Let's Hear It for Skin

UPDATE: I wrote this last week, before the internet exploded with discussions of racial identity fueled by a white woman passing for black, before our hearts were broken by Charleston’s violent reminder of one real possible consequence of being born black in America.  In light of all that, my post seems both prescient and naive.  We are not as far along the road of compassion [feeling WITH] as I had hoped.
When I posted the above on my Facebook page, it received an enormous number of likes.  I don’t know where it originated, but it’s a popular picture for sure. When I first saw it I was immediately reminded of this Sesame Street video, from back when my kids were little:

I’ve always admired the way Sesame Street “does” race.  It reminds me of Star Trek (the original series, not that preachy TNG).  Both show a positive vision–people of all colors working side by side, respecting one another, playing together.  No one talks about it much; it’s just accepted.  As in the Vulcan ideal of IDIC – infinite diversity in infinite combinations, people don’t fear differences; rather they rejoice in them.
It has to be clear to anyone with eyes that our society is still deeply divided along racial lines, that many if not most of us still harbor prejudices, sometimes even despite ourselves.  Yet the fact that so many people “Like” the sweet picture above gives me hope.  We aspire to acceptance and love of all races even if we aren’t quite there yet.  We acknowledge the beauty of our many different colors, and that’s a start.
I have posted this on the #1000Speak for Compassion linkup, and you can (and should) read the other posts HERE.
Linking this up today with #worthrevisit, which gives Catholic bloggers a welcome chance to recycle some posts!  Check out the rest of the collection by clicking below.   Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb are hosting; take some time to check out their blogs too!

The Little Black Boy

Most of my classes my first year at Georgetown were part of the Liberal Arts Seminar, an interdisciplinary course taught by renowned professors of English, Theology, Philosophy, and History.  Our English professor, Wordsworth scholar Paul F. Betz, introduced us to pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  When I read yesterday about little African-American children showing signs of white bias, I thought of his poem “The Little Black Boy,” and I wanted to share it with you.  The pictures at the beginning and end of this post are Blake’s own original illustrations.

by: William Blake (1757-1827)
Y mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O, my soul is white!
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereaved of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And, sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissèd me,
And, pointing to the East, began to say:
‘Look at the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
‘And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
‘For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, “Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”‘
Thus did my mother say, and kissèd me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father’s knee;
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

Talking to Kids about Race

Update: I wrote this five years ago.  I think many of us hoped racism would die simply die out along with elderly racists.  What happened in Charleston makes it clear that racism persists even in the young.  So those of us who are parents have a responsibility to try to raise non-racist children.  I find myself doing this differently now and actually talking more about race with my younger kids than I did with my older ones.
When I was a freshman at Georgetown and missing my eight-year-old sister, I decided to join the campus tutoring program for children living in Sursum Corda, a D.C. housing project.  For four years I made weekly trips to the home of my “tutees,” Shamica and Ikisha.  Some time I will write a whole post about that experience, but today I just want to say that they taught me far more than I taught them.  Ikisha and I are Facebook friends–our relationship has lasted 22 years now!  Almost every day she posts something that inspires or teaches me.
Yesterday she shared the following CNN story:

(CNN) — A white child looks at a picture of a black child and says she’s bad because she’s black. A black child says a white child is ugly because he’s white. A white child says a black child is dumb because she has dark skin.
This isn’t a schoolyard fight that takes a racial turn, not a vestige of the “Jim Crow” South; these are American schoolchildren in 2010.
Nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and more than a year after the election of the country’s first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white, according to a new study commissioned by CNN.

You can read the rest of the story here.  And if you want to see a little white girl answering the study questions, you can watch here.
Raising “color blind” children has been a goal of ours.  From the time our kids were little, we were careful never to describe people in terms of race.  We wanted our kids to think of skin color as just another attribute, like hair or eye color, not a defining characteristic.  We did not discuss race with our kids when they were little because we didn’t want to draw their attention to it.  Even now William and Lorelei don’t necessarily call themselves white–they might say they have pinkish skin, and refer to an African-American as a brown person.  We were happy about living (until recently) in a diverse community, where people of all colors shopped at the same grocery store, and where William’s classmates at Belle Morris, where he attended first grade, included many Latino and African-American children and even a little boy just arrived from Burundi.
In contrast, the CNN study reported that black parents start talking about race with their children early, because they believe the kids need to be prepared for prejudice and to give them a positive racial identity to counteract societal messages.  But even this early intervention does not prevent their children from picking up “white bias” from the society in which they live.
I will never forget how shocked I was when Jake, then about three years old, saw a tall black man going into a gas station one day and announced, “He must be a basketball player.”  Granted, stereotyping someone as a basketball player is better than stereotyping him as a criminal, but I still was amazed that Jake had already formed his own prejudices from what he saw in society at such an early age.  I don’t remember our ensuing conversation, although I’m sure I asked him why he thought that, and offered some different ways of thinking.  And as my kids have grown older, we have had many conversations about race, with the kids being mostly baffled at the way some people think about and treat those who are different from them.
Without disagreeing about the need for education, conversation, and discussion, I still feel that simply being friends with a variety of people is the best way for all of us to appreciate that we are more alike than we are different.  As I said to Ikisha on Facebook yesterday, I’ve always loved the way Sesame Street does diversity, or at least the way I remember the show handling it when I was a child:  by showing a variety of people living, working, and playing together in the same neighborhood, where it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, or fuzzy and blue, like this.
I just conducted my own experiment by drawing little cartoon girls in various colors and showing them to Lorelei.  What can I say–my kids always behave in unpredictable ways.  The girl I drew with the black crayon got the most favorable marks because black is her favorite color.  The fair skinned one drew her ire because she has a wild imagination and decided it was a depiction of a particular person she doesn’t like.  Then she drew a little girl who was supposed to be herself–for the record, she chose a pink crayon.