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Empathy: The Antidote to Racism (Part II of the Talking Racism with White Kids Series)

This article is the third installment in a three part series, Talking Racism with White Kids, which was originally published in Natural Mother Magazine in July 2016. You can read Part I here and Part II here.

Did you know the antidote to racism is already inside of you? We are all born with it. The antidote to our propensity for stereotyping and prejudice – a necessary side effect of our ancestors’ dangerous lives – is in our amazing neocortex just waiting for us to activate it.

It’s called empathy and it is a skill that like a muscle can be worked out and strengthened no matter your age. When we activate it at birth and train it to be powerful and second-nature, racism has almost no chance of taking root. Racism and empathy can not exist side by side. One side must win and it will always be the side we feed.

How do we feed our empathy and not our prejudices? Let’s look at the developmental stages of empathy.

Birth – 3 years: Foundational Skills

Humans are prone, just like we are prone to fear snakes, to be empathetic. Our development during the first five years is really an exercise in developing the concept of “self” and of “other” which is the basis of all empathy. At birth infants are primed to notice and focus on human faces. At 7-9 months of age infants understand the concept of attention to objects by others. This shared-attention is the result of the baby understanding that a person besides themselves finds an object of interest, and is a milestone in the development of this sense of “self” and “other”. By 12 months old infants can predict the behavior of someone else, further demonstrating a rudimentary sense of “other”. 18 month olds show understanding of another person’s goals and intentions but do not do so for inanimate objects. And by 24 month olds, emerging toddlers begin to display comforting behavior in social situations (see the research here.) We are social animals so of course attention to the mental states of others would be part of our neocortex tool box.

You might wonder how you can teach a baby about racism before they can even utter “mama”. That’s because the first set of ideas you’ll want to impart are not about racism at all but about developing it’s antidote: empathy.

Racism sits on a foundation of hierarchy – the idea that one person is more important or worthy and deserving of power than another – and conformity – the idea that people should groom themselves into an “ideal” version of themselves as dictated by society’s standards. We make racism a comfy companion when we raise kids with hierarchy and conformity as standards of parenting.

For my parenting courses, I created the “Parenting Onion” (I originally called it the parenting roadmap but “onion” just kind of stuck and is much more descriptive) to look at the development of empathy and pro-social skills in children.

The first three layers are about SELF because all respect, all love, stems from self-respect and self-love. Hence, respect for bodies, feelings, and identity (choice) becomes the foundational skills for the next three layers: respect for OTHERS.

In order for a human to fully have respect for others they have to have respect for themselves and they develop that by being respected by their primary caregivers.

Mainstream parenting is based on the opposite of respect. It is based on control (the actionable side of hierarchy) and conditionality (the heavily adultist version of conformity). We say, “my way or the highway” and, “because I said so” and parents are harshly treated in public discourse for having kids who are “out of control.” (See the recent parental blame regarding the boy who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cinncinnatti zoo.)

Kids raised this way see the world as naturally hierarchical. They see some groups (children) are weak and wholly beholden to other groups (adults) with all the power. How easily this skeletal framework wears racism!

If, instead, we treated our children as whole and equal and worthy fellow humans instead of a class of people designed to be controlled, how much more difficult a time would racism have taking root? Bolster your child’s racism “immune system” by teaching them that all people, including and starting with their own self, deserve to have their bodies respected, their feelings heard and validated, and their needs and choices considered equally important to every other human on the planet. This core belief gives them a defense to racist ideas born from the incongruity of racist ideology to their lived experience. Treat children with respect and change the world.

Let’s look at the three layers of respect for SELF and how we either support or undermine it.

1. Respect your child’s body as their own.

Ingrain in them that they have a body that is THEIRS and they get to decide what happens with it and to it. You can do this by making consent a core value of your parenting. Choose wisely, much more wisely than traditional parenting, the areas where you are going to demand something of them. Being buckled in a car seat might be non negotiable. What they wear, when and how they wash themselves, who they “have to” hug, these are areas where we can give our children much more respect for self than they would get in the traditional control-obedience paradigm of mainstream parenting.

Their belief that they own their bodies will naturally evolve into an understanding that all people deserve to have autonomy over their bodies.

2. Validate your child’s feelings.

Control-paradigm parenting denies children their feelings often. And I get the lure. Young kids will say they’re hot in the snow, they’re hungry after demolishing a large pizza, they’re “not tired” as they rub their eyes. It is easy to just say “no you aren’t” and force them into a coat, to wait for dinner, or to go to bed. We are encouraged by our culture to do exactly that. Control, by definition, puts the child’s feelings on the back burner in preference to the adult’s feelings which are always “right” while the child’s are “wrong” or “silly”. Instill in them the idea that a person, any person, all persons, deserve to have their feelings and thoughts valued even when, or especially when, we don’t agree with them.

This will evolve into a firm belief that all people deserve to have their feelings validated.

3. Validate your child’s identity.

This is so crucial and such a hot topic these days with the discussion of transgender people. You can not, I’ll repeat CAN NOT, teach self-love by disrespecting the spoken identity of a person. It is not compatible. This is because respecting someone else explicitly means respecting their identity. If your three year old says, “I’m a lion today,” say, “hello, lion!” When my child wants to be called Speed instead of Boston, I try my best to call them Speed (no joke, this actually happens a few times a month). Which isn’t to be confused with permissive parenting. If Speed’s feelings matter then so do the other people around him. If a situation requires non-lion, non-Speed behavior, like at the grocery store, I don’t say, “knock if off Boston. You’re not a lion now.” Instead I say, “Hey Speed? Running in the store is dangerous so we need to rest your legs until we get home. I bet they’ll be even faster after a break!” I want to instill in him a sense that he is not the labels anyone else puts on him. He gets to choose what he identifies as. No one else can.

This will evolve to grant this right of self-identity to all people. Can you see how some recent bigotry in the news would dissolve if all people embraced this truth?

Age 4 – 10: Extending the Foundation to the “Other”

The next three sections of the onion finally get into how we treat other people (and although there is a reason I start this section at age 4, which I’ll explain shorty, you can actually practice these things from birth.) The first three layers have created a child that expects human interactions to be mutual and pleasant. Navigating “discipline” with a spirit of mutual respect and emotional connection has primed them for applying this outside the parent/child relationship. The only thing missing is a developmental milestone called Theory of Mind.

Around age 4 children develop a new mental ability crucial to the development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy is not, “if that were happening to me I’d be sad” but rather, “I understand that these circumstances are making you angry (regardless of how *I* would feel in the situation).” Before the development of ToM children literally can’t imagine another person’s frame of reference.

ToM refers to a person’s ability to understand that other people have different thoughts and ideas completely separate from their own and it is demonstrated in the famous Sally Anne False Belief test. In this experiment the researcher uses dolls to present the following scenario to the child test subject.

Before (approximately) age 4 kids will answer that Sally will look for the apple in the blue backpack. They haven’t yet reached the mental milestone of understanding that even though they, as the observer of what Anne did, know that the apple is in the backpack, Sally, being out of the room at the time, holds a different view in her mind of where the apple is. This seemingly simple task of recognizing that another person holds a different view of the world in their mind is a major step in the development of empathy.

The goals of the OTHER layers – respect for people, diversity, and culture – are achieved by expanding on the values of the inner, SELF layers. Let’s look at some specific ways to we can accomplish this.

4. Practice perspective taking.

I think perspective taking is the single most valuable tool in creating a better world. The skill of imagining what another person is experiencing/feeling/thinking and understanding that their experience/feelings/thoughts are completely separate and completely different from our own is a huge developmental milestone.

Its super easy to practice too. Humans, with their big brains, developed a powerful way to practice our empathy muscles: storytelling. Books, television, and movies aren’t the mindless drivel some people want to convince you they are. Storytelling has been used for millennia to teach lessons about life (parables and fables for example) and we can use them to talk about race too. I love this list from HumaneEducation.org of 14 picture books about racism for children under 10. And this list from NPR of novels about race and racism for adolescents.

This is one of many reasons that we are not a screen free home. The stories we tell through books, TV and movies can be excellent tools for talking about a myriad of things. All you have to do is ask open ended questions like, “what do you think that person/character is thinking/feeling/experiencing?” Give your own opinion without the shade of authority, “That’s interesting. I thought…” When we say instead with authority, “no, this is what they’re thinking” we shutdown dialog.

By practicing focusing our attention on the perspective of others we increase our capacity to empathize with them. More importantly, the act of thinking about others becomes habit. It becomes something we naturally do with each person we meet without conscious thought on our part. (Psst: we just tricked our prejudice-prone brains to turn off, at least for fellow human beings, our curvy-stick-might-as-well-be-a-snake short-cutting!)

5. Model emotional literacy.

We often think of parenting as tools and skills to manage young people. We are so wrong. Parenting is about personal development. It’s not called CHILDing but PARENTing. It is about being the best version of ourselves today and growing better every day. That might sound scary but I actually think it is kind of awesome. It means taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do for your kids. When I do metta meditation (see the January issue of NMM’s article Compassion Training) it is amazingly self-serving. It feels good. I get to grow and expand. It is simultaneously self-centered and one of the best things I can give my kids because it helps me become more empathetic and I can then model that for my kids.

Like reading literacy, which means a person can read and understand the written word, emotional literacy means we can identify, understand, and successfully manage our own emotions. It is essential to be able to “read” ourselves before we can gain insight into another’s emotions through perspective taking.
When you are angry, name that. When you are sad, name that. If you can’t in the moment then do it later (“I was really angry this morning.”) Be transparent in why you have feelings (“I think it is because I didn’t get enough sleep/I was hungry/I was in a hurry/seeing marker on the wall really upset me.”) and how you managed them (“I had something to eat/talked it out/did yoga and that helped me calm down.”) Every time you do this you model dealing with human emotions. You demonstrate that everyone feels out of control sometimes and that those feelings are both normal and manageable. It is an amazing lesson in resilience as well as giving them practice in identifying the emotions of others.

6. Celebrate Diversity

The acquisition of language is a trial in unseeing the unique and instead grouping the alike. All those unique individuals are “trees”, all of those varied, hairy animals are called “cows”, unique people with melanin-rich skin are called “black.”

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. I’m not calling on you to stop teaching your kids language (like we could if we wanted to!). I do think it is a crucial period of human development to ALSO point out the similarities shared by things that appear to be different and to instill an appreciation of variety. Yes a housecat and a horse seem to have very little in common. But, on closer inspection, what do they have in common? Four legs. Covered in hair. Live birth. Making milk for babies. (If you’re a homeschooler you’re probably seeing the biology taxonomy lesson here). A tree and a panda bear have nothing in common, right? Or maybe we could help our kids see that both need food and water, they both desire to reproduce, both want to thrive. If we can show (or develop) our own awe at the beautiful variety in the world around us, our kids will pick it up.

The leap from “how sad the world would be if all the trees looked exactly the same” to “how sad would it be if all people looked exactly the same” to the fundamental belief that it is exactly that diversity that makes us wondrous and powerful isn’t too far to jump if you learn it when you are a child. Kids raised this way will have an easier time seeing that, despite of our differences in skin color, we have amazing similarities that are much deeper than appearance.

7. Celebrate Culture

Finally, the Parenting Onion looks at celebrating culture. This can look like attending cultural festivals, visiting cultural centers, and expanding our social circle past people who are similar to us but, even more valuable, is that this forces us to look at what culture is.

Allow me to veer into evolutionary biology again. I’ve talked about how our brains grew to be quick-thinking, short-cut generating machines. This kept us alive (read part I for an explanation). We also have this capacity for empathy in our big, impressive neocortex. But, there’s another part of the amazingness of human evolution that can’t be ignored: culture.

Culture is different from other ways humans learn because it is made by humans. A human child is born knowing how to suck. No one teaches them this the way no one teaches a sea turtle to lay her eggs on the beach. This is instinct.

Humans also learn to chew through their own experimentation with food. We aren’t born knowing how to chew but we learn through experience. This is experiential learning.

We also learn that it is rude to chew with your mouth open. Is this something we learn through experimentation? No. We learn it through another human telling us (either through example, being told outright, or punishment/shame). This is social learning.

This is such an important distinction. Our culture is influenced by where and to whom we were born. It is dangerous and wrong to think that our particular culture is reality or “better than” another.

If I had been born in ancient Sparta I would find it perfectly normal to give my children to the state at age seven for brutal, violent training to be soldiers. This would be normal to me. If I had been born in the Sambia tribe I would find it quite normal that adult men receive fellatio from adolescent boys as part of a coming-of-age ritual. This would be “just how the world works.” I’m hardly advocating either one of those. I was born in a rural mid-west town and my “normal” says that violence against children is wrong and sexual acts with children are worse. I’m not even remotely interested in changing my viewpoint on either of those topics.

However, I am acutely aware that my viewpoint is just that – a collection of ideas, ideals, rules, and ethics – that are completely dependent upon my arbitrary birth into this particular culture. This perspective created by my social learning, is called a frame of reference and not understanding our own frame of reference pushes us into prejudice.

A personal example, my freshman year of college I went to church with a friend from my dorm. It was a “black church”. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white church and a black church. I remember at 18 years old thinking the people in the black church were rude and rowdy. I was very uncomfortable.

My frame of reference, my cultural knowledge that was passed to me through my parents and other adults, was that it is rude to speak out in church. That public displays of emotion were inappropriate. I was judging people from a different cultural upbringing based on my cultural frame of reference and expecting them to conform. This is prejudice pure and simple. (And you’ll notice it didn’t require hate or racial slurs.)

Much misunderstanding and violence is caused by not understanding our frame of reference. When Christopher Columbus met the Taino people he saw them as both savage and “simple”. His frame of reference was that “civilized” people wore layers of clothes and shoes and that “smart” people built huge cities, had a written language, and fought with guns. His misinterpretation of the culture of the Taino people launched a century of genocide and forced assimilation to Columbus’ culture – his religion, his form of education, his language, his form of civilization. Meanwhile all of Columbus’ successors and the financial backers in Europe prided themselves on “saving” the “savages” because European culture was obviously better.

They were blind to their own frame of reference like fish are blind to water.

Teaching kids about the culture of others by going to a cultural festival is wonderful. But don’t forget to teach them that they have a culture too and that while it seems ubiquitous and “true” it is only one possible frame of reference. Teach them to guard against prejudice that might crop up because they believe “their way” is the only way.

It might seem like I haven’t talked about racism much in this article. That was intentional. Racism is a secondary infection, a symptom of the underlying virus plaguing our world. Racism is a direct result of things like hierarchical, control-based social stratification and a lack of understanding of how our fancy, powerful neocorticies function. The cure then is to find the seemingly unrelated practices and beliefs that allow this infection to run rampant and cure the underlying problem.

I certainly hope you talk to your kids openly about racism (since we know children are not colorblind) and teach them the modern, researched-based understanding of racial bias. But it will all wash away like water off a duck’s back if the underlying ideas of self-respect and empathy aren’t included. On the other hand, raise kids with mutual respect, autonomy, and empathy and racism won’t ever be able to take hold.

Frequently Asked Questions

“My three year old pointed to a black person and said, “that person is chocolate,” I wanted to melt into the floor. What should I have said?”
The most important thing to do when your child embarasses you because of something concerning race is that you don’t shush or reprimand them. They don’t know it is rude to call out someone’s appearance. That’s a cultural rule that they aren’t born with. If you lead with that – “shhh, don’t say that” – you’ve made yourself more comfortable (and probably the person of color who overheard) but you’ve taught your child that “race” is taboo. Like swatting their hand away when they touch their genitals teaches them that there is something dangerous or bad about sex, silencing them or distracting them about race tells them there is something dangerous or bad about color. Kind of the exact opposite of what you want them to learn.

Start off by saying something positive and validating. “She does have beautiful skin!” or “I see, she is a chocolatey color.” or, “Isn’t it cool how people come in different colors like flowers?” If the person being pointed at is aware I’d also say, “do you want to say hi or wave to her?” Maybe point out the similarities, “she’s buying bananas too!” For a three year old being open and positive is important. Your primary goal is that they know talking to their parent about race is ok and that color differences are amazing and not taboo. This sets up an openness that will serve you both as your child ages.

What if a story I’m reading to my child or a show we are watching does something racist?
This is a great question because so many of the media we consume is profoundly racist. Sometimes I skip a work I know to be racist but other times it can be a wonderful prompt for discussing difficult topics. There are many resources online for talking about the racism in “classic” children’s books. For example, PBS has a [whole curriculum around the racial issues in Huckleberry Finn: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/section1_1.html]. Know the context of the work as well. We know Huck Finn to be racist today but when it came out in 1885 it was considered “vulgar” simply because it had a white boy being friends with a black person. We’ve progressed in seeing it as racism. But are the stereotypes of Jim so different from what black people experience today? It is a great opportunity for discussion.

Also, don’t be afraid to show how shocked you are. If you hear someone on a show say something racist, say so! Let your kids see that you analyze your media and question it when it is telling you something wrong.

My kids are multi-racial and I am white. How do I teach them about racism?
This was the question I was most frequently asked. I’m a white woman raising white kids and, if you remember last month, I said that de-centering whiteness is an important part of being anti-racist. Part of this means that everyone should stay in their own lane of experience and expertise. I can not give advice on a reality I don’t live. I shouldn’t. But I can point you to some writers discussing this topic;

Multiracial Child Resource Book: Living Complex Identities
Edited by Maria P.P. Root and Matt Kelley

Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children
By Donna Jackson Nakazawa

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World
By Marguerite Wright

I live in an all white area. How do I teach my kids to appreciate different races?
Hello, fellow middle-american! I also live in a very homogenous area. I was eighteen years old the first time I met a black person. No, really! For now at least I’m also raising three white kids in the same hometown. How to do this and still raise anti-racists is very important to me.

First, if your means allow, try to drive to activities in nearby cities so your kids won’t be like me on their first day on campus. I drive an hour north to use the YMCA or for some of their playgrounds. I like seeing my kids run around and have fun with a myriad of different colors of skin. We also go to cultural events whenever we can – from drum circles put on by local Native American tribes to the local Greek cultural festival.

That isn’t always possible but never fear there are many ways to make your environment diverse. Look at your toys, movies, books, and art supplies. Are they diverse? Is your only “flesh” toned crayon a peach one? Are all your dolls white? Are all your books and tv and movies featuring only white characters? Diversify your children’s environment. Here’s a list of some great toys and books that are racially diverse (as well as queer and ability positive).

Lastly, break up your culturally conditioned holidays. Thanksgiving and Columbus day shouldn’t be celebrated without the historical context. Halloween shouldn’t consist of culturally appropriative costumes. Expand into new-to-you holidays like Juneteenth and Kwanzaa. My two can’t-live-without resources for this are Teaching Tolerance and The Zinn Education Project, both have lesson plans and resources for teaching non-white-washed history as well as learning about racism.

My kids are all over ten, is it too late?
It is never too late. I was in my twenties when I started learning about racism. My dad was sixty. And the same resources you use for learning about racism can be used or adapted for teenagers. Teaching Tolerance and Zinn (links above) both have searchable teaching resources where you can limit by age group and topic.

Make it a family affair! I know a family with older kids that are watching W. Kamau Bell’s excellent series on CNN called The United Shades of America. Here’s a list of documentaries you can watch online about race. Model ongoing learning and expanding of your understanding of race as something grown ups do too. This will create lifelong learners.

My family member is overtly racist. I don’t want my kids picking this up. What can I do?
You have a right to filter out racism from your kids environment. A person violating this does not belong around your children. In my opinion, that person has a choice: stop using racist language or stop seeing my kids. You have a right and responsibility to set healthy boundaries.

Don’t be a racism bystander. Let your kids see you put your foot down and stand up for racial justice. This might take practice as we’ve been taught from birth not to talk about race (and also, perhaps, not to question our elders). I may have started years ago with a timid, “that is racist, please stop.” But the more I engage the easier it becomes. Now friends and family know they’re in for an ear-full if they utter bigotry around me. You’ve no doubt heard the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is how you live that. Be the good person doing something.

If your kids are older and getting savvy at all things race, let them loose on your relative. There is nothing quite like being schooled by a eleven year old to make you rethink your stance. Plus your kids will gain that valuable skill of being a good person doing something.

My area is super racist. How do I protect my kids?
Don’t protect them, arm them with information. I live in a tiny town in Ohio with more confederate flags per capita than should be normal. I can’t ignore this and let my kids develop their own ideas about those flags (and now, Trump signs) so I don’t. “Hey kids, see that flag? It is a symbol for racism…”

I know that anti-racists often get slack for being “intolerant” of others with different views. Turning our own words back on us to make us flounder. Don’t be swayed. You have every right and a huge pile of responsibility to be 100% INTOLERANT of racism. I tell my kids that everyone who is racist isn’t a bad person at heart. While they have an individual responsibility to not participate in racism they were also trained by their culture to be racist. This isn’t an excuse but a valuable way to hold empathy for a person you disagree with vociferously. We should treat them with dignity and respect as all humans deserve to be treated. That being said there is no reason that you or your children need to accommodate racism. Even (especially) if it is couched in “southern pride” (I’ll remind you I live in OHIO, well north of the Mason-Dixon).

Even young kids can learn the history of the confederate flag (it includes pirates!). Knowledge is power.

How do I talk to my kids about racism in the news?
I’m glad you asked because people often ignore current events with their kids and I think this is a mistake. You are growing a human being to be independent and valuable to society. You can’t do that if you don’t engage them in the very real events of the day.

Anytime an event happens you can usually Google, “how to talk to kids about [fill in blank]” and you’ll find some advice. For example, this guide discusses how to talk to kids from preschool to highschool about the Orlando massacre.

Remember when you’re talking to your kids you don’t have to pretend to be all-knowing. Be real and raw. If it makes you cry, let them see that. If it makes you afraid, tell them that honestly. I know we don’t want terror to rule our kids’ lives but pretending never works. Kids are master pretenders and they’ll see right through you if you try to downplay your natural reaction. Don’t sugar coat the incident and please don’t white-wash it. A “bad man” didn’t shoot “some people.” A homophobic, racist white man killed latinx queer folk. A “bad cop” didn’t shoot a 12 year old. A racist cop murdered a black boy. If you pretend that color/sexuality had nothing to do with it you are telling your kids a lie. Maybe your three year old doesn’t know the difference but every time you use the words it helps it seep in a little more and makes you better at the conversations. By the time your teen comes to you with something deep you’ll be ready because you’ve been being real and honest since they were babies.

What questions do you have about raising white kids to be anti-racist? I’d love to hear them! Contact me via message at facebook.com/parentinggently.

10 Ways White People Get Racism Wrong (Part II of Talking About Racism with White Kids)

(This article is the second installment in a three part series for white parents that was originally published in Natural Mother Magazine in June, 2016. You can read part I here.)

In Part I I made the case that one of the major roadblocks to dismantling racism is that white parents don’t talk about racism with their white kids. Or, they wait till they are teenagers missing crucial periods when science tells us kids’ views of race are being solidified. The reality, we find, is that even babies notice race and children as young as four are developing stereotypes and even prejudices about people of other races (often in direct opposition to the attitudes we’d share if we were talking about it with them). The task is clear that we can not wait and we can not remain silent on this important topic. Our kids need us to be talking about racism early and often.

So, what next? I was going to dive into teaching empathy and diversity, offer some resources, and model some conversations but I’ve decided to push that into part III. Why? Because there is another enormous roadblock we have to navigate around before those steps make sense. And here it is: most white adults know very little about racism and are overburdened with misconceptions about it.

In order to teach our kids about racism we first have to address some of the deficiencies in our own understanding of race. Rooting out our own racism is the single best step we can take to raise anti-racist kids. They will see us model our own seeking and enlightenment on the issue and will hopefully be freed from some of the misconceptions we labor under. But, why do we have so many misconceptions about racism?

Remember in elementary school when we learned about human reproduction? People come in two types – male, XY and female, XX – and these were often conflated without thought to “boy” and “girl”. This, we know now, is a completely false, massive oversimplification of the reality of human sex that obscures the very existence of over 200,000 births EVERY DAY that don’t fit this falsehood. I’m not sure why they told us something so wrong. Maybe it was religious obfuscation or just a worry that kids so young “can’t handle” the truth (similar to how people erroneously feel about discussing racism) or, at least in part, the truth of human sexuality just hadn’t trickled down to the non-sexuality researcher in a pre-Internet world. Whatever the reason it’s time we re-educated ourselves about sexuality and racism.

We would laugh (or maybe cry) if someone told us we had to use a 1981 personal computer (with a whopping 16 kb (yes KILObytes) of memory). It’s been 35 years! Science and technology are ever changing and growing. Why do we know this inherently for technology, medicine, and other “hard” sciences but act like what Freud said in 1886 was the end of psychology or that what Spock wrote in 1946 about parenting was the final word?

The first sociologist to talk about racism was W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 and the term “racism” wasn’t added to the dictionary until 1936. Prior to the 20th century talk of racism (called racialism at the time) was primarily used to bolster white supremacy. Through pseudo-scientific ideology the study of racism was void of a consideration of equality and even more void of voices that weren’t white men. That means we haven’t even reached 100 years of the study of racism with its modern definition. Add to that the lack of sociology (of any kind) taught in US public schools and is it any wonder most adults don’t understand the current, modern definitions and analysis of the problem?

Most of the time when I say, “that is racist” or “I am a racist” and people get upset with me I find that they’re using definitions of racism from the Reagan era. Times have changed. No more 16 kb computers, no more model-t cars on the road, no more slapping infants’ hands for reaching for objects. We’ve grown. Let’s catch up.

10 Ways White People Get Racism Wrong

1. We don’t understand that race is a social construct.

Biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geneticists agree that there is no scientific basis for the idea of “race.” It is a social construct. A social construct is a thing that doesn’t exist in objective reality but people choose to believe in order to support something important to the society. For example, I’m sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon and, while afternoon is an objectively real thing (the period of time after the Sun hits its zenith but before it sets), Wednesday is not. There is nothing inherent about this moment that is defined by “wednesday”. It is a constructed idea that helps society run smoothly because it gives us all a united frame of reference for communicating about time.

Race is similar to “wednesday” – it doesn’t exist. We hold on to “wednesday” because it helps us and doesn’t harm anyone. Can the same be said for race?

2. We think we are colorblind.

I talked about this in the first installment so I won’t repeat but it was really common when I was in college to frame anti-racism work as trying to be colorblind (we even had a great En Vogue anthem.) I often hear, “I don’t see race” or, “we are all one race” from white people who are invested in being “good” white people. We’ve already seen that this is completely false. You DO see race. Even infants see it. It might be a social construct but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Money is a social construct and try to pretend it doesn’t exist for a few days and tell me how that works out for you.

The fact is we live in a society that is built on centuries of racism. We can hope to one day be “one race” again but we are deluding ourselves if we think that day is today.

3. We don’t understand that evolution brought us variation in skin tone.

So, if race isn’t a real thing, what’s with all the variation in human skin tone? That’s an easy one and I’m frustrated that every kindergartener isn’t taught this.

I’m pale skinned because my ancestors (at least the ancestors who brought me my dominate genes) lived in latitudes closer to the poles than the equator. A black person’s ancestors lived nearer the equator and received much more constant and direct sun exposure. All humans once had the melanin-rich skin needed for living in Africa, our common ancestral home. It was an adaptation to lighter skin that helped early humans thrive in more northern and southern latitudes where too much melanin retarded vitamin D production which was already inhibited by the lack of direct sunlight.

Other differences we encounter in human appearance also have a scientific explanation rooted in evolution. People in cold climates needed their bodies to preserve heat and thus their noses and lips, which had previously been large to disseminate heat in hot African environs, became smaller to reduce the surface area for heat loss when breathing. Tightly curled, flat-cross section hair creates space for airflow allowing for cooling in hot climates while straight, oval-cross section hair acts more like a blanket, keeping much needed heat inside in cold climates.

There are countless children’s books that bring home the value of diversity but adding the science of why we look so different really helps. (While also keeping in mind the vast variety of human presentation even within “race” groups. I’ll talk more about appreciating diversity in part III.)

4. We don’t understand the difference between prejudice and racism.

Growing up in the ‘80s and being raised in an all white place with parents who didn’t want me to be racist, I learned that “racism” was being mean to other people based on their skin color. There were words, too horrific to say aloud, that were “racist.” There were groups of people, including the salutatorian of my class who proudly listed “aryan nation” as his hobby, who were “racists.” Racists were bad people who did bad things. Good people weren’t racists.

We were wrong. And our wrongness ended up being profoundly racist.

Whoa! I get it. I believed the same thing you did. Being told I was dead wrong about what racism is was hard for me to hear the first time. Deep breath. Smaller computers, faster cars, gender isn’t binary, etc. Let’s learn where racism research actually IS right now, not when moon boots were cool.

Prejudice means to “pre-judge” which is the follow-on in our brains to our categorization and stereotyping I talked about in Part I. Pre-judging is one of those ways that our brains create short-cuts. Thin, curvy things on the ground = dangerous. However, when we apply it to other humans, as our brains will do without conscious effort and training otherwise, we create massive inequalities amongst our fellow humans.

If someone is cruel to you because of your skin tone or calls you a racial slur, that is prejudice.

Racism is a different beast. Racism is systemic. Institutionalized. It becomes the way society works. Racism uses stereotypes and prejudices to create whole systems designed to marginalize one group in order to entrench power in the dominant group. Stereotypes like “black people are savage” were used as insults thrown at individual black people. But, they were also used to prejudicially make brown-skinned people owned objects through slavery and to justify “saving” them through colonization or murdering them en masse in every corner of the planet. That is racism.

We are seeing this today too. The stereotype that “black men are dangerous” is being used to prejudicially harass, imprison, and violate black men. Even black boys feel this prejudice against them when the school system treats them unfairly. For example, read these startling statistics),

Black students made up just 18 percent of students in the public schools sampled by the New York Times in 2012, but “they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once” and 39 percent of those expelled — examining federal data, the Times also noted that “nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic.” Even black preschoolers were not exempt: They made up the same 18 percent of the student population, but constituted half of all suspensions.

Even black four year olds are treated worse than their white counterparts by the schools.

For white people, when a black person treats you poorly, calling you a name or making assumptions about you that are rooted in a false stereotype, it is prejudice you are experiencing. When you have to send your sons to school knowing they have an uphill battle just to stay out of prison because they are treated as criminals at four years old, that is racism.

Having someone say, “white people can’t dance” is a prejudiced stereotype. Being unable to get a bank to give you a loan to buy a house is racism.

Having someone call you “Becky” in a disdainful way can be mean. A 12 year old boy being shot by a state official on sight for suspicion of having a firearm is racism.

Having someone tell you that you’re being “a baby” when you’re in pain is rude. Having medical doctors give you pain medication 39% less often than white people with the same malady is racism. Worse, the idea that black bodies feel pain less than white bodies has be found in children as young as seven.

There are so, so many more examples.

The point is, when we pretend that the prejudice we may experience is the same as racism we belittle the very real, and very life-threatening ways racism works.

5. We think “reverse racism” is real.

Reverse racism – the idea of “racism towards” white people – isn’t a thing. It is simply the bellyaching of white people clinging desperately to their white supremacy. White people can experience prejudice as we’ve seen, they can also be the victims of classism and sexism, but they can never experience racism as we’ve just defined it. For a white person to experience racism – that is systemic, institutionalized discrimination – there would need to be a system of black, institutionalized power to benefit from and that has never existed in the US.

Remember, racism isn’t hate. Racism is a system. Individual people of any color can be hateful, prejudiced and discriminatory. You, as a white person, can be subject to prejudice. Saying that is not racism doesn’t mean it is ok that you’ve been discriminated against. It just means you understand the difference between individual behavior and systemic practices.

6. We don’t understand our white privilege.

The actual reverse of racism isn’t racism against white people. It’s the privilege of being white. This is another topic that gets people’s hackles up. Especially in this economy with the financial hardships so many of us face, it is hard to imagine being white as privileged.

I already talked about this in part I when I told the story of my husband’s job and his black co-worker that has to knock on each door to avoid having the police called on him. Each example of racism has its reverse of white privilege:

The ability to get a loan for a house is a privilege of being white.

Being able to be a normal four year old who acts out in school and doesn’t get expelled is a privilege of being white.

Being unharmed and arrested for suspicion of a crime instead of dead is a privilege of being white.

The ability to get pain medication and be taken seriously by doctors is a privilege of being white.

White privilege is invisible to white people. It is hard to notice when your day is run-of-the-mill that you’ve benefited from your skin color dozens of times. The privilege conveyed in a white supremacist society to white people is like water to a fish. You don’t notice it unless you decide you will notice it. This is why Peggy McIntosh calls white privilege the “invisible knapsack.” We carry it with us everywhere and we aren’t even aware of it.

White privilege is also about white-as-default. When part I of this series was published I had more than one person tell me I shouldn’t have called it “Talking Racism with White Kids” because it wasn’t necessary to specify or they felt I was unfairly targeting white parents.

Well, let me be clear: I AM targeting white parents and I think that is perfectly fair. When it comes to dropping the ball on talking about race with our kids it is white people who are the problem. You and me and people who look like us. We are doing it wrong. That we don’t expect to be singled out is white privilege.

7. We don’t understand our own implicit bias.

If you send out identical resumes with only one difference – one has a sterotypically white name and the other a stereotypically black name – the one with the white name will get 50% more callbacks.

It would be convenient for us to assume all the resume reviewers were just KKK card-carrying racists and thus explicitly tossed out resumes of Lakisha and Jamal and kept the ones of Emily and Greg. This would help us feel safe that racists are “those people” and not us.

We all have biases – both explicit and implicit. I explicitly state I’m biased against dropping the oxford comma. I openly and consciously hold that bias. A KKK member explicitly holds the bias that white people are better than black people. Explicit biases are easy to see and label.

Implicit biases, on the other hand, are particularly pernicious because they are not out in the open. An implicit bias is one we hold subconsciously, often not even aware that we have the bias.

For example, Project Implicit, a Harvard research group that has been studying implicit attitudes since 1998, has found strong implicit discrimination attitudes amongst people with explicit anti-racism stances. In other words, even people who openly state anti-racist viewpoints show subconscious biases against people of color. Even people of color show these biases (although to a lesser extent than white people). We have been born into and raised inside of a white-favoring society that sends us daily messages that are pro-white and/or anti-black. It would be more strange if we weren’t racist.

We know that our brains like shortcuts and that as a result they are prone to generalizations and stereotypes. Our brains are also shockingly susceptible to even subliminal suggestions. Being reminded about death, even subconsciously with images flashed faster than our brains can register seeing them, changes behaviors and attitudes often in a prejudicial way (favoring in-group individuals and demanding punishment for out-group individuals). White people reminded of counterstereotypical success stories featuring black people (like, for example, President Obama or Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison) were more likely to indicate that racism isn’t a huge problem in the US even when these same people explicitly stated that one person’s success didn’t affect overall race issues.

The fact is, through repeated experiments in a variety of cultures and in myriad bias areas, humans have been shown to have very impressionable brains. The images and ideas we see and hear, even incidentally and without conscious thought, have a measurable effect on our behaviors.

8. We ignore media bias.

The concept of implicit bias and how it forms is so important because we are all subjected to biased images and words on a daily basis through media. From children’s TV shows to local newspapers, the US has an abysmal track record on unbiased reporting.

This shows up in how we report crime. Headlines with black suspects are more likely to dehumanize the suspect with words like “thug” and the images used are often mugshots. While white suspects have the privilege of having their humanity reinforced in the headline and having non-mugshot pictures used. Look at this example from Sociological Images.

The white suspects are shown in school photos and the headline points out that they are university students while the black suspects are shown in unflattering mug shots and not mentioned at all in the headline. Now imagine this every day in every paper, every online news article, every evening news program every day for your entire existence on this planet. It becomes a subtle, invisible but powerful programming in how we subconsciously view white people, black people and crime (it’s also interesting to note how much more the media reports on violent crime instead of the much more prevalent types of crime like “white collar” crime and property crimes. The paradigm of crime news in the US is based in fear even before it steers into racist territory.)

This is particularly devastating when you look at the sheer volume of bias we are fed each day through the news. “According to New York City Police Department statistics, African Americans were suspects in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 percent of assaults. But the suspects in the stations’ coverage were black in 74 percent of murder stories, 84 percent of theft stories, and 73 percent of assault stories (source).”

In other words, the stereotype I discussed above that “black men are dangerous” is constantly being reinforced through biased reporting. This leads to violence against black men based on this conditioned fear-bias we’ve been fed.

For example, so-called “stand your ground” laws, which rely heavily on the idea that a person was “justifiably afraid” when they open fire, disportionately harms black people. A white person who uses “stand your ground” as a defense of shooting a black person is 354% more likely to be judged justified than a black person using the defense in the shooting of a white person (and to dispel the idea that non-stand your ground states are all equal and peachy the number is 250% more likely in those states). It is less relevant to find out whether a police officer or civilian gunman is individually “racist” (usually used to mean they are overtly, explicitly hateful and prejudiced) and more important to look at how we are all conditioned to feel a certain way about black people and how, even unconsciously, this plays out in fear-based responses that kill black people disportionately more often than white people.

None of this means that there is some white guy at your local paper rubbing his hands together thinking “how can I hurt black people today?” (At least, I hope that is rare!) That, once again, is the erroneous idea that racism stems from overt hate and “racist people.” The people who work in news media (which are nearly 90% white) have been conditioned in the same way for several generations. This isn’t about pointing fingers and saying “that person is racist” – rather, it is about understanding the racism we all carry inside us from decades of intentional and unintentional media bias.

9. We misunderstand black anger.

Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are seen by some white people as a threat (some even characterize it as a terrorist organization). Even progressive, anti-racist people will bemoan the movement for “disrupting” events and “being angry.” We seemingly agree with them but just want them to simmer down and be calmer because you, “catch more flies with honey.”

This is called tone policing and it is racist. Asking oppressed people to consider your comfort level above their own righteous feelings is the height of white privilege. And it is just plain cruel. If your daughter came home hysterical because someone sexually assaulted her would you tell her to calm down and say it again in a more friendly voice? Maybe with a smile too? No. Then why are we asking black mothers and sisters to “take it down a notch” when they’re telling us we are killing their sons and brothers?

When protesters interrupt a favorite presidential candidate, for example, we feel angry and frustrated that they are “attacking” people “on their side.” But, if we listen closely there is a lesson there. We are getting a dose of what oppression feels like every day. Why wouldn’t they be angry?

10. We center whiteness in everything.

When we feel fear or anger at black anti-racism activists or expect them to consider our comfort level in their work we are partaking in one of the most difficult things to overcome as a would-be ally: white-centeredness. We have to work hard to de-center ourselves and our feelings/needs/desires. To truly break free from our racist conditioning we have to realize that we’ve been raised in a culture that elevates whiteness in all things.

It isn’t surprising we feel this way. In addition to the media bias, we go to schools where we learn white history (which we just call history), white holidays (which we just call holidays, for example, Columbus Day), and white-centered patriotism (which we just call patriotism). “Flesh tone” means a peachy pale color in crayons, we see ourselves in TV, commercials, billboards, we hear ourselves read the news, we see ourselves in our leaders, we see our stories as “the” stories. Black representation is still “counterstereotypical” and often side-kick status. Main characters are white (and if you ever think “racism is over” just look at the racist reaction to the unveiling of a black main character on Star Wars). We’ve always been elevated as the center of the cultural universe and this conditioning spills over into tone policing, respectability politics, and erasure of the people whose slave labor built this country.

For example, thinking that #blacklivesmatter means your life doesn’t matter is white-centeredness. We don’t think that “save the rainforest” means burn the other forests to the ground, so why do we think #blacklivesmatter means white lives don’t?

Why does an article targeted at white parents make us cry racism? We don’t think that an article geared towards raising non-sexist boys is sexist because it leaves out girls. The conversations are decidedly different when you are talking to a person of the power-class vs. a person of the oppressed class.

Why does the idea that white people have privilege make us defensive? We don’t think that the privileges afforded men over women are silly (for example the pay gap), why do the privileges afforded white over black make us grasp at excuses instead of solutions (for example, while white women make only $.78 on a white man’s dollar, black men only make $.75 cents. Black women $.64 cents and hispanic women $.54.)?

The reason we are prone to this is everything has always been centered around us and it throws us off balance when we are confronted with this fact.

The most important thing you can do to become less racist is stop talking and listen. Read and listen to the perspectives of people of color. When someone tells you that your words or actions are racist, swallow that initial reaction to argue and just sit with the discomfort. When a person of color seems angry in their response don’t tone police.

It isn’t about you. It isn’t about you. Everything isn’t about you. We’ve dominated this conversation for 300 years. It is time to listen.

Here are some excellent websites run by and for black people that I have learned so much from: Black Girl Dangerous, The Root, Blavity, For Harriet, The Grio. Also, two white-authored websites that have helped me: Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Sociological Images which talks about more than race but is excellent for understanding implicit bias and media bias.

I know it is a heavy thing to see behind the curtain and realize that what we thought was racism – hate and pointy hats – is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of racism. The real bulk of racism is much harder to find, root out, and cure because it is simultaneously ubiquitous and subvert. I think it is a normal response to feel overwhelmed by the juggernaut of racism. What can I do about something so big and woven into the fabric of our society? And what hope do I possibly have of helping my kids when I’m going to be working on this inside myself for…well, forever.

Don’t be discouraged! Understanding racism in a new way is a huge step towards change in yourself and your kids will benefit from your growth. Next month I’ll talk about some of the ways we can teach anti-racism to our kids and provide answers to some of your questions. If you have a question ‘d love to hear from you! Please contact me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ParentingGently

Author note: There were so many examples of racism to use, many more than I could fit into one article. For this reason I focused my examples on black americans. It is important to note that other peoples of color face both similar and unique challenges as well as a result of racism.

Talking Racism with White Kids Part I: Why and When

(This article is the first installment in a three part series for white parents and originally appeared in Natural Mother Magazine, May 2016. )

Have you ever been walking outdoors and nearly jumped out of your skin at what you think is a snake? With your heartbeat accelerated in preparation for fight or flight and your breath stopping and starting in gasps of fear, you then realize it was a just a particularly curvy stick. Thanks for the near heart attack, stick!

The fear of some things, like snakes, are literally hardwired into our brain. Fear of snakes, along with heights, spiders, and enclosed spaces are called prepared fears. We aren’t born with them per se but primed to develop them. These fears are nearly universal, occurring in all societies across the planet and are thought to be based on the survival needs of our early hominid ancestors. Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden says, “[Our ancestors] brains certainly had to be effective in identifying reptiles in the world around them.” And it is this effectiveness we’ve developed that makes you jump at a curved stick. When survival is at stake it is better to jump at 100 sticks than to not jump at the one deadly snake.

I find this fascinating because it brings up a great realization about how our brains work. Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist at the University of Oxford, had this to say, “[People think of the brain] as a thinking machine. Uh huh. I think the point of the brain is actually to minimize the amount of thinking. Thinking is conscious and consciousness takes effort.” Instead she sees our brains as a, “device for minimizing the amount of effort you put into things.” One way the brain does this is to create short cuts and plans, or schemas, for dealing with a variety of circumstances. When a circumstance presents itself there is no conscious thought needed, our brains slip easily into the learned pattern.

This was clearly necessary, in a life or death way, when we look at our reaction to snake-shaped things. But our brain is uniquely equipped to handle everything this way.

It is exactly this realization of our brains as short-cut generating machines that has profound implications for talking to children about prejudice and racism.

The problem I’ve found when talking to white parents about discussing racism with their kids is that they want to wait until “they’re older”. I hear age ten or twelve most frequently but the youngest I’ve ever heard a parent use when explaining this tactic of waiting is eight years.

These aren’t callous people who ignore (or deny) the problems of racism. They are most often very conscientious people who want to raise compassionate and loving kids who are definitely not racist. They simply have a belief that waiting is the best option. This view stems from the idea that they are protecting what they see as the ideal “color-blindness” of early childhood. We (I am a white mother raising three white children) bask in the complete acceptance and love that comes so easily in children. We see in them how we wished the world would be and we don’t want to ruin it for them by telling them how ugly reality is.

I’m here to tell you that we are wrong. Completely wrong and driving eighty miles per hour towards the destination we are trying to avoid: racism. In our misguided attempts to raise kids without prejudice we are ensuring that they will in fact struggle with prejudice in their teen years and into adulthood.

What we need is some cold hard facts about how children think about differences, how they perceive the values unspoken in our environment, and how they assimilate those values into their own. So, here are some facts;

It is white privilege to wait to talk about racism. Are you familiar with the concept of privilege? You should definitely read up on it (I strongly recommend White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh as it is very eye opening). Privilege is the collection of benefits one receives simply because they were born into a specific group.

An recent example, my husband does utility location for homeowners. That means when you want to build something, he comes out and marks off your power, gas, telephone, and other lines so you can safely dig. He wears a bright yellow jacket and usually moves around neighborhoods in broad daylight going into people’s yards. Sometimes people come out to say hi to him or offer him a drink. He was recently talking to a black co-worker who admitted he has to knock on each door and explain why he’s there because if he doesn’t people call the cops saying there is a “strange black man in my yard.” This may seem like a small thing but it not only is insulting to this black man but makes his job take longer and is more difficult than the job my white husband has to do. He moves through this job that my husband does easily with a shade of already being the bad guy simply because he’s got melanin-rich skin. That my husband does not have to put up with the extra time and effort, or the added loss of dignity, is privilege.

The reason it is a privilege to not talk about race is that privilege seems invisible. It is the absence of a difficulty or an insult. My husband just did his job as he always had. It wasn’t until he talked to this co-worker that he realized how much racism was impacting his fellow co-workers of color (and that is a very mundane example of privilege that I hope helps you examine some of the more violent examples like the fact that a black man between the age of 15-19 is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man of the same age.)

As white parents we have this ease of invisibility. Racism doesn’t impact my life daily (although sexism does which I try to use as a way of understanding how racism must feel, something I can never really know). I don’t have to knock on doors because I know how white people will view my body on their lawn. It is easy to ignore issues of race when you aren’t hit in the face with it every day.

Do you think that black co-worker doesn’t talk to his kids about racism? How could he not? It is something he has to work inside of every single day. He knows his kids will have to do the same. As a black mother told Meghan Leahy of the Washington Post, “we don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not ‘to educate’ our children; this is our lives. These are the waters in which we swim. Join us.”

In part two of this series we’ll look at some ways to join her.

Children are NOT “colorblind”. While we view their openness and acceptance of differences as colorblind, human children are never colorblind. In fact, research has shown that children can identify racial differences as early as six months*. We are a species wired at birth for recognizing faces, so of course infants can distinguish between skin tones used in our cultural construct of “race”.

Recognizing isn’t prejudice of course, but other research has shown that by two to three years of age children are using racial categories as reasons for others’ behavior. Three to five year olds display racial bias (preference for people like them, called “in-group”) and six to seven year olds show racial bias and prejudice (that is, negative stereotypes based on race in addition to the preference for in-group individuals). Often those negative stereotypes did NOT reflect the attitudes of their parents. In other words, while not talking about race their children were developing racist attitudes in direct opposition to what we would have said had we been having the talks [more details on the research I mention here].

