Thursday, September 17, 2009

Every child is entitled to parents who know that, if they are white, they benefit from racism.

I went to a Christian liberal arts college located right smack dab in the middle of the city for my undergraduate degree. There are a lot of interesting dynamics that happen when you take a largely white and affluent student population from mostly quite conservative, even sheltered, backgrounds and plop them down in the center of a major metropolitan city. There are some students who simply never leave campus, and others who choose to experiment in ways that they could never have done elsewhere. Add to this mix a few scattered minority students, some of whom come from equally privileged economic backgrounds and some who do not. It makes for a rather unique sort of place.

I thought a lot about this stuff while I was studying for my bachelor's degree. I had spent a semester studying in Russia during my final year of high school, and within a year of starting college was volunteering with the student-run mission program, coordinating trips of various lengths to other countries as well as other places in this country where college students might find an opportunity to lend a hand and - most importantly - be exposed to something completely different, to perhaps shake up their worldviews a bit.

I thought I was pretty open minded, comparing myself smugly to many of my classmates who had never lived abroad, been exposed to poverty, or given much thought to issues of race, class and privilege.

Then one day there was a special guest to one of my classes, Urban Ministry I think it was called. His name was Sherman Alexie and up until then I'd never heard of him. Our professor introduced him - many of the English majors in the room seemed to know who he was - as an author and Native American. The first thing I noticed about him was that he was pretty angry. Worse, he seemed to be angry at me. Or, rather, us - the all white group of mostly young women seated in our semi-circle of desks ready to learn about his culture and viewpoint from him.

He wasn't having it. Alexie's main message to us that day was this "Own your own ethnic stuff and stay the hell away from mine."

This didn't go over so well.

"Look," one student protested, "I understand that your people have suffered from what white people did to you, but I wasn't a part of that. I can't help what happened. It's not fair for you to be mad at us."

"I have to live with what happened to my ancestors, it affects me every single day" he replied, "why don't you have to face consequences for what your ancestors did?"

The debate raged on for a while, and I didn't say much. Alexie made no attempt to be nice or to cushion his views, and I observed that this was not the treatment my classmates were used to. He accused us of stealing from cultures that belong to other ethnicities instead of exploring our own. I thought about my trips to Russia, my plans to go back there to live someday. How I was considering Orthodox church, had filled my room with icons, loved to cook Russian food. I felt uncomfortable, defensive, guilty.

I remember the class sputtering to a halt when time was up and most of the students sort of stalking out. No one lingered to talk to the famous author. I decided to talk to him.

I don't remember a lot of specifics of what we said to each other, to be honest. I ended up walking with him out to his car, listening a lot, and maybe asking a few questions. He seemed nicer when it was just the two of us than he had in the class. Maybe it was because I wasn't challenging his assumptions, but instead trying to figure out how to understand him if I wasn't allowed to know his culture. "Know your own culture first." He told me, "You have ancestors, too. Figure out who they are and what they have done that you can be proud of. Also, what they have done that you cannot be proud of. You have to own that, too."

Every child is entitled to parents who know that, if they are white, they benefit from racism.

This item on the TAC bill of rights is, for me, about owning my own ancestors, and owning their history as part of my own. I do have an ethnicity, and that ethnicity comes with a history in this country that results in unjust benefit to me. There are also many positive things in the history of that ethnicity, and finding myself at home in the Episcopal/Anglican church is just one of them. It's important I know this because this will not be my own child's experience. My child will not just be given the hidden(to me) privileges that I enjoyed as a white child growing up in this country. How can I prepare her for this if I don't acknowledge that it's real?

Of course my bias is that it is equally important for the parents of white children to know this, because part of being a complete and whole human being is the ability to own both the good and the ugly about your identity. And the reality that is often not communicated to white children is this: our ethnic background is a real part of our identity. It is just as real as our family of origin, our DNA, and our own individual experience. All of these shape who we are in the world, and the more we are aware of them the more we own them, the more choice we have about who we want to be in the world. The less risk there is that these real-but-hidden parts of our identity will own us, instead of the other way around.

