See color

February 1, 2015 - 12:00am -- Living City

See color

Teaching our children to not see race implies there is something to hide and harbors shame

By Jen Harris

When your family looks like mine, you notice racism. I am the white mom to five black children, married to a handsome black man. The nuances of race are part of me now, and I notice what others might not. One time my son came home and told me how strange it was to be the only brown boy in his class when they were talking about civil rights, and to know that he wouldn’t have been in that class just a few short decades ago. He knows his friends aren’t like that, and is thankful for it, but he knows that in some hearts it was and still is. That history weighs heavily on the heart of my handsome, inquisitive and sensitive boy, and mine too.

My oldest girl had to answer a question on how the civil rights movement affected her, and how it had changed the world. There on her paper lay the words, “I wouldn’t be here.” She explained about her interracial parents and how we wouldn’t have been allowed to marry then. My children are 14 and under, so when you ask many of them what color they are, you might hear “dark chocolate” or “caramel,” and at one point my youngest girl decided she looked like peanut butter, which is exactly right on.

But once, my oldest walked in to our home and asked me if she was “colored.” Uh, well … yes, kind of. We had a discussion about what that term historically has meant, and whether she would like to refer to herself as a woman of color. To me, that conjures up ideas of strong and beautiful, but for others “colored” is reserved for segregated water fountains or bus seats. I will fight with all that I am so that my children — and everyone’s children — never feel beneath anyone else. As my children grow and learn about the slave trade, African history and civil rights, it has brought beautiful discussions. But I wonder if those talks are happening in homes where the children are “vanilla.” I recently sat playing games with some dear friends, and the conversation turned to the race of my children and some of our experiences as a family.

Some said they don’t see race and teach their children to be colorblind. Others believed racism to no longer be an issue in the U.S. and said they never hear about it happening. And they don’t. But not because it doesn’t exist; it’s because it isn’t on their radar. There is an aspect of being white in America that brings a privilege that is hard to understand unless you’ve been on the opposite side of it. By privilege I mean you don’t have to concern yourself with the nuances of race, subtle or not so subtle.

You may not notice the truck in front of you at kindergarten pick-up with the white-power sticker in the window. You don’t have to wonder what that means for your son to go to school with the child buckling in its backseat. Your little one won’t come home and say that a friend can’t play with him or her because their skin is brown. When your son is studying the history of slavery and civil rights, he probably will not come home and weep at the hurt it caused him.

You will not scurry for words to make sure he will not internalize the hate he learned of, while the sting of your own tears burns your eyes. Chances are that people will think your husband has kept his job through many layoffs because he excels at what he does, rather than hearing people whisper that it must be his race that has kept him there.

In conversation with my friends, one pointed out that my children are just as much white as they are black. While that may be genetically true, unless you know me as their mom, our society will label them as black. And they are — it’s a beautiful thing. It should be celebrated, and I am raising them to be proud of their rich heritage.

Teaching our children to not see race implies there is something to hide, and it harbors shame. We need to see color. It is impossible not to. My daughter’s very loving and well intentioned teacher told her it’s not nice to call people black. But she is black. Telling her it’s not nice makes her feel like she’s not nice. Please don’t teach children to be colorblind or to ignore differences. Noticing gives value and worth to others. Teach them to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation.

When you silence a child’s questions, it teaches shame. Don’t give it that power. I’ve seen parents get embarrassed when their child asks how I look the way I do when the rest of my family looks so different than me. I simply say, “that is how God put this family together — isn’t that crazy cool!”

Isn’t it awesome that we can be so varied on the outside but have hearts that want the same things? Isn’t it something worth celebrating that God made this little girl’s hair tightly curled and yours lays perfectly straight, the color of the sun? Isn’t it beautiful that this little boy giggles at the same things you do, but his skin is the color of the football in your hands? It may sound simple. But, these things truly are beautiful. We are all God’s children. We are all of great value and worth. That is something we have to intentionally teach our children in every home.

One of the most beautiful experiences happened to us not long after moving in to our very homogenous new neighborhood. I was at the bus stop with our daughter one morning, and the little white neighbor girl had her hair done in tiny braids all over her head like my Grace often wore. Her mom, somewhat embarrassed, said, “I hope it’s okay she wanted her hair done like Grace.” I told her, “Of course, she looks beautiful!” As the bus left, I thanked that mom. Allowing her daughter to do that affirmed my daughter’s beauty in the eyes of that little girl. It celebrated her uniqueness and was a powerful teaching moment for them. For my little girl, who was beginning to notice how very different she looked from her classmates, it validated her. It said, “Yes, you may look different, but I celebrate you and think you are beautiful.”

I was raised in an all-white home. Differences were celebrated as a way of putting the Gospel into practice. It made me who I am. It probably created the family I have. It has opened up my world to a beauty and richness that far too many don’t see yet. See others with eyes like Jesus. Introduce your children to that world, and emphasize unity among us. Teach them to live fully in the sea of diversity and to not be afraid of it. I am swimming in that sea, and it is the most brilliant view of what heaven will be like. For that, I am grateful.

Read more by Jen Harris at: