fully how he feels, is a healing and cleansing process which restores your child's sense that his life is good, and his trust in you and others.

  • The child is not hit, slapped, threatened with physical attack, or shamed and blamed verbally. This kind of attack by adults on children leaves big emotional scars on children, and impresses them with the notion that some people deserve to be called "bad" and then mistreated.

In short, what makes children vulnerable to racism is to treat children like we are better than they are, we know better than they do, we are more important than they are, our feelings have more validity than their feelings.

Racism "Piggybacks" on Early Mistreatment and Fears

Racist attitudes and stereotypes, and, for children of color, the internalizing of racist attitudes, are what we call "piggyback hurts." The mechanism of racism works like this:

  • A child has bad experiences, either at the hands of adults or during threatening accidents or illnesses. He carries feelings of being terrified, separate, helpless, and unable to fight for himself. These feelings can be kicked into play by small incidents like not getting the first turn at bat, or losing his lunch pail, or having heard a fight between his parents. His fears make him withdraw at times, and at other times, those fears make him aggressive and angry.

  • When any child witnesses racism, it scares him. The racism fastens onto fears that have cracked a child's confidence in himself and others, like a secondary infection invades an open wound. He doesn't feel good enough or strong enough to reject racist mistreatment and protest it. So the words, tones, and attitudes are imprinted in his mind, along with another dose of fear.

  • If he is a child of color, his fears have propped the door open for the racist tones, words, and stereotypes to enter his mind and become part of how he thinks about himself and his people. When he feels upset, separate, afraid, or angry, he will believe the racist content. A child of color who is feeling upset will act out the oppressor role of racism, targeting either himself or other children of color.

  • A white child's fears also make him vulnerable to adopting racist tones, words, and stereotypes. When a white child feels separate, scared, or disconnected, he tries to escape these feelings by playing out the oppressor role he has been frightened by. The intensity of his actions will reflect how deep the fears are that the child carried before the racism he witnessed gave those fears a racial twist.

Listen to the Feelings to Heal the Child

The key activity parents can adopt is to LISTEN to children's feelings so that they can heal from their fears and upsets, no matter what the content of these upsets.

  • When a child has been hurt in an interaction with another child, whether racist content was part of the incident or not, both children need to talk about what happened, and supported to cry, tantrum, or rage. Support the child's inborn sense that you care and people can be trusted to be good at heart with messages like, "You can talk to her about this," "What do you want to say to her?," "How did that feel to you?," "I'm so sorry you two had trouble--you're both so fine," "Let's finish getting mad right now, so you don't have to always be mad at her," "I'll help you talk to her in a little while, when you're ready."

  • Don't assume that because a racial epithet was used, or because the children who collided are of different races, that this is a racial incident. It's much better for children if we deal with them as individuals, not as members of a racial group. Children don't relate to the concept of racial identity until they are 8 to 10 years old, and even then, the antidote to racism is seeing and caring about the person.

  • Role play so that your child gets to play-act at having the upper hand with the child he felt hurt by. Pillow fights are great for helping your child playfully take a powerful role in sticking up for himself. Don't worry about "bad" words and epithets when you're giving him this time to vent. See what you can do to promote laughter. Laughter while in the more powerful role releases children's fears and helps them regain their sense of connection to you. They need to know you care about them before they can have faith in anyone else in their world.

Protect Children from Exposure to Racism

The two most powerful purveyors of racism in our children's lives are the media and the adults they know. Since racism scares children, the older they are before they encounter it, the more able they are to understand that only people who are afraid would act like that.

Since fairy tales, TV, videos, and video games all are full of messages of fear, and fear lays fertile ground for the isms, it makes sense to strictly limit our children's exposure to infection from these sources. This will make your family different from other families: being different is great practice for standing up, kindly and firmly, for ourselves and what we believe.

Parents of color can work to interrupt internalized racism, the use of racial put-downs by people of color toward other people of color. This means standing up to family members who say, "Aw, you know I don't mean anything by it!," and, "Hey, he's going to hear this anyway. Might as well hear it from me!" We also have to keep working through the hatred of ourselves that is usually the root cause of those put-downs. Children are not "toughened up" by racism coming from their folks. They are hurt and confused by it. Fear and anger grow between them and their loved ones who treat them this way, however well-intentioned they are.

White parents can acknowledge their own fears and talk about them openly and regularly with a good listener. We feel so separate, so afraid, so empty of culture, and often, so superior. We've been forced into those feelings. The only way out is to notice our own uptightness, find a listener (NOT a person of color), and try to locate the real feelings behind the tightness. We also need to know that our fears need not stop us from getting to know people of color, from making friends, from making the mistakes that are necessary for us to learn new people and new things.

All parents can build friendships with people who are different from them. Friendship--relaxed, unguarded human contact--is at the heart of undoing racism and every other ism. We isolate our children when we leave it to them to make friends with people from diverse backgrounds. The most powerful modeling we can do is to reach out and bumble around until we've managed to trust and enjoy people who are different from us. White people can encourage each other and be listeners for each other in these efforts; people of color can support each other, too, and listen to the pain and memories of bad experiences that will inevitably arise as steps toward friendship are bravely taken.

All parents can refer to others as individuals, and not by race. We can keep acknowledging that people act thoughtlessly because, once upon a time, they were themselves harshly treated, and they haven't had the chance to heal. A policy of dealing with difficult incidents, detail by detail, with faith that the people involved can certainly work out their upsets and come to understand each other is one which can disarm stereotyping. We need to work on our own feelings of worry and fear to stay hopeful for our children, and active in taking initiative to help people see each other as friends and allies.