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Raised to be White

While I’m writing about white supremacy in Christianity for school, I’m also caring for our baby daughter (now nearly seven months old). So as I’m reading about how we become white, I can’t help but think of how she is becoming white, even at this young age.

We talk about gender in our house and how we influence that for our daughter Elena, from the proverbial pink and blue blanket dilemma to baby nail polish (not yet), ear piercing (maybe) and fluffy dresses with layers of crinoline (yes!). We’re intentional about ethnicity, from celebrating the German-American traditions of my family to learning Spanish, choosing bilingual toys and embracing Elena’s Latino heritage.

When she’s older, I will teach Elena that race is a socio-political construct, a tool of white supremacy, and not a biological fact. But until she can understand “socio-political construct,” what else am I teaching her? How am I passing on to my daughter MY white superiority in ways I don’t recognize?

I wonder about things like:

  • Entitlement: these are “your toys,” “your kitty,” “your car”, “your house”, “your park”
  • Superiority: “you are the smartest girl ever!”, “you are the cutest in all the world”, “you are the best”
  • Centrality: The children in the book of poems I loved as a child are all pale-skinned, except for one brown boy. We have a book “Baby Colors” that teaches colors and has children with different “colors” of skin. How do these images reinforce race as a “biological fact” and white as “standard”?
  • Borders & Intimacy: We move through the world together, mama and baby. I know Ellie can feel how I relax or tense around strangers, how I am “too friendly” (in the way that white people are) with brown-skinned babies and their parents. All those unconscious ways I am white, I am teaching it all to her, without using words.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but my intuition says that I need to ask these questions. I’m aware, too, of the class status that gives me the free time to notice, ponder, and write this while still making it through the day.

I am, of course, concerned with making sure that our daughter sleeps, eats, plays, poops, cuddles, sings, and has all her physical, emotional and spiritual needs met. But one of those spiritual needs (in my world view) is the need to be whole. And I increasingly feel and know that whiteness is soul sickness, and I want my daughter to be healthy and free.

What do you think? Are there ways pale-skinned people can raise our kids to be less white? How do we do that?

13 Responses to “Raised to be White”

  1. I agree, “whiteness is soul sickness.” I’m sure that I unconsciously passed on that soul sickness to my kids and grandkids. But I’m working on making up for it now. My partner, Jala, is proud of raising her daughter to be “black and proud” and she is an accomplished adult now who knows clearly who she is and the wonderful things she can accomplish. I know it’s possible. I suspect it begins with just the questions and awarenesses you are struggling with.

  2. Vanessa says:

    I have two beautiful grandsons. The youngest is only weeks old. Yesterday my daugther looked into his beautiful and wise eyes and said “i wonder if his eyes will stay blue” When do the eyes change” “I hope they stay blue”. Ah, i thought silently how we teach and internalize the power of whiteness even if we are black. I too consider these things and am deeply greatful for my sister Liz who joins me in the circle of women who resist the oppression of racism.
    Love you sis,

  3. I found some resources that are helpful:

    “40 Ways to Raise a Nonracist Child” by Barbara Mahias (a white mother) and Mary Ann French (a black mother). It contains excellent practical tips and also a frank discussion of the race issues they struggled through to write the book.

    Also a children’s book, “Whoever You Are” by Mem Fox, a lovely affirmation for children of many races and colors that they have things in common.

  4. Diana V-B says:

    I can only say, blessings on your journey….& since I trust that Ellie will grow up confident & strong, she will have little need to be White….

  5. Ls Folly says:

    I am having extreme difficulty accepting this concept “whiteness is soul sickness” – slowly researching to determine if I can embrace this one. Sounds like annihilation of “white” is called for in response to this pronouncement. Since it is a given that “whites” are the most shame-based group how does this concept do anything but cause them to grovel apologizing for breathing your air? If a “white” accepts this is truth, how can they ever celebrate self and be a whole person without even more shame and guilt? Just trying to learn and grow here.

    Mixed race children do still suffer greatly and it is such a shock to parents to see that as a society we still have not progressed very much leading to parental guilt – the “OMG what have I done?!?” moment. There are still way too many adults who will accept or deny children as playmates for their own based on the parents ethnicity – and it comes more from minority parents towards white parents than from white parents to minority. Just our experience. It is awful for kids.

    In my childhood a black child would need to earn approval in a white environment as well as require protection. In my kids’ childhood a black kid had a free pass to every social environment unless and until they blew it with bad behavior. Black kids became like social royalty in a way. So there has definitely been change but neither situation is acceptable imho. Will we ever get it right?

    I have seen egregious examples of “white superiority” via ignorance. One time I had a Girl Scout troop for a minute. My co- leader was a young single strange Mormon spinster woman. The girls went for their dance badge and showed all kinds of moves (pre hip-hop) but along those lines. The other leader insulted their magnificent display as “not dancing” and put on “her” music and began twirling her 300 lb self about the room in a modified ballet style until her shoe broke, she went flying, and it was only fast youthful reflexes that kept anybody from getting hurt. It was so cartoonishly and painfully memorable but the kind of “white superiority” you all are speaking of seems to be much more subtle.

    • liz says:

      There IS a lot of shame, you are absolutely right. I think the shame is rooted in whiteness, in an identity that was constructed for people with pale skin by a system of oppression. I don’t think the answer is annihilation, not at all. I think we need to reclaim and embrace our cultural identities, our specific, local stories of our families and ancestors. Talking about it from the perspective of culture creates space for all our identities and experiences which don’t fit in those “race” boxes. Speaking as a white woman, I think culture is also a more useful place for navigating shame, because instead of trying to deal with what “all white people” have done, I can look specifically at my families and our places in those systems of oppression. At least, that’s what I am thinking now… 🙂

      • Ls Folly says:

        I used to have alot of NDN friends. I asked one of them about their way of childrearing. This evolved because of another cartoonishly painful experience where a co-worker was having a Tupperware party and I brought a tribal friend. The grandma (white) was trying to be social in awkward moments and proceeded to make it even more awkward because she expressed her shock at her adult children being normal because as kids “they ran around like a bunch of wild Indians!”

        So I thought of this and all the NDN children I had ever known did not ever play like “white” kids – they were usually much more deliberate. Sure they would get caught up in the excitement of the moment along with the rest of the group just as any kid would. I also never saw NDN teens act out like white, black and Mexican teens do. I think the phrase evolved from the “white” experience of NDN’s in battle doing everything they could to intimidate with their paint, battle cries and rapid movements seemingly disorganized compared to euro ideas of formal battle.

        So my NDN friend that I asked was fresh off the rez and her English was difficult being secondary and all she could tell me was that “We don’t shame our children like you white people do.”

        I think that most traditional cultures around the world have their religion tied up in everything they do every moment of the day. When the harvest is ready, how it is prepared – just everything has spiritual more’s and sayings attached as guidance and to aid in memory of what to do when – how to plant, collecting H20 for bathing, what to do with clippings from your haircut. Having your spirituality permeate every aspect of your life promotes community supportive behavior and even when alone one is not lost the way a separated (from their root culture/spirituality) the way a white euro is just totally lost, totally alone. The culture/spirituality is a guide and a comfort.

        So my friend was unable to describe details – because the difference is so huge – where do you start? This was my first inkling that euro cultures are shame based in ways we do not recognize – so I am still struggling.

        My husbands grandmother had the way with children that she never had to raise her voice. I have known “white” women with the same gift – or rather “breeds” who had the option of adopting the majority culture as their own. My MIL would say “My momma had alot of NDN in her but she didn’t give any of it to me!” This generation desperately wanted to assimilate which is why my husband has no tribal #. Sometimes my MIL would forget her identity because she was sick and she would ask us to gather something to help her that was from her NDN medicine background. So I do try to borrow from NDN medicine for my sick husband because I suspect that although traditional Chinese, and Ayurvedic for examples, do have good effect – I suspect the medicine of your ancestors is better for your genetic composition. So yes I do occasionally borrow when I learn something. . . . like chuchupaste aka bear root is a recent acquisition. It was told to me by a young NDN woman who was very sharing but her boyfriend shamed her for sharing with a white woman – I felt that he shamed her. He comes from a tribe that is right next to town and therefore has strong boundaries/rules to keep separate and she comes from remote region near Canada so how much is her nature and how much is her youthful ignorance due to tribal isolation IDK. Perhaps he did not shame her but without words he conveyed to her that he was very displeased that she shared with me based on my race. This leads me to another issue bugging me alot today.

        Interestingly had long talk with young(er) brown relative and she was reaching out to me in a way that was new – saying she feels like it is war on white people and that she feels sorry for white people. I told her that many minorities wish to inflict pain on whites and that many of us have experienced severe bullying in the workplace for example, based on our race. The thing is that this warfare is conducted as a political act that gives a form of street creds to the perpetrator and I am aware of many people who have experienced this in career damaging life altering extremely damaging extremes. Often the perpetrator sees racism everywhere despite experiencing little to no true racism/prejudice/discrimination themselves and is basing their behavior on stories from their grandmother and a cultural permission that has been given.

        What is bugging me most about this is not just the hideous experience of it but the fact that we are not even allowed vocabulary to express it. We are allowed no word or term. I just read that “reverse racism” – “reverse discrimination” – a term I learned from an activist more than 40 years ago – this is not an acceptable term I am told because it was created by rich white men. “Backlash” is not an acceptable term because I did nothing but happen to be the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time so it is not backlash for anything I did.

        If the aggressor is owning the dialogue through the privilege that has been created with their perpetual “victim” status cannot even own their behaviors or even allow us a word or phrase to name it – we are doomed as a society. Then, if I am not even allowed a name for this very real thing that is quite common; then I am no longer interested in this discussion because no progress can be made. Sure would like some feedback on this please.

      • Ls Folly says:

        Oh I forgot . . . I desperately wanted to learn how to raise in the NDN way but never got the chance so I flunked and I raised in the shame-based way – but learning better ways is important – for the grandkids. We have some “black” in my family too but imho, I have known alot of black people too & I never caught that they are not shame-based and really many are extremely physical with their kids. I can’t knock it because we do what works. I have known kids that needed the physical interruption to their very focused very determined persistence. Kids from African immigrants are different than the descendants from US slaves so there is much unknown to me from there. There has been so much turmoil in Africa that I am unclear how many of those immigrants come from uninterrupted cultures and how much of US black violence on their children is from culture of origin and how much is the legacy of slavery and desperation?

  6. SimonFraser says:

    What is wrong with white people surviving as a racial group somewhere on this planet?

    • liz says:

      Thanks for your comment Simon. I’m not suggesting that white people aren’t worthy of life, dignity and respect. But I do believe that race as a way of categorizing people needs to be eliminated from our society. From its invention about three hundred years ago, race and racial grouping of people was used as a means of ensuring that some people dominated other people. Race isn’t biological, it is social and political. By “whiteness” and “white” I don’t mean pale skin, I mean the grouping of people with pale skin as superior to other people. Does that make sense?

  7. liz says:

    Thanks for your comment. I checked out your video. I disagree that white privilege “died a long time ago.” Even though some people with pale skin experience poverty, unemployment or discrimination based on other factors (which I totally get, being gay) the institutions in this country still favor white cultural norms. I see this every day, from the little ways that people (of all ‘races’) respond to me while I’m shopping to more obvious institutional things like getting pulled over for speeding (and getting off with a warning).

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