Raising white men in America

I mentioned in passing yesterday that I think there's a special responsibility when you're raising white boys to be men in America. (Maybe in other countries, too, but I can only speak to America as here and Mexico are the only places I've ever lived.) A couple people asked in the comments and by email for me to expound on my thoughts.

As with everything, I'm not an expert. But when my first child came out and was a boy, I started thinking about what my job was in raising him. I'd been prepared to raise a strong girl, but hadn't put as much thought into how to raise a truly strong boy. Once I started thinking about that, it occurred to me that I also had the responsibility to raise a child who was going to have some understanding of race and ethinitcity in America and wasn't going to take undue advantage of the system.

The first part of this is raising kids who are happy with who they are, who know what makes them special, and who are willing to work hard but also know their own areas of competence. If you really know who you are, then you don't need to think less of anyone else. You all have seen it on the internet--the people who attack (obviously or passively) are the ones who aren't sure about themselves.

With the next step, I have a huge advantage. We live in New York City, so we bump into (literally) people of all races and ethnicities all day long every day. We ride the subway and bus, and interact with people wherever we are. When you have the chance to see people who look different from you and from each other, it's easy to show your kids that people are people. Knowing people of other ethnicities is the best way to lessen interpersonal racism, because you know they are people, not just  categories.

I'm not sure how I'd work it if I lived in a place in which there wasn't as much opportunity for one-on-one interaction with people who didn't look like my kids. I grew up in a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly white but my parents had a variety of friends from different backgrounds. And they had the idea that we should know about more places and people than just the ones on our street. That openness informed the way they chose books and toys and TV shows for us to watch and helped us navigate things later on.

I think the bigger challenge than helping your kids avoid interpersonal racism is dealing with institutional racism. In my opinion, institutional racism is far more evil and hard to fight. The biggest problem is that, for white people at least, it's invisible. It just looks like The Way It Is, and unless someone talks about it with you, it can be hard to understand that the status quo isn't necessarily fair or just, and is putting some people in a position of superiority to others. Then once you know that, it's even harder to figure out what you can do not to reinforce that system.

So, what's the best way to smoke something out? Talk about it. And talk and talk and talk. In an age-appropriate way, of course, but when you see any kind of bias going on, talk about it with your kids. This election cycle is a bonus of teachable moments if your kids are 5 or older. (Both on women's history and on race and ethnicity in America.) The news (at least here in NYC) is also an unfortunate object lesson if you're willing to talk about why a kid with a candy bar gets shot for being in the "wrong" neighborhood.

I sometimes worry about saying the wrong thing. But then I think, as long as I'm keeping my eyes open and listening to what's going on and helping my kids learn to distinguish appearances from reality, whatever we say is part of the process. It's not like you can just swallow a Don't Be Part Of The Problem pill and everything's fixed. Human beings are born to make classifications and divisions, and unpacking that takes a long time and a willingness to keep up the conversation even when it's not happy.

I learned a heck of a lot about institutional racism from reading blogs of people who write a lot about race (some of them are about transracial adoption):

Anti-Racist Parent

American Family (and her entire blogroll)



Peter's Cross Station

If you start with any one of these blogs and start reading and following links, you will read some important stuff by some thoughtful people. And if you're white like me and my kids, you will probably read somethings that make you feel uncomfortable at best. That's part of the process. You need to know. So do your kids. I know they have more practical suggestions than I do, but then, I'm still trying to find a path through it myself.