Inspired by two powerful posts I read this week, both in response to the events in Ferguson, MO – Manic Pixie Dream Mama’s, A mother’s white privilege, and Janee Woods’, 12 things white people can do now because Ferguson. Please take time to read them both and then even more time to reflect on what they mean for you.
What are the most important lessons we want our children to learn? The answer is different for each of us, but the journey to find an answer is shared by many parents. For us, there is one area that is of the utmost importance – cultural competence. Not a day goes by that there isn’t a “teachable moment.” We are trying to raise boys who walk through the world understanding that we are not, in fact, all the same. The differences are important, valuable. We want them to know (really, truly know) that what we see on the surface is not even close to understanding who someone is or what stories they have to tell. We hope they learn that building relationships with people leads to understanding and honoring them and their stories, and that those efforts can create positive change.
The difficult part in this journey is overcoming our own insecurities to turn things like honest, innocent questions (“Who was the black-faced man in that movie?”) into lessons on things like the science behind what makes skin different colors, the historical significance of terms like “blackface” and suggestions on what to say when you don’t know someone’s name. Might seem like overkill for an answer to a 5-year-old’s question, but I’m constantly reminded that one reason why things like institutionalized racism are still pervasive is that we have a history of brushing off the small things. “He’s too young to understand. Those small comments don’t matter.” They do matter. They matter because it’s also the little things that add up to a deeper understanding.
When my son was in Pre-K, his best buddy was Japanese. When he was in Kindergarten, he met a new friend at his new school. Walking home one day, he told me, “My new friend speaks Japanese.”
I asked, “Did he tell you he speaks Japanese?”
“Well, I think he’s from Japan, but I’m not sure. Maybe you should have his mom over and we can ask.”
This friend (still his best buddy three years later) is actually from Burma. Less than a year after this conversation, he overheard me telling someone that his best friend is Burmese. He quickly snapped, “Nooo. He’s from Burma.”
In a year’s time he had moved from making assumptions about someone’s background to correcting me to make sure I didn’t misrepresent the same person.
Our kids work hard at learning and pronouncing names correctly, they are comfortable with other kids of any background and their classrooms and birthday parties look like a mini UN. In some ways, it feels like we are doing things right if we want our children to learn cultural competence.
On the other hand, the part that is least comfortable to discuss/teach them, as Manic Pixie Dream Mama pointed out, is understanding their privilege and how it shapes their experiences in the world. It is also most important. I feel fortunate to have spent years working for an organization that encouraged the reflective, deep dives into our own privilege and power. I’ve worked alongside brilliant leaders when it comes to cultural competence. I’ve created and led workshops about the importance of allowing culture into the classroom and ways to make sure students see themselves reflected in the classroom. But the journey always seems to take two steps forward, one step back, as it should.
When I was a fifth grade teacher nearly ten years ago, my teammate taught social studies and I taught science. Most of my students were first generation Mexican. In social studies, they were learning all about colonial America, culminating in a Colonial Day where they would dress up in costumes, make butter out of cream and chase hoops with sticks. Sounds fun, right? As they came back one day from class, one bright-eyed, clever girl told me, “I just don’t get it. If the white people were slave owners and the black people were slaves, where were all the Mexicans?”
The festivity of having students to play colonial games and wear colonial costumes was lost on the kids who were waiting desperately to hear how their people factored in. She could not figure out if and where her ancestors had lived during that time. It was a teachable moment. Not just for the young students looking for stories of their roots, but for the teacher who didn’t realize that her excitement about American History came from her own experiences. The students needed to feel their own connection if they were to embrace it in the same way. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak up. And the teacher hosted many a Colonial Day in the years that followed, always following the same lessons, no matter the class. Perhaps a post such as this is as much a cleansing of guilt for not having been an ally at that time as it is a plea for others to think about the things you let slide and why.
If I really want to help my children learn cultural competence, privilege should be the “teachable moment” I seek. It should be the topic I go out of my way to discuss. I want them to be comfortable speaking up. If my kids learn nothing else in this world, let it be that no good comes from exerting their inherent privilege over others, but a world of good can come from recognizing and acknowledging it.