I spend a lot of time talking about race. I confess I talk about it more than invited. Yet, somehow, it is likely still less often than needed. Last week, while with professional colleagues, one asked if we are spending too much time talking about race, therefore making it an issue where it isn’t. I wish that was the first, second, or fiftieth time that’s happened. I am a social worker, and as such committing to seeing injustice and working to stop it is essentially a commitment we make by engaging in the profession. We don’t get to pretend this stuff doesn’t exist. Well, except when we do.
I have also been asked by a lot of moms of white children how to help their kids see difference, talk about it openly, and embrace it. While I don’t have all the answers, I want to offer a couple of possibilities. We live in a diverse community, and our children live with differences in race, abilities, sexual orientation and more surrounding them. We consider that one of the richest parts of their upbringing. My son’s current aspiration is to be a Power Ranger. When asked what makes him want to be a Power Ranger, he answered, “I want to save the earth.” He is a big believer in protecting the underdog, mostly animals, but also people being hurt. While I believe some of it is just how he’s wired, some comes from constant exposure. The gifts he has that I recommend to you: exposure and perspective-taking. If you come from and live in fairly privileged surroundings, seek out as much diversity as possible.
While food and fun is nice, there is a greater purpose in surrounding yourself with diversity beyond simply exposing yourself and your children to different traditions. The greatest gift, I believe, is perspective-taking. My colleague’s mistake didn’t begin by an admission one day last week that she thinks that we keep creating problems by talking about them. The mistake began years or decades before, when she wasn’t able to see that as the one with privilege, when talking about oppression, it isn’t her perspective that is relevant.
This is where I often get in hot water, but let me explain. If I’m in the store with a black teenager, and she’s being followed, expected to steal, I can see that, or I can not. I am white, I have privilege, and so I have the gift of turning away, explaining it away, or not noticing. That young woman, however, has to face it every day. She doesn’t get to turn it off. She can’t turn away. If I can stop and watch, listen to her stories, believe her, feel the sting of injustice for a bit, I might be changed. I can only do that if I’m around to see (exposure). I can only do that if I learn to take a leap outside of myself to see that my world is not everyone’s (perspective-taking).
The more we are around diversity and difference, the more opportunities we have to see not only the richness of varied culture in food, music and traditions, which is where we feel good, comfortable and safe, but we can also see the struggles, the pain and the insult. Simply by exposing our children to a larger world, and asking, over and over, “what do you think she felt and thought”, we can begin to raise our children to “save the earth.”