This white mom; talking racism.

I haven’t written directly about race and racism in a while.  I notice it all the time, all around me in all kinds of ways.  It is more striking and takes-my-breath-away–  not the in the good way, but more like having the wind knocked out of you, as my daughter gets older.  In other ways it is less startling and just more grinding as she gets older.  There is some way you always hope, when your child is very young, that she will somehow be the person who escapes the effects of the things you haven’t been able to change in the world.  I surely signed on for the job of mothering a daughter of color with my eyes open about racism and with the expectation that I would only learn more as I went.  I have definitely learned and seen more.  And more.

If I reflect on why, I think I have stepped back from writing about racism for a bit because I notice how defensive white people (of which I am one) generally feel when the subject is even mentioned.  It isn’t exactly that I want to save us from those hard feelings, I think we will not be able to end racism without feeling some very hard feelings.  But it is true that I keep trying to figure out a way to talk about these issues– and the racism that is all around us, before our very eyes–  in a way that my fellow white people will actually engage with and can actually hear.  Or sometimes I give up and retreat, but eventually someone asks me innocently, what I think of something– like how school or religious school or something is going for my daughter.  Then I go and open my mouth.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do enough emotional work on the subject that I don’t feel quite so, so badly about myself.  And not feeling so, so terrible about oneself (as a white person) seems to be one key to being a halfway decent ally as a white person to people of color.  Knowing solidly enough that you are a good person, despite racism (around you and your own) seems to be key to honestly facing what goes on and how you are a part of it.  And it does go on around me and I am a part of it– as well as a part of the work of the world to end racism.

There are things I can look at without going under emotionally.  I can face the fact that racism is not “out there” but right here– in all the institutions in which I participate, in the life I live.  It’s just braided right into the life I lead as well as out there in places I don’t ever go (also as a result of racism).  The world is still very heavily stacked against the flourishing and full humanity, dreams, self-determination and entitlement of people of color.  Like, for example, my daughter.  I don’t mean to sound hopeless here– or like she is a victim– neither is true in any way.  She is great and amazing and she is flourishing in so many, many ways.  But there is something about facing the fact that being adopted into a middle class white family doesn’t solve the racism she faces.  In a variety of ways it makes matters worse.

I have been fortunate to have a number of close friends of color who have been willing to forgive me my mistakes in the area of racism (mine).  I am certain there have been even more mistakes than I know and yet these friends and colleagues have hung in with me, talked openly (or at least I think somewhat openly with me), listened to my ideas and continued to tell me what they really think about various important things.

But on the home front with other white people, I’ve had quite a string of conversations over many months with white women who are parents in my daughter’s school, other white adoptive parents of young people of color, white women at our synagogue, and with good, progressive lesbian friends who are not parents and others.  We talk about issues I see in our school, our synagogue and elsewhere–and then the actual dialogue comes to a halt and the person I am speaking to starts to argue that what I see isn’t really there or isn’t racism.  They ask for specific evidence, they argue that my (admittedly often inept) descriptions of what I see that is so clearly the result of racism– is really something else– or that I have to offer proof that someone’s intent must be consciously racist for the effect to be racism, or they want me to be able to outline the plan of what should be happening differently.

My daughter has not escaped the piece of racism that is manifest in the fact that children of color struggle academically in school in numbers disproportionate to white children.  They call this the achievement gap.  The achievement gap doesn’t apply to someone else– she is in a catch- up reading program this year.  It’s a big intervention– she is pulled out of her regular classroom with a small group of other 4th graders for 75-90 minutes each day.  The independent data on the success of this program is quite underwhelming but schools have been buying and using it for over 10 years now.

Progressive educators have written about a wide array of concerns about the program– from ineffectiveness to racism resulting from the fact that to allow time in the schedule they pull kids from their “specials”; art, music gym– and in many schools, like ours– it isn’t the white kids who miss out on these opportunities; it’s a group of young people of color.  When we were told she was slated to participate we went through a lot of angst.  How we arrived at the reluctant conclusion to allow my daughter to try this out for one semester is another story that I may never write, though you can write me privately if you want to know it for some reason.

