Raising White Allies: Redefining “Us”

by Joanna Heath

A man on a train once told me that “bleeding-heart professors” must be to blame for my anti-racist views. His unsolicited comment was spurred by a civil rights-themed t-shirt I was wearing on a TriRail ride to a local university in the South Florida heat. I made an error in judgment by responding, giving him reason to continue. “Why not let them live their way and let us live ours?” he’d said, noticeably enunciating “them” in the direction of two black students sitting next to me.

His comments knocked the air out of me for a second, and stuck with me long afterward. Not because they were the first blatantly racist comments I’d heard or even the first that’d been directed at me personally, but because it struck me that that angry man believed he and I had more in common than I had with my fellow students, simply because we were both white and they weren’t. He’d meant to include me in the word “us,” as if his bitterness should be my bitterness — ours. I’d found myself bothered — even wounded — by that.

For the record, it wasn’t bleeding-heart professors. It was a boy named Thomas Ore, one of two black students in my fourth grade. The entire school had been let out to the blacktops after morning announcements to watch the shuttle launch from 50 miles away in Cape Canaveral. Kids scrambled to sit next to our friends in small groups, necks craned up at the morning sky, eager and amazed to be a part of a civilization so advanced that we could propel ourselves into space.

Thomas Ore walked shyly from circle to circle, looking for a group that would let him squeeze in. I stared down at the hot pavement beneath me until Thomas’s too-big Reeboks came into view and paused briefly at our group. I held my breath, feeling the weight of the kids on either side of me as everyone pushed in closer together, tightening the circle of exclusion to make sure Thomas knew he wouldn’t fit.

“Thomas ORE…more like Thomas Black-Like-Coal,” someone whispered as Thomas hung around awkwardly by the line of teachers. Everything inside my stomach and my throat felt acidic — sour, heavy, and urgent — but I kept my mouth closed, eyes averted.

After lunch that day, as we practiced fractions in the classroom, I’d gotten up to sharpen my pencil and inexplicably burst out crying in front of the whole class. At that moment I don’t think I knew what I was crying about. I’m not sure I connected the fact that my heart had been racing all morning to the incident with Thomas. I just felt infuriated. I felt… wrong.

That was in the 1990’s. While some may argue that, in many places, racism is no longer so overt, we’re still a long way from shaking the racial divisiveness that infected my fourth grade. Despite all of our brilliant advancements, at times it seems like this part of our humanity is evolving painfully slowly. At some moments it can even feel like we’re slipping backwards.

When I became a mother many years later, I found myself thinking about Thomas Ore often. Somewhere in the interim I’d been able to acknowledge and articulate what I hadn’t that day in fourth grade when everyone asked why I was crying: I’d been ashamed for letting myself sit there and be the “us.”

It embodied a truth that I knew I’d have to address in bringing up children in a world of lingering “us versus them” undercurrents: that racism comes not only in the form of ugly words and actions, but in silence and in complacency. This is why it isn’t enough to raise our kids to simply not be racist. We have to foster anti-racism.

Fostering anti-racism

The reality is that the nature of our current society virtually guarantees that our children will see color. In fact, psychologists and even neurologists studying children’s perceptions of race have shown that babies as young as three months old react differently to “other-race” faces. By the time they begin school, children are incredibly vulnerable to social cues and begin to self-identify racially and detect even the subtlest underlying indicators of bias and ideas of “otherness.”

But while the expert consensus is that age 5–8 is a critical period in which to lend context to the categorization and begin resisting the perpetuation of racism and racial hierarchy, one study showed that nearly 75% of white families admit they “never” or “almost never” discuss race with their children.

So why are we neglecting to have these conversations? Perhaps it’s because, as white parents, we have the luxury of not really having to think about race very often. Perhaps it’s because we think our kids are too young or we aren’t sure how to broach the subject organically.

For me, it was the naïve belief that, while my daughter was still young, I could show without telling. Having a blended extended family and a large group of friends ensured that my daughter had black role models, and we’d been lucky to live in an area diverse enough to provide our child with black authority figures. Somehow I convinced myself that if I could let experience negate this notion of racial differences, she’d be immune to inherently misguided ideas — and I could put off having an explicit discussion until she was older.

