Let’s Talk

“Ruby, what do you think about people who have a different skin color?”

I asked her totally out of the blue. We were driving home from an afternoon of running errands. And it was just on my mind, so I asked.

“Well, I don’t really know. It depends.”

“Hmm. Could you explain that?”

“Well, I mean, most of the time I don’t really think anything. But I do feel bad, because it’s usually the first thing I notice…like whether someone has the same color of skin as me or if it’s different.”

“Oh! Well that’s totally okay, honey. Scientific studies have shown that our brains naturally see those differences right away. There is nothing wrong with noticing that someone is different from you. If you tried to pretend there was no difference, that would be kinda silly.”

“Yeah! Because it’s totes obvious that Jason’s skin is different than mine.”

“Did you just say, ‘Totes’?”

“Yeah…”

“Please don’t ever say that again. Moving on…”

“Yeah, well, it’s really obvious that my skin isn’t the same as Jason’s or Abby’s. But, like, Thea and I are exactly the same. I mean, like, our hair and eyes and faces are even the same.”

“That’s sorta true. You guys could be sisters.”

“Yeah, so when it’s my friends, I notice that they look different than me or the same as me, but I don’t really think anything about it. I care a lot more whether they’re kind to me or nice to me at recess.”

“Well, that makes sense. And I think that’s really great.”

“But there are times when I feel a little scared.”

“When is that?”

“Well, when someone looks sorta tough. You know what I mean? When they’re a lot bigger than me and they have tough-looking clothes on. I feel a little scared, like maybe they’re going to be mad at me because of all the bad stuff that people with white skin did before me. And I don’t wanna get slammed against a wall or anything. You know? Because they don’t know me. They don’t know that I really don’t care about their skin. They might just think that I’m like those bad people from before. Or they might be mad because I don’t have to deal with all that. You know?”

Y’all.

Y’all.

Out of the mouths of babes.

She’s seven, and she’s got a hefty dose of white-guilt coursing through her veins. It automatically puts her on edge around people with different shades of skin. And mostly, society has told her to just be quiet about it. Otherwise, things might get a little “aw-kward”, as my son would say.

So I’m bucking the trend that society prefers. I’m asking her to talk about it. I’m opening up space for her to tell me her thoughts and feelings. And we’re fumbling around and figuring it out together.

I’m talking with her.  But I want more. I want you to talk with her.

letstalk1

Yes, you.

She needs to know that other white people have some of the same thoughts and feelings. She needs to know how you’ve worked through them in your life.

She needs to know that black people aren’t mad at her, even if they’re mad at her ancestors or society in general. She needs to know what you do think about her and how you think she can help. She needs to sit down with a “tough-looking” black man and see that, even if he is big and strong and wearing a hoodie, it doesn’t mean he intends to harm her.

She needs to know that brown people are facing their own equality struggle today. She needs to hear that, when you walk into an upper-end yoga studio with your two white friends, the hostess tells your friends where the class is meeting, then turns to you and asks if you’re hoping to use public restroom. But she also needs to hear that you don’t blame her for that and that you want to be her friend, even when other people with the same color of skin as her can be really stupid sometimes.

She needs to know that yellow people get pigeon-holed and stereo-typed…that your property manager wouldn’t answer you questions about your bedbugs because he “couldn’t understand your accent”, even though you speak perfect English. But your bedbug situation was quickly addressed as soon as your white friend got involved. She needs to know that, even though this is irritating and hurtful, you don’t blame her for it. And that you’d really like to be her friend.

Mostly, she needs to know that you and she are more alike than you are different. And she needs you to join with her to create a community that’s based on those likenesses but still appreciates and respects the differences. She needs you to help her learn how to fight for racial equality and to strive for racial reconciliation.

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And when I say she, I mean me.

So I’m starting by inviting you to this space. Will you consider writing a guest post for this blog? Will you share some of your experience, some of your thoughts, some of your stories, some of your own questions and insecurities? Because I believe that’s the first step. Putting aside our differences to really hear one another.