I do know a few things about the program first hand.  If my daughter was going to be in it, I wanted to observe it.  As a 4th grader, my daughter who loves to be with me, said it was too embarrassing to have me come to her class– so I have been helping out regularly in the 5th grade class.  In my daughter’s reading class there is one white child.  In the 5th grade reading class there are none. The young people are wonderful, lively, funny, very hard-working and often, I think, bored.  It has been– not surprising– a deep experience for me to be with this whole group of 5th grade young people of color.  I have put my own mind to the task of trying to think and learn about what it would mean to have this urban school really meet their needs.  And what is needed for no one to give up on them and more importantly for them to not give up on themselves or each other as brilliant learners and thinkers.

So why am I writing all this?  Well for one thing it is just always on my mind– as much as basketball and sadness at the turn of the year; as much as poems and reflections about writing and blogging.  I had gone silent out of the fear that someone would say, “Can she ever stop talking about that?”   I debated about whether to write this because it hauls a struggle that my daughter and sometimes I, would probably prefer to keep quiet about– right out into the light.  But I don’t actually think this is just a personal struggle of hers.  It’s our struggle;  our collective racism and effects of racism, our collective problem to solve– for my daughter and for all young people– especially young people of color.  So I just decided it was time to speak up again.  That’s what I call getting the new year off to a good start.

2 responses to “This white mom; talking racism.

  1. Hi Laura, I was just thinking about you as I read through the most recent issue of BRIDGES, which has a really good article about just what you are talking about, by Marla Brettschneider who has two daughters of color and she really lays out the subtleties of racism that her children and thus she, experience. I was going to send you the reference even before I read your most recent post.
    I do have one question that is not clear in your writing. Are you suggesting that the reading difficulty your daughter is experiencing is a result of racism — or is it the way it is being handled that results is a subtle or not so subtle marking of children who turn out to be mostly of color? Is the achievement gap solely the result of racism? since there are also children who are not of color who have similar difficulties, there must be other factors that go into this as well. I think it might be important to clarify this.
    Love, Evi

    • Evi, It is so good to hear from you. I am digging through my Bridges– and I cannot find what I think may be the most recent edition– I wonder if I let my subscription expire? I want to read the article you mentioned, so I’ll have to go searching for it. But I really want to thank you for raising the question you raised– and I will see if I can write something articulate that will further illuminate my own thinking on this. I have a leg up wanting to communicate with you, in particular, as the reader, because I know you and know that we see eye to eye on some of what I want to write about– since I learned so much of the foundations of this in feminist studies classes that you taught! I don’t know what you will think of the way I see this topic.

      Here is a little more about how I think about the question of whether racism is solely responsible for individual children’s learning struggles. If you think about violence against women, there is violence perpetrated against men, against young boys– against everyone. But in any instance when violence is perpetrated against a woman by a man I think sexism is always part of the picture– a key part of the dynamic that fuels the violence. Or to put it differently; as a group, women’s entire relationship to violence is completely shaped by sexism. Is sexism the only cause of violence against women? I don’t know how to even think about that kind of question, but I do feel clear that all violence against women is exists completely within the historical and current context of sexism. Or conversely that if sexism ceased to exist tomorrow and if we women instantly forget all the experiences we have had in relation to violence from the past– our relationship, as women, to our selfhood and our physical power and our physical safety would completely change. Completely. Do young boys and teen boys and men face violence? Yes, absolutely they do. And is that a result of sexism? No. So it isn’t that all violence is as a result of sexism– and women face violence from other women too– but it just seems so clear that for women the landscape of violence– when we face it, what it feels like, how we respond or don’t– all exists very completely in the context of sexism.

      So to move to the question of whether I am saying that racism is solely responsible for my daughter’s reading struggles. I guess I would say yes– and no– and I would say it’s complicated– not quite direct like — you hit my thumb with a hammer and my thumb swells up and doesn’t work so well anymore. And yes there are white children with similar learning struggles and there are many, many children of color who have no such struggles– but I assume, given the pervasiveness of this struggle among children of color– that racism is inescapably part of the picture– part of the cause.

      And just to be clear, I do not think that means I throw up my hands and stop trying to help her learn to be a great reader– we do all kinds of tutoring and extra work at home and a variety of other supports. We think a lot about how to help move her forward in spite of the struggle. At home we are focused on reading, not so much on racism. But it also helps and also hurts– to think about this not solely as an individual struggle, just as each woman who faces domestic violence has things to figure out for her own life, but is not exactly up against a singular, private struggle either. So now you tell me, does that help clarify? And what do you think? With love, Laura

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