Dear E, H, & P:
In the days and months since Michael Brown was shot I’ve thought a lot about how to talk to you about race. At first I mostly thought, “we haven’t really talked about it yet”, despite the fact that I believe in the importance of doing so. You’d never been told you are white. Our most in depth interaction around the color of your skin was the selection of the peachy crayon. So this led me to start thinking about it, talking about it, and thinking about talking about it.
After reading lots of first-hand accounts and research, I feel slightly more prepared for the “bigger” conversations. I have a sense of the weighty messages on equality and discrimination and history that I want to impart. But I also know that racism is inherited in small ways: daily habits, routines, comments, and lack of comments. It’s assembled slowly and sturdily by the micro and the seemingly invisible. It’s informed as much by what we don’t say and do, as it is by what we do say and do. I know that in order to give you the best that I can I need to pay attention to race everyday. But I need practice in doing that. It’s not my habit. Like most white people I’m largely able to ignore race, conveniently picking it up when it suits me, addressing it only on my terms, when I have energy and optimism to spare. I don’t want you to inherit this indifference of convenience.
I want to do better for myself. And I want to do better for you. I want to give you something less broken, burdened, and blind. So I’m building us (you and me) a living declaration, promises of sorts that will hopefully help to guide me and remind me of my intentions and responsibilities.
1. I promise to constantly reconsider what is “for me” and by extension “for you”.
When I think back on my own educational (and extracurricular) choices I realize that I have often conflated opportunities that I feel are “for me” with those that contain people who are “like me”. This has often been a mistake. I chose my college because the kids there seemed “like me”, yet I ended up spending much of my time feeling uninspired or like I didn’t belong. While I’m grateful for the value and friends I did gain, I’ve always regretted this choice. I thought about this while searching for the right preschools for you. At first I more readily considered options with kids who were also “like you” and dismissed those that seemed “not like you”.
The first time I heard about your current school, a Spanish immersion school, I immediately dismissed it as “not for us” because I don’t speak Spanish and hadn’t given the gift of bilingualism much thought. Not surprisingly, H, the first time I heard about your old school, which was attached to a prominent synagogue, I also immediately dismissed it as “not for us”, because we aren’t Jewish. But in both cases a reconsideration of what community characteristics and educational qualities were important (to me) led me to embrace experiences that I had previously dismissed. And thank goodness, as these choices have been some of the best I’ve ever made in my life and the best that I could hope to make for you. I do not wish to artificially limit and edit the beautiful world that you inhabit. You are a small part of it. Special for being you, and nothing more. Special to me in the same way that all other children are special to their own parents. Let’s together seek those and that which can teach us what we don’t know.
2. I promise to refrain from using coded language
When I was growing up we didn’t talk much about race. We were supposed to evaluate character, not color. Saying too much about race would probably get you in trouble either by offending someone or saying the wrong thing. So instead people spoke in code. We said things like “inner city” and “ghetto” and “urban” instead of black. Now I’m convinced that language is an important part of the social justice equation. How can we ever feel really positive and connected to something that we don’t have direct, comfortable, confident language to describe?
This point seems really straightforward in other contexts. When it comes to body parts, for example. We are a medical family. I’ve read the research that says that kids who use proper terminology for their bodies parts develop a positive body image, confidence, and are at less risk of abuse or victimization. So that’s why we don’t say “pee-pee,” we say vagina. We don’t say “weiner,” we say penis. I want you to be comfortable and confident when talking about your bodies. I want you to be able to seek the help you need. I want you to value and honor all of your body as yours.
So it only makes sense to me to channel that same straightforwardness when talking about all the people in our community, country and world. I want you to know that black is not a bad word. I want you to feel comfortable talking about the people in your world and community. You can’t respect or dignify people that you can’t talk about or talk to comfortably. Talking is seeing. Talking is acknowledgment. You cannot be aware of that which you cannot see or acknowledge.
Skin color is just that; meaningless apart from the huge multitude of meaning - good and bad - that we as a people put on it. You can talk about color. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. You can talk about groupings of people. Sometimes those groupings and labels matter, sometimes they don’t. No one is the sum of his or her color, shape, label, or group. Yet the experiences that they and we have as a result of and on behalf of these colors, shapes, labels and groups are real, and have real consequences. Let’s learn together to honor the real lived experiences of difference while also searching, always searching, for what’s common – humanity.
3. I promise that I will answer your questions honestly.
Even when they are uncomfortable. Even when there aren’t clear answers. Even when the answers are and feel really, really bad. I will sit with the complexity and explore it with you. I will not hide behind obscured references, stories or complacency. I will value your natural-born empathy and respect your ability to distill complicated matters down to the obvious and right thing to do. Do not let me hide escape into adult vagueness. Do not accept “it’s just the way it is” from me. Let’s reject the “it’s just the way it is” and embrace the “BUT it doesn’t have to be”.
4. I promise I will immerse you in literature, media and play that reflect your country and the world.
Thirty years ago, it was hard to find a pretty black doll, diverse storybook characters and toys. I only met black characters through required reading. And my inclination wasn’t necessarily to do any different. I didn’t give racial diversity in books and toys much thought until I started buying dolls for you, E. I wasn’t that excited to buy dolls at all but then noticed how enamored you were by a black ballerina doll at that play space. The next Christmas became the perfect opportunity to give you several dolls with a range of skin colors and representing various ethnicities. I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise, maybe I would have continued to think that they are “not for you”, but you planted a small seed for change.