I think as parents it is natural to only want to pass on what we perceive as positive, affirming, and beautiful identity pieces to our children. We don't want them to be affected by the reality that alcoholism runs in the family, or that we experienced less-than-ideal childhoods, or that part of the reason our (white) children are encouraged to be stand out individuals is out of a legacy that encourages our (black) children to underestimate their own potential. But I don't think we get to choose if these things will affect them. We might have some influence over how.

I have no idea how I'm going to do it. But I know that this dynamic is real. I started really working on it that day years ago when I struggled in conversation with an angry Native American, and I continue to struggle with how to understand, respond, and own it now. So, as I get to know my child, start to understand the beautiful and the less-than-beautiful parts of who he will be I hope that I will find ways to encourage him to face all of his identity, his heritage, the good and bad about how he came to be my child, in our family.

But I can't enable or encourage that process for anyone else, especially not someone as close as my own son or daughter will be to me, unless I'm willing to model the process by facing it for myself.


  1. Hmmm... Sherman Alexie came to one of your classes?!?!! I wish I had taken that class. Dangit. I found his writing fascinating.

    I find personally, I don't want to "own" much of my culture, good or bad, they are the sins and victories of people who aren't me. I don't feel very attached to my past, to a bunch of dead people I never knew. Maybe that's sad, but I'm not really sad about it. I think friends are the family you choose. I grew up 1500 miles from grandparents, aunts, cousins, or uncles, and they might as well have been on another planet - so I never really learned who I was based on where I came from. I have no real idea who I came from. I've discovered over the years little snippets of ethnicity, but that's about it. I suppose it's a bit alone, but it's all I know. How can you make up for the sins of your fathers? How can you fix the injustices they endured? Sometimes I think I'd rather let the pain and the pride die with them. Perhaps this is not the right answer, but I'm trying to be honest with my gut reaction to your post. I probably have a lot left to learn. I grew up thinking very little of family in the big sense, and heritage, and the past for that matter. We can't change the past and didn't cause it, so why focus on it?

  2. Okay, I don't comment on each of the posts in this series - but I just wanted to say that I LOVE them!

    I did a lot of work with a program at my undergrad/grad where we did performances for social change - on the issues of racism and sexual assault - so I spent a LOT of time reading up on these issues, participating in discussions, etc. I just find the posts so interesting and appreciate the honesty and introspection with which you write. So thank you!

  3. Cassie - I can completely sympathize with not wanting to own one's culture. And I don't think that owning your ancestors has to mean being very connected to extended family (if not being connected is something that is a part of your family sub-culture, than it just is). I also suspect that this is something that white America has lost, in exchange for certain privileges. But that's a different topic, maybe. Maybe.

    Here's my response, after thinking about it. I love, by the way, your honest responses to what I write here. Organizational development research has found that systems have patterns that tend to repeat. I see this in my work with churches all the time. An event that happened 100 years ago when a church was founded, a pattern that was begun, will continue to exist decades later even though the people who are a part of the organization now are completely different people. Systems have memories. Every person in this country is part of a system that has organizational memory - many systems in fact. Families, ethnic groups, regional subcultures, churches, etc. The fact that you "grew up thinking very little of family in the big sense, and heritage, and the past" doesn't mean that you are unaffected by them. The reason no person of color grows up feeling that way is, like Alexie said, they have to live every day with lots of negative reminders of what happened to their ancestors, the results of the choices made both by their ancestors and by yours and mine. The fact that we can choose not to think about that heritage is a privilege, but not a fair one. Not even fair to us, I don't think. I firmly believe that we lose, too.

    For me owning my heritage is being real with myself about this fact, this inequality, and open to exploring it. It is me reclaiming my identity and my individuality by thoroughly understanding the systems I am willingly and unwillingly a part of. That are not wholly mine to control, or even to like, but exist anyway.

    You're right, woman. It is time for us to have tea! ♥

    Thanksgivingmom - thanks! I hope you know that I really enjoy your writing, too. :)

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Alissa! :-)

    I'd love to chat more over tea, I'll shoot you an email back.

    Keep up the thought-provoking blogging!