If we wait, even until 8 years old, we’ve missed absolutely crucial periods of bias and prejudice development without ever broaching the subject.
All Humans, and yes, children too, are prone to stereotyping and prejudice. The last point takes us full circle back to our stick-jumping brains. Stereotyping – which means attributing a characteristic to an entire category – is an amazing brain shortcut. Thin, round, curvy things on the ground are a good category to label “dangerous”. Then our brain doesn’t have to spend time analyzing the size, shape, and color of each individual item. It can quickly access the “thin, round, curvy thing” schema and send you into action. In early humans this generalization could mean life or death.

Living in harmony with fellow humans though, requires us to force our brain to stop its stereotyping ways and examine our biases and prejudices critically. You see, it is our lower, or limbic brain, that makes these broad categories and hasty decisions [for a look at the triune brain read the March 2014 issue of NMM’s Ask Paige]. It needed to. We still need it to. It can keep us alive sometimes. But, fortunately, we also have something our hominid ancestors did not: the beautiful, advanced, wrinkly neocortex.

The neocortex is underdeveloped in children. It slowly matures over ages 2-7 and we call it the rational brain because it is where we learn to think logically and weigh many factors before decision making. This is why age seven was called the Age of Reason in classical education.

If you have a seven year old and a four year old in your house like I do, the power of the neocortex is abundantly obvious! The difference in impulse control, emotion management, and logical thinking is very apparent. I see my five year old pop in and out. One minute using logic and managing his emotions with words and actions and the next he is having a toddler-esque meltdown. This is normal since I know he is still working on that amazing neocortex he’s going to have.

Because two to seven year olds don’t have mature neocortex function they rely more strongly on that lower limbic brain which is super good at categorizing, generalizing, and stereotyping. This is why four to six year olds often display extreme stereotyping. For example, not wanting to play with cross-gender toys or excluding out-group people from play becomes very noticeable when only a year ago the kids seemed to play without respect for groups. This is normal cognitive development and should be corrected gently, with questions to probe them to think deeper.

Continuing to live in this privilege of not discussing race with our kids is a form of racism. No, racism isn’t just those hateful people you see at Trump rallies. Racism is all the tiny ways we perpetuate the system of oppression. Not making teaching our kids how to control their natural impulse towards prejudice a priority is to continue the ignorance that has allowed racism to flourish. If we want to be anti-racist white people, ally white people, we MUST talk to our kids about racism early and often and intentionally, not waiting for it come up. Just like every expert now realizes sex education starts at birth if you want to raise adults with a healthy relationship with their sexuality, anti-bigotry education starts there too. Because, like sexuality, the roots of prejudice (generalization, stereotyping) are a part of our biology. In order to be a mentally healthy adult children have to learn to live with their biology and make it work for them.

The folk myth that children are color blind and pure and their innocence should be maintained is a lie used to perpetuate racism. Like using the psuedosicence of Samual Cartwright – who in 1851 said a slave who escaped was suffering from a mental disorder he called “drapetomania,” – to support slavery, letting ourselves use this myth supports racism today. The fact is that science has repeatedly shown that two to seven years is, in fact, the crucial time for discussing race and other bigotries with our children. We can not ignore this truth for our own comfort.

The good news is science also has answers for us! We know how humans develop empathy and that developing strong empathy is the cure for our prejudice-prone brains. I hope I’ve convinced you that talking to your kids about race should start early and happen often and I hope you’ll catch part II next month where I’ll look at some of the “how” to talking about race with kids.

*the age ranges are given for an approximation of typical neurodevelopment. Your child may develop differently (while equally magnificently!), so please discuss mental development stages with your chosen medical professional and trust your instincts.

In Defense of “The Meanest Mom”

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the “meanest mom” a mom who’s account of a trip to Dairy Queen with her three kids (eight years and under) went viral. Here’s is her follow up where she explains her rationale.

The vast majority of people have rallied behind her. She’s a “parenting hero” and if more parents were “like her” the world would be a better place.

Unfortunately, literally all of the research on child development and parenting practices say the exact opposite.  What she did isn’t open to interpretation like we try to pretend parenting choices are. All current research on human development, psychology, and brain plasticity studies show without any doubt that what she did was damaging to her children and will  have the opposite effect on her kids. She demonstrated bullying perfectly. She embodied adultism in a way more clear than any article I could write. (This isn’t going to be *that* post with all the links to why this is wrong. I talk about that constantly and you can google scholar just as well as I.)

The minority of people pointing this out – that you absolutely can NOT teach kindness by being a bully – rightfully point out that this is, in fact, emotional abuse. Just imagine a husband doing this to a wife and it is easy to see how abusive it was.

Here’s the thing though: this mom, despite being wrong and woefully uneducated on child development, is not a bad person. She is a good person, with good intentions and not a single cultural belief system in sight to help her accomplish her goals.

The social messages about parenting are clear: control, power, obedience, adultism (adults matter more than children), and punishment (including shame and embarrassment) are what parenting is all about. She never learned about child development in school or through public education programs (like the ones so stringently trying to force crib-sleeping, funded by crib manufacturers). She never saw examples in her life or on TV that showed consensual, respect-based parenting. She sees cultural stories that say kids are “out of control” and “lazy parents” are making them that way.

Of course she didn’t want to be one of “those” parents. She sees bullying and disrespect for the working class (see any argument that fast food workers don’t deserve a living wage, for example) as a huge problem. Hooray! She wants to raise humans that are kind and respectful. Hooray! It isn’t her fault she’s been given exactly ZERO tools for doing so by her culture.

So, in her valid and worthy attempt to raise good humans, she ploughed head long into exactly the wrong methods. Of course she did! How could she do otherwise? She’s following the path laid out for her by her culture.

I wish I could spend an afternoon with her. I’m sure she’s a nice person and a conscientious mother. She’s been failed by her culture. Her kids have been failed by their culture. She is clearly intelligent and desiring to be a good parent.

But her culture exists to breed unkindness and violence, disrespect and marginalization of “less than” groups like children, obedience and deference to authority. This is reinforced by schools that work solely on the model of hierarchical control and obedience and profound, deeply rooted adultism.

The woman behind the counter was probably parented the same way. She was a teenager apparently which means, unless she’s unschooled, she is daily subjected to poor treatment and lack of autonomy at the local high school. If she continues to work at fast food places as an adult she’ll be well primed by her opinion not mattering for 18 years to have her livelihood denigrated by her culture through lack of respect and poor pay.

Mean mom herself was probably parented the same way. She associates parenting with being bullied and hurt. She sees her children’s emotional pain as proof she’s given them a “lesson” that will “last”.

And she’s right. Her children have learned that might makes right. That people bigger (or with more “authority”) can take from you without your consent. That the people who love you the most will hurt you when they can if you don’t conform to their expectations. That “natural consequences” means bigger people hurting you.

We all have to accept responsibility for parents creating bullies while ostensibly trying to teach them to be kind. We are this culture too and we have to be diligent in what type of culture we are creating.  The culture set up specifically to support capitalism (which requires that some people matter more than others) and hierarchy of authority (like patriarchy and white supremacy taught in schools) NEEDS you to parent in this way so your kids will be habituated to it by the time they are adults. Then they will quietly accept their lives of marginalization, debt, poverty, and purposelessness.

She’s the meanest mom in the world. Which means her culture applauds her good job! While her children internalize this (mean to children = good) insuring they’ll perpetuate it when they’re adults too. A cycle of abuse with no end in sight that exists to support the hierarchy of society.

Hurt people hurt people. I feel for this mom who wants so much to be a good person raising good people but is stymied by her own hurt and harm done to her by our culture.

It always fills me with so much sorrow when I see people parent this way. Knowing that there is another way. That parenting can be joyful and your relationships with your kids don’t have to be ruled by power struggles and tears. That kids will grow to be compassionate, thankful humans because they see their primary relationships model compassion and thankfulness. That you don’t ever have to bully your kids. That hurt does not EVER need to be part of you parenting.

IToto-1‘m so sorry, Mean Mom, that you’ve had this very natural truth about humans obscured by cultural belief systems rooted in violence and control. I hope that one day you see behind the curtain of our culture and find another way.

 

I’ll be over here like Toto jumping up and down and pointing behind the curtain screaming, “Look! Look!”

Talking Racism with White Kids: Further reading list

This is a list of resources and additional reading for the May 2016 issue of Natural Mother Magazine’s article Talking Racism with White Kids Part I.  Where applicable I’ve linked  to full-text or abstracts. If you want full articles, contact your local librarian for help in getting access to scientific journals.

Stay tuned next month for Part II which is subtitled Racism 101.