My daughter and her grandfather on Veteran’s Day

My naïveté was shattered when she entered kindergarten. We’d recently moved to a less-diverse town in a new state. My daughter invited my stepfather — a black Vietnam veteran and the only grandfather she has ever known — to attend a concert that her class was putting on in honor of Veteran’s Day.

As she spotted her beloved Papa and ran to present him with a tiny flag, a classmate asked her, “How come your Papa is black and you’re white?” Eyeing the nearby group of kids waiting wide-eyed for her answer, she went quiet, but looked extra-long at her Grandpa’s hand as she grasped it, as if she’d just been let in on a secret.

No one had ever asked my daughter why her eyes are blue and mine are green or why her hair is brown and her grandmother’s is blond, thus assigning a particular significance to skin color in her mind. Despite my best intentions and most fervent efforts, at just five years old, race — as an entity — had occurred to her.

A critical moment had come, and it was on me to decide how to confront it. We feel naturally compelled to keep our children insulated from unpleasant things, but eventually the illusions we try to create explode into flames. A second option is igniting a controlled burn.

If I pretended there was nothing to talk about, my child would inevitably draw her own conclusions from both the blatant and the discreet messages the world would deliver.

But if I taught her early on about racism and discrimination, I could teach her to never avert her eyes to it. I could teach her that the struggles against injustice and inequality don’t belong only to people of color, but to all of us together. I could define the “us” in terms of ally-ship, or I could let the worst tendencies of the world define it for her.

A few days later, as we sat in traffic together, I shut off the radio and told my daughter that I wanted to tell her a story. I shared my memory of my fourth-grade blacktop and Thomas Ore, wondering aloud how Thomas must have felt going to a school where not many other kids looked like him, and how it must have hurt to have other children not like him for no reason at all. I explained how I’d felt inside after just sitting there and watching the others treat Thomas unfairly, and how that made what I did just as wrong. When I was done telling the story, I paused and waited for her to speak.

“That’s not a nice story, Mom.”

“No,” I agreed. “But let’s make up a different ending,” I suggested, referring to a game we play when we’ve read the same book too many times but aren’t quite ready to put it away. “How should we change that story? What can we do differently?”

She turned her toy over in her hand thoughtfully, ultimately constructing a new version that was as simplistic as one would expect from a 5-year-old. But I’d made a point. I’d gotten her thinking. The dialogue had begun. I wanted her to know that throughout her lifetime, she would have to respond to different versions of that same basic question: What can we do differently?

To empower her to continue to think critically about the answers, I’ve since embraced the idea of teaching my child to celebrate the contributions of white activists against racism along with the work of the black heroes she learns about in school.

Initially, I was worried about sending a mixed message or inadvertently appearing to overshadow the accomplishments of black leaders. But as activist Tim Wise points out, “What if we learned of the alternative tradition in our history, the one in which members of the white community said ‘no’ to racism and white domination?” What if all children were able to see examples of people of all colors who stood up against injustice and resisted those who would have us divided? What if children learned to perceive white ally-ship as the standard?

In addition to names like Medgar Evers, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone and Bayard Rustin, we’ve begun teaching our daughter about Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, the Freedom Rider and Duke University student who, at 19, calmly endured violence in the name of civil rights at the famous Jackson Woolworth sit-in. We’ve watched archive footage of Will Campbell walk beside black students as onlookers heckled and threw bottles at the Little Rock Public Schools integration; we’ve read quotes from Anne Braden and Virginia Foster Durr, women who wrote and organized to support the efforts of black leaders in the South.

And we keep discussing the same question.

As parents, we try to send our children into the world with the very best of our values. The rest must be left, in large part, to blind faith. At some point, I cannot shield my child from the angry man on the train, or the misguided kids on the blacktop. I cannot even guarantee that she will not become indoctrinated with the notion that there is an “us” and a “them.” But if she does, I hope it will be those who have resisted injustice — black and white together — that she sees as the “us.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Photo of children standing in a circle courtesy Flickr user Simone.com