“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”- Audre Lorde
I’m not sure whether this post is complete to my satisfaction, but if I don’t post it now it’s going to be relegated to the pile of never seen posts. I’ve chosen to discuss matters here that I feel are difficult to address and I’ve failed in attempting it in the past. By a few coincidences, I’ve had race on my mind this week. It started with a conversation early in the week with my son while riding in the car. A lot of parents can probably relate to the car ride heart to hearts with their kids. For the most part it wasn’t a remarkable conversation, mostly about the national origins of our family. Discussion of the race and nationality of our family and extended family is common place whether by design or in response to an off hand comment like the time he told me he wishes he were African because it’s warm there (“we are African kiddo, your grandfather is Yoruba”), or him wanting to have British ancestry like his friend at school (“you do buddy, your great-grandmother was born in England”). This conversation did get more in depth about skin color, and he wanted to know why he is black but his skin looks white. He has also asked me in the past how I am black but his grandmother is white. My child has quite a mixed ancestry including Nigerian, Black American, Irish, Native American, English, and possibly some others that I’m not aware of. At the same time, both of his parents identify as, and by American standards are black. He is black, but my son also is multi-generationally mixed. These are concepts with definitions that matter in the context of nasty US history, the one-drop rule, and a bunch of other stuff (or, “blah, blah, blah” as my son would tell me) that’s hard to explain to a six year old on a car ride to the zoo. Let’s be real, it’s hard to explain period! What I really started wondering about is if parents of monoracial children, who live in monoracial communities even discuss these things? I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who attempt a color-blind approach, claiming that children don’t see race, etc. Sure they do. And they live in a society profoundly impacted by it. It’s actually very interesting to converse with a child about these issues because often they are not assigning value or making a judgment, but rather making observations and connections.
It has been more recent that I hear things from my child that are more reflective of broader society, such as racial stereotypes. That occurred this week when my son got a bee in his bonnet about a new “The Lone Ranger” Lego set. I didn’t mind letting him get a Lego set, we love Legos- it was the specific set that gave me heartburn. “The Lone Ranger”? Of all things, why has this been revived? I will admit, I know little about “The Lone Ranger”, but the first thing that comes to mind is the ignorant portrayal of Tonto. Low and behold, when I searched the original show, I read that actor Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto disliked the way the character was depicted. I’d imagine acting roles were hard to come by at the time for a Native American, and I’m not so sure it’s any better now.
I had a decision to make. When my son was little, we made a concerted effort to protect him from certain things. Not just BPA in plastic, pesticides in food, or lead-laced dirt, but from something more insidious and potentially damaging to the psyche. I’m talking about toys/books/media and any other controllable images that would instill the stereotypes and negative values of dominant society, specifically around race. Anything that didn’t affirm who my son is, I didn’t want him around. I realized three years ago when he started school that I couldn’t control things as much, and as he’s gets older I can use the kind of exposure that I used to avoid (like the Lego set) as a teaching tool. So my son got the Legos. I believe that even a child who lives in a multiracial/cultural family, school and community can have their mind and ultimately their spirit permeated by race related misinformation if you don’t affirmatively work against that. I can only imagine what can go on in the minds of children who aren’t exposed to otherness.
What I feel I’m trying to combat is the systemic structures that have a powerful strangle hold on our ability to make progress in diminishing racial stereotypes. Obviously one nasty, cruddy person can inflict that kind of thing on another, but what is more striking and less clearly visible is the very thing were surrounded by everyday. The images propagated by mass media/social media matter. The third thing that happened this week that put race on my mind was being featured in an Ebony Magazine/Ebony.com piece, “Women Up: Black Women Rising in Sports.” As the title states, it’s a brief profile of 10 black women who are rising in their respective sports. Anytime our sport gets coverage in a mainstream publication I think it’s exciting. Well, almost every time. An exception to that for me was last year when I stumbled across an article in one of the typical (non CrossFit specific) fitness magazines. The article was a list of top ten moments of the 2012 CrossFit Games, featuring both the women’s clean ladder and the Double Banger. I won both those events but the magazine featured other women for each. The Double Banger included a paragraph with my name as the “frontrunner” (uh, did anyone watch that?), yet the photograph was of another woman. Coincedence that they chose to feature white women’s photos for that piece? Perhaps. But when it happens in a publication that routinely under-represents women of color I tend to call that whitewashing. This magazine did feature a black woman in a more stereotypical role (you know blacks don’t swim, right?). I don’t want to disparage the accomplishments of any of the women who were featured in the piece, however I despise unearned privilege and I despise entities that refuse to portray the full spectrum. In my opinion they successfully distorted the already minimally visible presence of black women at the CrossFit Games. This is exactly why publications such as Ebony Magazine exist. To “offer positive images of blacks in a world of negative images.”
I believe there are people out there who feel the issues I’ve outlined here don’t exist or don’t really matter. In my opinion, such people are often sitting in a position of privilege. The privilege of not having to notice. The privilege of feeling that their children won’t be negatively impacted by such matters. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Whatever the case, these are the types of things that I’m tasked with steeling my child against. To educate him and to protect his intellect, his heart, and his spirit from these untruths that the world will tell.
“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” Audre Lorde