As a white person raised in the mid-west I didn’t grow up having very deep conversations about race. But I moved to Atlanta almost ten years ago, taught at a majority black school, and learned I didn’t know a thing about race. I learned. I did the work. I read the books. I know unpacking my privilege is a lifelong journey but I am on that journey and actively trying to move forward.
But y’all, I am having some road blocks. Sometimes things come up that I have no idea how to deal with.
We are living in a neighborhood we love and sending our kid to a school we love. Our girl is one of the only white kids in the school and I am encountering problems I am not really sure how to navigate. It is just my kid, at five and now six years old has questions about race I do not have answers for.
Question 1: Why can’t my hair go clack-clack-clak?
It started with the requests for braids. I put one small braid on the edge of her head. That wasn’t enough. I put two. I put the limit at three. She was asking for a whole head. LOTS of braids mom! With BEADS! When Trinity shakes her head it goes click, click, click, can my head do that?
No. I don’t think so. I mean….I don’t know. I struggle with the line between appreciation and appropriation and I actually am not sure if a tiny white child with reddish cornrows is okay or not. So…I just told her she can’t have them because her mom doesn’t know how to do it. This is technically true. Also, being tender-headed is real and my kid has that, she would cry and I do not want my kid to affirm the stereotype of white kids being soft in the middle of the beauty salon. So the answer is no…but would it be okay? I don’t know!
Question 2: Can I wear the police hat to school?
So another thing I am not sure about…What happens when the only white child in the class chooses the police hat for the pay a dollar wear a hat day. Not the soft police hat with the little bill, no. The riot gear one. The hard plastic round one with the all capital letters POLICE on the side. Is that okay? When there are protests against Police Brutality, and it seems like most of the issues are white police officers and black victims is it okay for your white kid to wear the police gear to school? Is it bad parenting to hide the police hat and make your husband convince your daughter that the yellow construction hat is really just as cool while you are driving to work and don’t have to deal with any of it? Is it okay to pretend I am asking for a friend?
Question 3: What is whiteness?
Okay. This one I am not asking for a friend. Last year my daughter told me we were white, and when I did the whole progressive parenting exploration thing and asked her “What do you think that means?” She roller her eyes at me and pointed at the skin on her arm. “It is this mommy, you got this too.” Yeah. That is all I really know. What the heck is whiteness anyway? From what I have read the Irish weren’t always considered white, nor Italians, Jewish people are only considered white sometimes. When do things change? What does that mean? Are you considered white when society as a whole decides to accept you into the majority so they can better discriminate against other groups? That seems pretty jacked up. How the heck am I supposed to explain that to my six year old?
Question 4: Why can’t we celebrate our whiteness?
So. Last year my kid learned with her class to recite a poem that was the cutest thing ever. They did it at the Pre-K banquet. But also, it freaked me out, especially when she performed this verbal feat by herself, in public places. There was this line, about being proud of her race and I cringed every time. It sounded like I was raising an adorable, tiny voiced, white supremacist. And the kids books I could find were no help. Every children’s book specifically addressing whiteness and what it meant was written by the KKK, so that isn’t really the angle we are going for.
Question 5: Why wouldn’t I be allowed to have any friends back in history?
One of the things I L-O-V-E about my kid’s school is that they talk about history and current events pretty frankly. The confusing part of this is that 5 year olds tend to make things all about them. So, when my baby hears that black and white children didn’t go to school together, she doesn’t hear that the white people were trying to keep the best things for themselves. Instead, she looks around the room, sees all her friends are various shades of brown, and thinks that segregation would have deprived her of her friends. That is why it is bad. That is all. The more I learn about white supremacy, the more I realize that I center whiteness in almost every narrative. This is what white supremacy has taught me to do. But it is also totally developmentally appropriate for my daughter to center herself. All kids do! At what point do I start the “this isn’t about you” mantra?
Even with these questions unanswered the benefits of raising our kid in a majority minority environment far outweighs the sometimes awkward and confusing conversations we have at dinner. Ultimately, our world is only going to be more diverse and I am (I hope) giving my kids the best foundation to tackle their adult world. But I could use the answer to these questions if anyone has them.
You are way over thinking it. We lived in Texas for a summer in 1977. I made a friend. A black girl who my age. I loved her corn rows! Her grandmother braided my hair and put beads in it. A black grandmother, in Texas, in the 70’s, braided my little blonde white girl hair and didn’t give two shits about it. Now you lie to your daughter because she wants to wear a police hat? Really? Tell her the truth. That you think her black friends will hurt her because she’s wearing a police hat? They’re 5! They’ll think it’s cool! What will you do if she wants to be a cop when she grows up? The horror!! You’re willing to suppress your own child in order to not possibly offend a black person. Your daughter already answered your question. Listen to her. Then leave her alone and let her be herself.
Of course I am over thinking it. This whole thing was meant to poke fun at no one but myself. Of course no one else is thinking those things, just me.
I think these things too! These are valid questions that don’t have easy answers.
I completely disagree about overthinking; thinking about other people’s feelings and perceptions is part of being sensitive and empathetic. It’s how we shift from self-centered to aware. I am especially frank with my children, too. I might tell my child that yes you can wear the police helmet because we respect the officers who help keep us safe, or that you can’t because sometimes individual police officers make bad decisions and it might make some of our friends have bad feelings because of these xyz current events. More likely, I’d get rid of the helmet because I personally don’t have good feelings about the police or want my child to emulate them in play. It’s okay to think hard and think differently about race.
I agree with this. I know the challenges of “overthinking” but frankly I’d rather be an overthinker than an underthinker, especially when it comes to matters of race and privilege. There are some things that you just don’t know until somebody tells you, or until you hear/read a voice outside of your own experience. There are other things you’re not sure about–you hear a voice in the back of your head that says “could this be perceived in a different way than I am intending?” And you think, and you pray, you research and you discuss this with your smart friends and then you make an informed decision. And sometimes you go ahead and do the thing because you realize it’s actually not a big deal, and sometimes you figure out that little voice in the back of your head was legit and now you know the reasons why. At least that’s what I do, and why I can relate to the author.
Side note, about a month ago I had a mental debate about whether it would be okay/respectful for my child to wear a headscarf while dressing as Malala for a school project. I made my decision (yes) based on cursory research, speaking with smart mom friends (one of whom had already had the convo with a member of another culture), and with the assurance that my child’s headscarf-wearing peers were fully supportive and offered to help her tie the covering correctly. I don’t regret the time I spent making the decision.
1. Take her to a salon and get her hair corn rowed. Let her choose the beads.
2. Let her wear the police hat. People in trouble need help and that police hat is what the hero, the rescuer, wears.
3. Toughest question. You and I know the answer is long.
4. You can, but better to celebrate person-hood or womanhood or childhood.
5. This is a teachable moment. Friends come in every size and color. Friends are not always easy to come by. Yes, you might not have had any friends.
As a White girl in the Midwest, I absolutely love your thought provoking posts and am enjoying reading about your journey. I really liked this piece, but not sure I quite understand this line:
The more I learn about white supremacy, the more I realize that I center whiteness in almost every narrative.
Maybe you could point me in a direction to learn more about what is meant? I have a feeling the explanation is not a short one! I’m not questioning you, just acknowledging my naiviete.