A Response to ‘Are We Raising Racists?’
This piece is written as a counter opinion to Jennifer Harvey’s Op-Ed in the New York Times.
As I write, my 14-year-old niece is sitting next to me playing the new Legend of Zelda on my TV. It’s Spring Break and she’s done with her chores, studies, and responsibilities. I figured why not let her have some fun with the new thing everyone is talking about. She’s giggling like mad, being a teenager and having fun. She’s completely engrossed herself into the Legend of Zelda lately, and has decorated her bedroom in Zelda memorabilia and more. As a parent I find myself partially annoyed, and simultaneously happy at watching her develop her interests and grow into a person with her own tastes, likes, and dislikes. However, our interests have grown even closer as video game fans. We spend time talking about how games work and why, what is new and hot and what is not. On the surface most people would probably say that we are as different as they come. I’m a fairly fit middle-aged black male and she’s a fairly slim pale white female. That is where the majority of our differences come to an end. Every time I turn around, I’ll hear her using a manner of speech that is strikingly similar to mine, or she’ll gesture in a way that no one could mistake as not being an imitation of how I emote. I can’t help but find myself flooded with memories of her being such a small child that I took under my wing years ago.
My wife and I took on the responsibility of helping raise my niece when her single father asked for help. We’ve raised and mentored her through the most critical parts of her early childhood and now teen years, and it just gets better with time. Parenting her has been the biggest and most difficult challenge of my life, but also the most rewarding. What makes it all come together is that we don’t spend our time viewing each other through a racial lens. We look at each other as the family that we are.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve picked up this kid and tucked her into bed after she’s nodded off on the couch, or how many times she’s woken up with nightmares and come to wake me up to make her feel better. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve spent coddling a sick child, covered in eczema patches or running an awful fever from the flu. The worry that comes from things like “Does she need to get new glasses this year”, to “I want her to have good grades” is a feeling that almost every parent can identify with. What I can tell you is that race was the last thing on my mind during those moments, because they’re all things that can affect nearly any child regardless of their skin color.
When I speak with friends and family, they tend to be surprised at how easy of a time I have when it comes to raising her, especially with the overt racial differences. I simply tell them, “We just talk about being human. The race part doesn’t matter as much as you think.”
I’ve spent time teaching her about my life and what I’ve learned, what it was like growing up poor, and even experiencing homelessness. She’s seen the schools that I attended, and the places that I spent my childhood in. I’ve told her about the things that I’ve seen, and all the mistakes that I’ve made and why. I’ve given her the context of what kind of life I’ve lived, and why I make the decisions that I do and why I have the beliefs that I have. I teach through informing her of what people do and why they do those things, even if I don’t agree with them.
I’ve taught her about the dangers of different kinds of extremist behavior, how people can jump to wild conclusions when they’re afraid, and the horrors that come when people focus so hard on race that they completely and utterly forget that we are all people. Some of the most difficult moments I’ve had in raising this now young woman were the ones where I would teach her about historical moments where race issues were front and center. Times like when I taught her about the Los Angeles Riots in the 90’s, explained the racial tension that occurred in the United States during the Vietnam War, or why people fell into a panic during the aftermath of 9/11 before her birth. They weren’t negative moments, but they were opportunities when I was able to better illustrate how people can be when fear takes hold and ignorance runs rampant. Even with all of that history, the one thing that I utterly refuse to do is tell her that she should hate herself for being born as something that she didn’t ask to be:
Being born white.
It seems like every other day, I turn around and see another article or a video where an utterly self-hating pundit with untold amounts of white guilt insists that ‘white people’ are the cause of all the world’s ills. Even now, there are people writing articles and opinion pieces that spend their time cramming self-hatred down their children’s throats. It has to stop. You’re not solving the problem; You’re perpetuating it.
I suppose I have to posit the question; Why would you tell your child that they are the cause of everything wrong in the world? That is not parenting from a place of love and affection; that is parenting from a place of hatred and division.
I’ve heard it said many times before, but I now truly understand what is meant when people say that children are ‘innocent’; They are clean-slates. They come into the world without bias and they wait for input from us. The adult that a child will grow into will be a stark reflection of what was put into them. They are like sponges, hungry for information and understanding. They love to learn and take all the knowledge that is offered to them. With this in mind, it is disturbingly easy for a child’s mind to be corrupted by ill-guided and misinformed messaging. The kind of message that could cause them problems for a long, long time.
This doesn’t mean that discussion of race doesn’t have a place in the home, or in education. It’s important for children to learn about the time that came before them and the different horrors that have happened throughout history, so that we might not repeat them. We don’t teach that lesson by holding them accountable for the things that they didn’t do. We teach them these lessons by taking the time to point out what happened and why, highlighting the errors and mistakes that people made, and giving them positive messaging that inspires them to do better. We should not fill them with guilt, but fill them with the idea of hope and drive to create a better community around them. You do this by starting with a foundation made of respect for all human beings no matter who they are.
I raise this young woman the way that I do because if everything were focused on the fact that she is female and white, then she would never be able to see herself as being capable of more than that. When I look at her, I see a confident and talented person. I see the beginnings of a soon to be adult that has the capability to lead when others won’t, a young woman that has the confidence to stand up for herself, and knows how to set boundaries. She’s funny, smart, and thoughtful of others.
I believe that in this, I’ve been successful in parenting a child of a different race. We’ve taught her that the context of what a person says carries significant weight, and that the actions of a person matter more than anything else. You know, that whole “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” thing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr talked about.
As a 14-year-old today, I can see the effectiveness of all that I’ve taught her. When she introduces my wife and I to people, she does so with pride. When she hears that people get weirded out about the idea of a mixed-race marriage, she shakes her head out of frustration with the idea that people would care about the color of people in a marriage that doesn’t involve them in the first place.
She has friends from every race and sex, and always wants to make sure people feel included. When I ask her why she has chosen a particular person to be her friend, she says “Because they’re a good person with good character.” What more could a parent ask for? Not much. We didn’t accomplish this by pushing self-hatred into her mind. We achieved it by starting with the most important common trait we have: We’re all human.
As I finish writing this out, she’s asleep in her bed, gone to the world. I’m glancing around my office space, and I see her art class project from a few years ago. Her assignment was to draw a portrait of someone she admires and is inspired by, in charcoal. I remember that she got docked a few points on the assignment because she didn’t make it dark enough. As I stare at this charcoal drawing of myself, I can’t help but think that it’s perfect. Every silly, goofy little detail of my face is shockingly accurate. From the slight crook of my glasses, to the iconic swoop of my hair, right down to the weird angle that the corner of my mouth sits, it’s me. Who cares if the skin isn’t shaded enough in charcoal, of all things? She captured the funny little details that make my face mine.
I’m the person that inspires her. Not the ‘person of color’, not the ‘African-American’, nor any other silly politically correct label that some might try to apply. I get to spend every day trying my hardest to live up to the image that she has of me, and it’s worth doing. Sometimes I may stumble, but every day is an opportunity to be the very best that I can be and be a man worthy of that admiration.
And our races had nothing to do with it.