(And parents…would you consider sharing this series with your children? A friend recently shared an article with me which included the following statement: “It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.” Even if you’re already past that point in your child’s development, it’s not too late. We need to talk about these things. And we need to do it sooner rather than later.)

I’m working on putting together a list of resources to help us navigate these waters. But I really think speaking with one another is the best place to start. So…the invitation is open: Let’s Talk!

If you’d consider contributing to this series, I’d be honored to share your words in this space. Just let me know in the comments, and I’ll get ahold of you to coordinate your submission.

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This post is the sixth in a series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” You can see the full list of posts here. Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.

Crush

I remember the first time he held my hand.

Seventh grade. Computer lab.

Our seats were close enough together that he could easily reach over and slide his dark brown fingers between mine without anyone noticing. It was the first time I had touched a black person.

My heart raced, and I turned my head towards him. The tears stung my eyes as I whispered, “I can’t!”

He looked back at me, confused. We’d been flirting, quite intentionally, for weeks, so it’s no wonder that my reaction bewildered him.

“I’m not allowed to date black boys,” I tried to explain. And I might as well have slapped him across the face.

I remember the first time he held my hand and the last time he looked me in the eyes.

Those two moments were separated by nine words that scarred us both.

scarred

I am terrified to enter this conversation. I am scared to be given a seat at the table.

I’ve seen how the wrong words can slice into a person’s soul, and I never want to inflict that kind of pain again.

But the conversation must begin…

I cannot allow my fear and trepidation to seduce me into the comfortable ignorance afforded to me by the color of my skin.

comfortableignorance

I am bound to say the wrong thing at times. I will need you to trust that my intention was not to wound. I will need you to correct me and inform me. More than anything, I need you. 

This conversation is really only appropriate in the company of friends…in safe spaces where hearts can be heard and trust can be shared. My hope is that this space will become a safe place for hard conversations. A place where everyone can learn more about someone else’s journey.

Tomorrow, I hope to wrap up this particular series and launch a brand new series. I want to invite you to help cultivate a community of people who are daring enough to believe that we can see radical change within our lifetime…daring enough to believe that it only takes a few willing people to start a movement.

Are you in?

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This post is the fourth in a series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” You can see the full list of posts here. Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.

Echo

Ruby lives in a colorful world.

If she were to create a portrait of the major players in her life right now, she’d need the entire box of Crayola’s Multi-Cultural crayons. And I like it that way.

We have made conscientious, intentional choices to plant our family in diverse communities, and we have actively sought to engage in our communities. We’ve done our best to create a home and lifestyle that welcome and include people of color. But there are certain parts of life over which we have absolutely no control. Specifically, other peoples’ spouses.

The romantic couples in Ruby’s life are overwhelmingly monochromatic. Even the mothers and fathers in her favorite television shows “match” their partners. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three interracial couples that Ruby’s ever known, and she’s only known them peripherally.

My intelligent young daughter was able to observe the fact that interracial couples are different from the norm…uncommon, even rare. But she incorrectly interpreted that different and uncommon equaled illicit and undesirable. And who could blame her? Most things that are kept hidden are, in fact, illicit or undesirable.

illicitandundesirable

As a society, we have progressed to the point where overtly racist statements are condemned and, at times, sanctioned. But that doesn’t mean that passive racist messages have been eliminated. That doesn’t mean that prejudiced viewpoints are no longer given air time.

I naively assumed that eliminating racist and prejudiced language from our home would insulate my daughter from what remained of society’s racist messages. I wanted to give her a chance to draw her own conclusions and make up her own decisions about the world.

My intention was to give her a neutral space. I accidentally created a cavernous void.

And the messages from society echoed again and again.

theecho

Silence is not the answer.

We must discuss these things with our children.

Openly, honestly.

Carefully, deliberately.

But how?

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This post is the third in a series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” You can see the full list of posts here. Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.

Defining Quality

One of the things that intrigued me about Ruby’s revelation was that, as far as I had noticed, none of the boys in Ruby’s class had brown skin.

So I asked her if she would point Jason out to me the next day at pick-up.

