The Social and Global Justice Project
Anyone who has kids knows they can say some pretty wild things every now and again. And anyone who has met my youngest daughter knows she has the ability to go completely off-Broadway with her stream-of-consciousness stories and observations. Because she is only six, and because in her “innocence” she lacks the ability to censor herself, most of what she has to say is not only funny but also often astute, in particular because she says things that a socially and politically aware comedian might say, but that an older child – or even adult – would be afraid to utter (at least in mixed company).
But what she said yesterday really takes the cake, and has left me pondering my social role as a parent in a profound and fundamental way.
Let me explain.
I was hosting a meeting in our home here in Placentia, California, just a few miles away from Richard Nixon’s birthplace, and deep in the heart of a county that, in spite of its growing Hispanic population, clings to its whiteness and conservatism like a thumb-sucking toddler clings to a security blanket. To provide some context, let me just say that I was hosting a meeting of Marxist intellectuals, and that each of the six comrades present was a committed activist and revolutionary thinker. I write this not only to indicate that left-wing discussions do happen here in Orange County, but also to give you some sense as to why my daughter’s comments nearly gave me a heart attack.
The meeting hadn’t started yet, and so my six-year-old was regaling my colleagues with stories of the youth circus she had seen the previous night, and the very important work she was engaged in at school. She had just finished telling them the names of her favorite stuffed animals, when she looked at the two African-American men in the room and said: “Wow! There are two black guys here!”
One of my comrades instinctively laughed out loud, not because he thought it was particularly funny, but as if to say “holy shit, I can’t believe she just said that!” My initial instinct was to rush her out of the room and tell her to keep quiet until everyone had left. But instead I said something like “there are lots of different people here, and we are all the same despite the color of our skin.”
Her response: “Yeah, but two black guys!?”
At that point I really should have intervened, but I was momentarily stunned, and hoped she would simply jump to something new. But, like a pile-up on the freeway, it only got worse.
“Okay,” she continued. “Now I’m going to pick a new best friend. He’s in this room, and has black hair and good skin.”
“Good skin!” Seeing where this was going, I was horrified, and only hoped she would pick one of the African-American men. I had a sinking feeling, however, that she wouldn’t, and she didn’t disappoint.
In her defense, I suppose I could stress the fact that she picked my light-skinned Mexican-American comrade as her new friend, and not one of the other “white” men in the room. But the message was clear. Light skin was “good” skin, and worthy of friendship. Of course, I may be reading too much into this, but I doubt it. My daughter’s choice of a new best friend was clearly guided by racially-determined standards of what is good and desirable.
When she finally left the room, I apologized. It was a weak apology at best, in part because I didn’t know who I was apologizing for. Was I apologizing on her behalf? Or was I apologizing for me, or on behalf of my wife (who wasn’t in the room at the time)? I also didn’t know exactly what I was apologizing for. My daughter’s race-based decision making? My inept parenting? My failure to help her navigate more critically a society still rooted in institutions and discourses that are profoundly racist?
My colleagues were very gracious, and assured me there was nothing to apologize for. She was a young girl, and meant no harm, and obviously didn’t have a full understanding of what she was saying. I wasn’t convinced, but they insisted that, no matter how hard we try as parents, it is difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to protect our children from the racist thoughts and practices that render black Americans the quintessential “other” in our society.
As a historian who has studied these things, I knew they were absolutely right, at least on some level. Despite our best efforts as parents, our daughter has been colonized (permanently? temporarily?) by pervasive social and cultural forces that penetrate deeply into the collective consciousness of the US in particular, and “the west” more generally. From the books she reads, to the films she watches, to the education she gets and the world she sees, whiteness dominates all other colors. Quite clearly, it has great control over her thinking as well.
Though I was shocked by my own daughter’s pronouncements, the power of this “whitewashing” has become increasingly clear to me over the course of the last academic year as I introduced postcolonial theory into many of my courses, and as my students and I worked closely through texts like Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, or Carolina Maria de Jesus’ Child of the Dark, or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. Class discussions were enlightening and thought-provoking, but most illuminating were the reflective essays that I asked students to write in conjunction with the book reviews and research papers that I also expected them to do. While many white students openly and honestly struggled to understand and reflect upon their privileged racial status, the Asian-American, African-American, Mexican-American and Latino/a students wrote powerfully about their own experiences living in a society in which “whiteness” defines power and underscores normative standards of beauty and desirability. To these students, postcolonial critiques of race and power were not just interesting and provocative theories. They were lived experiences.
Like my daughter (who is white), these students remembered being drawn towards whiteness as young children. And like my daughter, they had learned early on to associate “light skin” with “good skin,” and had also learned to privilege white over black and brown. As one of my students admitted to me recently, he is only now learning to be unashamed of his black skin.
In a world like this, I don’t think it is unreasonable, on some level, to blame society for colonizing my daughter. But what happened yesterday at the meeting made it clear to me that pernicious and very divisive notions of race have penetrated her consciousness more deeply than I had ever thought possible. What happened yesterday made me realize that I need to do a better job as a parent. And it isn’t just that I need to be more vigilant. As a father, I need to be more conscious, and also more radical, in my attempts to model the kind of change that I want to see in the world.
But if parenting has taught me anything, it is that this will not be easy, especially because, as a white heterosexual couple, my wife and I embody the very institutions and practices that we are critical of. This is a significant fact to take into consideration, believe me. And it is not the first time I have had to confront it. About six years ago, my oldest daughter, who was four at the time, stated categorically that boys can’t kiss or marry boys, and that girls can’t kiss or marry girls (and this despite the fact that close friends of ours were a same-sex couple, and that same-sex marriage was legal in the province of Canada we were living in). I was mortified! Who had taught this to my daughter! Was it the day care center she was enrolled in? Was it Disney and the misogynist Cinderella syndrome that they peddle shamelessly? Was it her grandparents? Was it society at large? When I asked her why she thought this way, I was taken aback. She simply said: “because you are married to mommy.”
I wasn’t ready for that. It turned out that I was the gender fascist I was expecting to see in other people, and that, in making the choices I had made in my life, I was setting a powerful and very real example for my young child.
Yesterday brought me back to this earlier conversation, and to its implications. The fact that my wife and I are critical thinkers is obviously not enough. We can’t simply trust that our progressive ideas will magically transfer to our daughters, just because we think them, or because we sometimes talk openly about them. We need to start living the revolutionary changes that we want to see in our society. I’m not suggesting that we should break-up and remarry just to make a point. But clearly there is more we can do to help our daughters. Maybe we could make time to drive into LA more often to visit our black friends. Maybe we could make a more concerted effort to seek out better books and films for them. Or, as the late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once did, maybe we could just write the books and stories that they need to read and hear. We have the skills, so why not?
Of course, on a theoretical level, I have always “known” all this. But the incident yesterday made me realize, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that decolonization needs to start at home in real and ultimately radical ways.
There is no way around this. I can only hope that my wife and I are up to the task.