  1.  Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge,
    MA: Perseus Publishing.
  2. Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental
    theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.),
    Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp.
    55–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Aboud, F. E. (2005). The development of prejudice in
    childhood and adolescence. In J. F. Dovidio, P. S. Glick, &
    L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years
    after Allport (pp. 310–326). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L.S. (2007). Developmental
    intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s
    social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in
    Psychological Science, 16, 162–166. Abstract.
  5. Boykin, A. W., & Ellison, C. M. (1995). The multiple ecologies
    of black youth socialization: An Afrographic analysis. In R.
    L. Taylor (Ed.), African-American youth: Their social and
    economic status in the United States (pp. 93–128). Westport,
    CT: Praeger.
  6. DeCaroli, M.E., Falanga, R., Sagone, E.(2013)Ethical Awareness, Self-identification, and Attitudes Toward Ingroup and Outgroup in Italian, Chinese and African Pupils. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 93, 21 October 2013, Pages 444–448

  7. Hale-Benson, J. (1990). Visions for children: Educating black
    children in the context of their culture. In K. Lomotey (Ed.),
    Going to school: The African-American experience (pp.
    209–222). Buffalo, NY: State University of New York Press.
  8. Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions
    of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook
    of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54).
    Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  9. Hughes, D., & Chen, L. (1999). The nature of parents’ race related
    communications to children: A developmental
    perspective. In L. Balter & C. S. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.), Child
    psychology: A handbook of contemporary issues (pp.
    467–490). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
  10. Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J.,
    Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents’ ethnic/racial
    socialization practices: A review of research and directions
    for future study. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 747–770.
  11. Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd
    ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  12. Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do
    they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897–909. Abstract.
  13. Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young
    children. In S. S. Luthar & J. A. Burack (Eds.), Developmental
    psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and
    disorder (pp. 51–74). New York, NY: Cambridge University
    Press.
  14. Lesane-Brown, C. L. (2006). A review of race socialization
    within black families. Developmental Review, 26, 400–426.
  15. Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the
    color line in classrooms and communities. New Brunswick,
    NJ: Rutgers University Press. Abstract.
  16. McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible
    knapsack. Independent School, 49, 31–36.
  17. Murray, C. B., & Mandara, J. (2002). Racial identity
    development in African American children: Cognitive and
    experiential antecedents. In H. P. McAdoo (Ed.), Black
    children: Social, educational, and parental environments
    (pp. 73–96). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  18. Patterson, M. M., & Bigler, R. S. (2006). Preschool children’s
    attention to environmental messages about groups: Social
    categorization and the origins of intergroup bias. Child
    Development, 77, 847–860.
  19. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of
    intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social
    Psychology, 90, 751–783.
  20. Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting
    together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about
    race. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  21. Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How
    children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman &
    Littlefield.

If you need help finding full text documents, hit up your local librarian. She lives for this stuff, trust me. 🙂

Should I Be Using Gender Neutral Pronouns In My Writing?

I struggle with how I, as a cis-het person and an advocate and ally, should use gender neutral pronouns in my writing.

I thought of changing my pronouns on FB. My friends who have done this  have given me a great gift because I’m challenged to think of gender each time I get a notification that uses the neutral singular “THEY commented on THEIR post”. It sounds “weird” because I’ve lived forty years on this rock only using feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to people. Having friends that use gender neutral pronouns on fb means I get a daily nudge towards assimilating this into my linguistic comfort zone.

I thought, “maybe I should change mine so all of my friends get daily reminders of gender inclusive language.” Like, maybe each person amplifies the signal and spreads the meme that gender is a construct – a construct WE ALL have control over. That meme spreads like a virus and the world becomes more open, accepting, loving. (I mean that’s why I say anything on here, I hope that’s clear even when I fail.)

And then I think, it isn’t true. I identify with the pronouns she/her. I’ve always been completely comfortable as a cis woman. I’m a “girly girl” – at least I was when I was still interested in performing gender. Even now that I actively try to stop the performance and find a true self beyond the social conditioning of girlness (which means no offense to anyone in full embrace of the femme! This is just my current journey.), I still feel comfortable at this time in identifying as a woman, whatever that word may be laden with in cultural conditioning. I don’t want to be disingenuous or dishonest, ever.

Then I was looking over an article I’m writing right now which, as usual, is chock full of personal examples involving my kids. I rarely name my kids in an article (except on my personal blog) but I refer to them by their gendered pronouns.

I wonder, am I doing a disservice to “the cause” (for want of a better shorthand) and my ideals by not using the neutral singular in my writing? Am I failing to maximize my potential for good? Or, would it be disingenuous because, in reality, we live a gendered life.

It’s just the truth. I do. My kids don’t have gender neutral names. I learned their sex before they were born and bought gendered clothes. I fight daily to shed my social conditioning and give my kids more – more choice, more autonomy, less direction and control.

brainwashed-rthghg.jpgIT IS FUCKING HARD! I’m fighting forty years of immersive brainwashing into states of sexism internalized to the level of automatic thought. On the scale of enlightenment I’m a noob.

And, if I decide to wage genocide on gender in my mind and reflect that in my writing, would I lose my ability to talk to the person I was just yesterday? Then I didn’t even know the word transgender. Or intersex. I believed humans were born either male or female with only “freak anomalies” as extreme outliers. I mean, of course I did, forty years of immersive brainwashing and all, right? Will changing my language make my words indecipherable to the person I used to be?

That matters to me. It matters because I live in rural America. I live where good people, people who’d give you the shirt of their back and bake you a pie ta boot, hang rebel flags in their windows. Where the local FB group routinely posts “jokes” deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner. Where Caitlyn Jenner, despite her many problematic views, is LITERALLY THE FIRST TRANSGENDER PERSON THESE PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF. I’m not kidding you. They don’t read the same news we do or watch the same shows (some of them, some of them are fucking awesome, of course.)

They aren’t all bad people. They have some things in common that disadvantages them to “being awake” (once again a shorthand that comes off as rude as hell, please forgive): poverty, hunger, lack of education, illiteracy, christianity, complete homogony of demographics (remember I was in college the first time I even MET a black person.) BUT, they aren’t bad. Some are not open to expanding their worldview, for sure. But some are.

Shouldn’t someone speak to them?

I feel torn, often, between living my radicalism, if you will, and maintaining attachment to the people in my environment that I want to touch (consensually, obvs.). It is possible to be SO DIFFERENT that people have difficulty relating to you. (As an example, mention homeschooling and people nod knowingly. Mention unschooling and they look panicky, mention radical unschooling and they start backing away, kwim?)

Recently, I was alerted to the fact that the UK version of my book on amazon got a scathing one-star review that called the book both bigoted and transphobic. OUCH! This knocked me to my knees for several weeks emotionally. I’m crying even talking about it now because it hurts to feel I could have failed so catastrophically that I would actually HURT the very group I’m aiming to help.

Hello depression spiral, you old friend!

Several things helped me get past this and avoid El Spiral. One, that very weekend I got three separate emails thanking me for the book and telling me how it has changed their lives. The response has always been like this – either hate mail (you’re going to burn in hell feminazi cunt!), or heartfelt thanks. This is infinitely more valuable to me than the approximately 70 bucks a month I make from my book.

Second, I spent several weeks meditating on why some people could hate my book so much when I *knew* from personal accounts the positive effect it was having on at least a few hundred people (I’ve sold or given away about 15,000 books). I tried to think of it not as a “wounded party” with “woe is me, why do they hate me” and instead contemplated the problem as a failure (maybe feature) of spreading a meme.

reaching-out-helping-othersMaybe there is something like Vygosky’s Zone of Proximal Development for social memes. Maybe a person is only capable of grasping the next rung on the ladder of understanding. And, if you want to be the person reaching a hand down to help, you can’t do it from twenty rungs up.

I tried to explain that my book wasn’t for parents of transkids or trans people themselves but for cishet folk striving to understand this new-to-them area of social equality. They WANT to understand how gender limits them and their parenting. They want to CHANGE this for the better in their parenting so their kids won’t have the limitations they had.

But I completely understand how someone more advanced on this topic, even at the rung I’m on – maybe five steps up at best, sees a book called Gender Neutral Parenting and slaps their forehead when I have a “girl” chapter and a “boy” chapter. I get it. It isn’t near radical enough, even for me and, as I said, we live pretty gendered lives.

I am so profoundly sorry if my book offended anyone in the LGBTQ+ community. I am not of you. I’m the ignorant white eighteen year old asking to touch the black girl’s hair. I’m aware that I stumble and fall as I clumsily try to create good.

I believe SO SO STRONGLY in letting humans bloom into who they were meant to be and I feel like gendering is one of the main ways we limit them. It is one of the first inequalities we train kids to and then racism and a multitude of other prejudices just slip into the created framework. It becomes a cornerstone on which we wean the next generation into the system of patriarchy.

I hope to review my book later this year and revise it. I’ll be incorporating every idea and criticism I’ve received (apparently I used “trandgendered” which I always caution against). After all, I’ve grown since 2013 and my book should too.

However, my audience is still (and can really only be because “write what you know”) the people I interact with every day. The people below me that need a boost. I don’t want to fall into writing for my “learning peers” (which I mean without any of the value judgment often put on that word) and never the learners behind me.

The world needs everyone. Everyone has a unique role to play. Caitlyn Jenner’s problematic role in the world is still a profoundly powerful role in the lives of million of people. The NET EFFECT of Caitlyn Jenner is unequivocally GOOD. Trust me from the rural, conservative, mid-west. It really MATTERED.

So, to use gender neutral pronouns or not? I don’t know. I vacillate a million times a minute. My mind crunches this constantly to the point I wonder what other people even think about! (I jest.) That isn’t a lament. I love my current passion – to dissect and critically examine every aspect of my mind. It is my practice right now. I do it so I can pass something different on to my kids. Something better.

I’d love your thoughts.

*******

I’ll refrain from finding a way to slip an apology into everything I write (Fuck you Patriarchy!) and just say, if you read this I thank you for the gift of your time and energy. It is deeply and truly appreciated.

A Civil Debate About Vaccines

conflict-clipart-CLIPART_OF_ProcessI don’t write about vaccines much anymore. The reason is simply that I had read more than enough (several times over enough) to completely convince me that vaccines were a bad idea for both humanity in general and my children specifically (which, contrary to popular press, are BOTH very important to me). It isn’t my passion anymore. Unless someone is talking about “anti-vaxxers” going to jail or having their kids sent into foster care. It is only when you seek to infringe on my right to body integrity that I engage. I no longer play the show me your research and I’ll show you mine game.

I am disheartened that, from my perspective, so many people believe the vaccine propaganda without digging deeper behind these recommended substances being injected into our most vulnerable population. However, what really pains me is how impossible it apparently is to have a civil discussion about the topic.