At 2:30, I stood in the hallway and watched 24 kids file out of Ruby’s classroom…the only brown skin belonged to a little girl with long black braids.

“Ruby, is Jason in your class?”

“Yes, Mom! He’s right there!” she answered through clenched teeth.

She was pointing straight to a boy with jet black hair and skin that could barely be classified as beige.

I smiled down at my blushing baby and said, “Oh, sweetie. He’s really cute!”

“Moooooooooooom. Let’s go!”

She grabbed my hand, and we quickly (and discreetly) made our exit.

As soon as we were across the street, Ruby opened up a little bit.

“I do think he’s cute, Mom. But that’s not even why I like him. He’s so kind. Anytime anyone needs help in our classroom, Jason is always willing to help. He’s been really nice to me ever since I came here, and he makes people feel comfortable. He’s really smart, and he almost always finishes his work at the same time as me. And when he talks, he uses a soft voice and gives everyone a turn to share.”

Clearly, my daughter had fallen for the seven-year-old version of her father.

The shock of the day before was quelled by the fact that my kiddo really could see beyond color and into the things that matter. I was encouraged by the fact that her heart had naturally fallen for someone who possessed admirable qualities, even though his skin didn’t match hers. But these facts made it harder for me to understand how she could think it was wrong to like Jason and, even worse, be afraid to tell me about it.

Even though Ruby could recognize and acknowledge Jason’s valuable and admirable qualities, his race had become his most defining quality. She didn’t trust the adults in her world to consider anything other than the color of his skin.

defining quality

Over the next couple of weeks, I began to pay attention to Ruby’s world from a different viewpoint. I researched and read articles related to the things we were experiencing. I talked with friends and acquaintances who are better equipped to address these issues. And I prayed.

children

Someone once told me that children are excellent observers and terrible interpreters. Society is sending messages to my daughter non-stop, and she’s astute enough to pick up on the vast majority of them. It is my job to help her evaluate these messages and interpret their meaning in her life.

For seven years, I assumed that providing an open, inclusive atmosphere in our home would be enough to instill an open, inclusive worldview in my daughter’s heart.

Now, I know that’s not enough. 

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This post is the second in a new series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” You can read the first here. Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.

The Night Racism Came to Dinner

“So, Roo, tell me about Jason,” I said with a teasing grin.

The look on her face showed shock, then outrage.

“Nonna!!!” she growled.

“It wasn’t Nonna!” I assured her. (Poppa had actually been the one to spill the beans during a recent family trip. Apparently, a new young man had put a twinkle in my seven-year-old daughter’s eye.)

“Who was it?!” she insisted.

“Look! I’m not giving up my sources,” I answered. “But, seriously, tell me more about Jason. I didn’t know you had started to like a boy at your new school.”

“Well, he’s really nice, and I think he’s kinda cute.”

The slightest shade of pink crept up her neck and spread across her cheeks.

“Why didn’t you tell us about him? Were you afraid I’d tease you?” I giggled nervously.

My mom guilt was kickin’ in hard. This was the first time she’d ever intentionally hidden information like this from me. Surely I had done something wrong to make her think she couldn’t trust me with this information.

“No. I just…

I thought you and dad would be mad.”

Mike laughed. I laughed.

“Mad?” Mike questioned.

“What? Is he a trouble-maker?” I interrogated.

“No! He’s really nice!” she exclaimed. “It’s just…he’s got brown skin.”

brownskin

My heart stopped beating…right before it dropped into the soles of my shoes.

“What?!” I exclaimed.

“Ruby!” Mike assured her, “We would never be upset about that!”

I was seriously struggling to understand how she could have possibly come to her conclusion. African art is the focal point on our mantle. We’ve got a world map hanging on our wall with as many hearts etched into Africa as there are etched into the United States. We listen to rap, and she’s trying to teach herself hiphop dance with the help of YouTube videos!

“What makes you think that would bother us, Roo?”

She simply shrugged her shoulders and gave me a look that said, “Well, what did you expect me to think?”

That’s when I realized that something had gone terribly wrong. And it was definitely time to start speaking up.

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This post is the first in a new series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.