Seeing how much you love and value these dolls led me to reconsider our beloved book selection. As you know, I love children’s books. I love the pretty ones, the classic ones, the sentimental ones, the rhyming ones, the funny ones, the animal ones, and apparently the mostly white ones. It is astounding just how easy it is to whitewash childhood for white children.
This library I gave you is wonderful, but it’s woefully incomplete. I don’t want you to grow up only being fed “skinny language” and perspectives and experiences that only reflect your own. “Our” stories are only a few of very many. I’ve loved building a social justice library with you over the last few months. Through these books and tools we have started to talk about many conversations about race and equity that I didn’t previously have the skills to address. Thank you for allowing me to learn along side of you. Let’s continue to explore perspective and history together.
5. I promise I will work to provide you with counter examples.
A friend told me a story recently about her friends’ family moving from New York to Florida, where upon the child in the family noticed, “white people are poor too.” You might not know this yet but every town, city and geography has blind spots – over and under representations. These blind spots help form and perpetuate narrow stereotypes. I want to do a better job of helping you see that. Of pointing them out and talking about who is missing.
When we decorated Black Lives matter signs together, we talked about how there aren’t many people with dark skin who live in our neighborhood. I said sometimes neighborhoods have lots of different kinds of people who live there and sometimes the people mostly look the same. We talked about how lucky you are that at your school there are lots of kids who look different from each other and whose families are from different places. E, later in that afternoon when we were talking about the signs you said “we feel sad that more people with dark skin don’t live in our neighborhood.” You had heard me and that feels good. Let’s keep talking about who is missing. There are lots of groups missing in lots of contexts. The absence of those voices and experiences matter and it’s important that we don’t forget the space they would occupy and the impact they might have. And most importantly, let’s not accept a paucity of voices as normal.
6. Speaking of voices, I promise to endorse experts and leadership of people who don’t look like us.
For those engaging in race work, the topic of earned leadership is an important one. We whites clamor for leadership roles and often assume that they are automatically ours. We talk over people of color and look for ways to take the reigns. No group has a monopoly on knowledge and wisdom, nor should they. I want you to engage with a diverse set of authority figures and promise to create the experiences for you to do so. I want you to feel comfortable asking for help from people who don’t look like you. I want you to experience people of color in positions of leadership and roles of authority that are not in service of you.
Over the last year as I’ve encouraged you both to be resourceful and seek knowledge from others aside from me. I’ve also encouraged you to seek knowledge from diverse sources. Like the time we did the scavenger hunt in the art museum last winter. E, you were on the hunt for a picture of a wedding among other things. In order to find what you needed you had to ask docents questions. The first time I steered you towards a black female docent. Then each subsequent time you returned to her until you found your last outstanding items. It feels like a hopelessly small step but since it changed the course of action from what I normally would have done it must matter some, even if only a small bit.
Let’s work together to honor the knowledge and authority of others. Let’s celebrate the diversity in perspective it provides us. Let’s see and acknowledge the earned leadership that’s all around us instead of looking for wisdom in resemblance.
7. I promise to stop perpetuating the myth of senselessness
Quite simply, just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s senseless. Very few things are totally senseless; so don’t let me get away with that. The reason people use the label “senseless” is because it makes things easy to dismiss. Because if there’s no rhyme or reason, there’s no solution either. Really nothing to be done. So people say “senseless”, shake their heads, and move on.
If something doesn’t make sense to me and to you, let’s work on understanding it better. Often there are many voices trying to be heard, voices that are trying to explain or ask for help or point to answers. Let’s together find and listen to those voices, not the ones dismissing it in the first place. Let’s work hard to connect what we are learning to experiences and feelings that we have had too. Can we together imagine why?
8. I promise to include us as part of the equation.
As white folks we’ve played an important role in creating the problems of today. And we continue to play a role in the problems we will likely face tomorrow. I was taught that the racist ones were either ancient Southern characters at the time of the civil war, older folks who were still learning to treat humans as humans, or a few bad apples who held weird hateful grudges and weren’t yet on board with the idea that color doesn’t matter. Since I was neither of those three I thought I was in the clear. It took me a long time to connect the persistent, enduring, really suffocating racism of today to me…my behavior, my beliefs and my actions.
There was a huge cost to that denial, not the least of which was years spent in a sadly limited world, rejecting things “not for me” and “not like me”. The other costs of that denial is the actual denial of equality that results for people of color. I hope to help you avoid this same trap. I will work hard to own our role, benefits and complacency. Instead of creating an "evil them" in order to exempt ourselves from blame, I will connect us to the issue by using phrases such as “people like us” or “white people like us”.
It is uncomfortable to really own this and feels like a lot to bestow on children. Yet I believe that if we can understand how we are part of the problem then we will also feel empowered to be part of the solution. If we truly understand the role we play then we can’t conscionably sit on the sidelines. We can’t wait for the tide of time to create change. We can’t wait for someone else to do what’s right. Instead, we choose to help, together.
9. I promise to listen to and learn from you.
Fresher eyes, more open hearts and creative, collaborative brains are job requirements for the next generation. Teach me, show me, lead me. I’m here to learn and help.