Last year I was kicked out of a feminist group for, “promoting child abuse” after having a rather civil discussion on vaccines with other members. The group admins believed so strongly that vaccines are an inarguable benefit to children and humanity that they not only couldn’t have a conversation with me about bodily integrity and the right of the state to force medications on autonomous human beings, but that to even bring it up promoted child abuse.

Damn, that is some seriously strong cultural indoctrination.

I *get* that I’m the minority. I know you think I am straight up wrong. I get that you can’t believe I don’t get it. But what I don’t get is that you are going to shame and demean me in your arguments. Honestly, when you notice yourself so vociferously defending a point of view, which is fine, but feeling hot under the collar about it, then maybe you want to examine where feelings that strong are coming from.

An emotional response that strong comes from one of two places. Either you have a personal experience to draw on (for example, you have a child injured by a disease that has a vaccine and you feel the unvaccinated were responsible) or you’ve been subliminally and overtly indoctrinated to feel something by someone else. Who is that? Why did they do that? I’d want to know. And why do they need to use influence and marketing to “sell” this idea so hard? Why don’t the vaccines speak for themselves?

Maybe you feel you have examined these issues and you still feel vaccines are for you. That is great. I’m happy for you. Perhaps you even think that unvaccinated individuals are a danger to others. I imagine that is a painful feeling to have. I know how I feel when I see transphobia against little kids just trying to be comfortable in their skin. I just know I have to speak out – and do so loudly – to give voice to a group that I know is so often silenced. If you truly feel that my choice not to vaccinate my children puts infants, the elderly, and immunocompromised people at risk then I empathize deeply with the compassion for those people that drives your passion. Namaste. That place in me that feels compassion sees the same place in you and I respect your voice in this argument.

Can you see me for one moment? I do care deeply about people for whom measles or chicken pox are deadly. I would never, never have made this decision without researching that aspect of public health and vaccines. I know you think I haven’t researched enough, or in the wrong places, or that I simply don’t understand enough to make what you consider the right choice. I’m not asking you to understand my choice. I’m asking you to see the place of compassion inside that my choice comes from.

The fact is I am not a shitty person. I’m not uncaring. I’m not uneducated or swayed by celebrity worship or an irrational hippie (I’m a quite rational hippie thankyouverymuch). I am a very kind person. If we met in person I’m sure we’d like each other.

You’d undoubtedly call me weird, or crunchy. You most definitely rolled your eyes when I said “vaccine propoganda” (ha! my side uses subliminal bias too.) My medicine cabinet has more brown, glass jars with droppers than things you’d buy at Walgreens. I’m a peace-freak who doesn’t spank her kids or send them to the local schools. I’m a “femi-nazi” and I’ll tell you, at length, why you should never say that. But I’m friends with many people who don’t believe the same things I do. And I think at least some of them would vouch for me being a decent human being. I’m not asking you to *get* me or agree with me.

I’m just asking that you can stop for a moment and not see me as an “antivaxxer.” I’m not your enemy. I am a friend. My life isn’t like yours. My choices aren’t like yours. But I worry about my kids all the time just like you. I think about their health and do things to make them as healthy as possible. I also care about humanity and I care very much that babies die around the world, just like you do. I think deeply on issues like white, western privilege and how this discussion would be different if I didn’t live in a place with access to healthcare, sanitation, and nutritious food, just like you do.

Do you want to send the police to my house to put my kids in foster care? Do you want them to be held down and injected against their will? I am such a pariah to you that you want me HURT and ROBBED of dignity and my own children? If you had to be the one to hold them down after ripping them from my arms would it change your answer?

I hope you answered no. If we can’t look past our own thoughts and, even briefly, see the humanity in each other then what is all this even for?

I Shaved My Daughter’s Hair

AellynshairEvery month my kids see their Daddy shave his head. Last week my younger son wanted his shaved off too. When Daddy was shaving Boston, Aellyn said she wanted him to shave her head too. Daddy said she’d have to ask mommy since I wasn’t home.

She asked if we could and I said sure. We weren’t home so it was easy to say yes. I decided I wouldn’t bring it up and maybe she would forget.

Wrong.

She talked about it the rest of the day and the next. So, last night, we shaved her damn near bald.

First, let’s talk about this from Aellyn’s perspective. This wasn’t a hard decision or even a big deal to her. She’s never been told how “girls are supposed to look/act” because we parent outside of sexist stereotypes whenever we can* (I wrote the book Gender Neutral Parenting if you are new here). We talk about sexism a lot and I told her the morning before we cut it that some people think girls shouldn’t have shaved heads. She said, “no way. Girls can have their hair anyway they want.” I said I know but some people might say something about it or call her a boy. She said, “That’s ok mom, I’ll just tell them I’m a girl.”

Look at this video I took during the cutting.

It’s amazing to see her nearly blasé attitude about it. Isn’t that how we should all be? I mean it is only fucking hair!

I, unfortunately, was very much indoctrinated by my culture to put great importance on my appearance and my hair in particular. I had very long blonde hair as a child. Other girls in my class would fight to stand next to me in line so they could play with my hair. The adults in my life always told me how beautiful my hair was.

For my tenth birthday I cut all my hair off. The stylist kept asking me over and over, “are you sure, honey?” As she began cutting I felt this nauseating sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. When she was done I bawled my eyes out.

No big deal. I’ve overcome much of the “laws of femininity” that society tried so hard to force on me. I’ve had many a pixie cut and just last year I buzzed my hair with a 1″ setting.

And yet my deep, gut feeling about my daughter shaving her head sounded something like this: “DEAR GOD NOOOOOOOO!”

Yep, really enlightened, huh?

That’s the thing about this cultural conditioning I talk so much about. It forms roots so deep in our psyche that I know I’ll never be completely free of them. But I can always try to observe my gut feelings and NOT MAKE DECISIONS BASED ON THEM. To instead question my assumptions. Peak behind the curtain of cultural conditioning.

I really, really, REALLY wanted to talk her out of it. I wanted to fawn over how beautiful her hair is. In fact, I knew I had that power over my daughter. What I think – as her primary caregiver and friend – has a huge impact on her. I could have used just the right words to talk her out of it.

Or, maybe not. Maybe she would have put her foot down anyway and cut it.

Either way, I would have told her that her appearance is important TO ME and that she exists for the consumption of others. That how others view her is more important than her internal voice, sense of adventure, and inherent value. That her decisions should be made based on external “rules” and not her own sense of what is right or wrong for her.

Even worse, I would show my daughter that manipulation is something that people do to control someone else. That love means power.

Hell no. Not even remotely worth it. I will take the discomfort of seeing my daughter without hair over teaching her that she is a doll to be dressed up for others’ pleasure or that any future relationship she is in she should allow someone to manipulate her or dictate her appearance.

But, guess what?

She looks beautiful with her head shaved. Not just beautiful in the way of aesthetic beauty (although she’s that too. Have you seen eyes and cheek bones on a shaved head? Swoon.) but beautiful in her complete purity of self. She knows herself without the layers of rules, expectations, and worries that most of us carry around every day.

As Pete shaved her in sections I was so worried she’d hate it and regret it. I was waiting for her to experience that sinking feeling in her gut as the hair fell. I didn’t want her to experience the crippling fear of change or “being ugly” that plagued me as a child.

Nope. Not for her. The idea of regretting something as stupid as hair would probably never cross her mind. To her, this was FUN!

IMG_4397-2 Once again, these tiny people in my life teach me so much. Parenting has, bar none, been the best personal development class in my life. I try so hard to remove my conditioned sexism from my parenting and they remind me how easy it is. They show me who I am under my conditioning. What a gift!

I still hold worries about what others will say to my daughter about her hair. I’ll write more about our experience with her having a not-traditionally-feminine hair style in the coming weeks. I’ve already had one person tell me to “keep it private” and I was happy to tell her how marginalizing that is and how telling people to hide is how the status quo keeps its power. Would we tell gay people to “keep it hidden”? /facepalm. Well we shouldn’t.

We should encourage people to be true to themselves and who they feel they are authentically. Then no energy would be spend crying over cut hair in a beautician’s chair. Energy that can be spent making the world a better place for all.

Whiteness, Cultural Appropriation, and Spiritual Power

Powerful point. Did you know Nelson Mandela has said he never felt powerlessness in all his years behind bars. Where is this deep rooted resilience and power? Why don’t white people have it?

(I think the rest of this requires you to know that race is a social construct and thus “white” isn’t a thing. It is a lie we’ve been blanketed in.)

I do think white people are drowning in meaninglessness which is the strongest definition of powerlessness. We all inherit a legacy of intense evil. Millennia of rape of the land, peoples, and personhood of millions. Then we are raised with the lie both that we are good for the world (manifest destiny) and that our social structures are good for all. The lie that our culture allows anyone to rise to the top, that we have a mobile culture where initiative and hard work are all it takes to rise up. It is cognitive dissonance from the moment we are born.

We feel a phantom pain because these lies are impossible for a soul to pretend is true. So, in order to keep this social stricture in place we’ve also had our souls suppressed. We have an empty, third-person religion dominating us. A religious tradition (Christian, Jewish, and Islamic – basically this is a “feature” of monotheistic religions) that tells us we are sinners in need of a savior, that this world is just a test and thus not inherently important (manifest destiny again), and that “others” are our enemy. We are discouraged from knowing ourselves, our souls, we are punished for finding personal empowerment.

I think every single white person in the US (perhaps all western cultures) knows a deep rooted but un identifiable malaise that comes from the disconnection we are forced to believe in order to maintain the status quo. We manifest this in mental illness, violence, and a cult of busy-ness that keeps us from hearing the truth that our souls are crying out to us to discover. That we are one with every other being on the planet and with the planet itself.

To understand cultural appropriation we have to unveil the lies. To recognize that we are *continuing* to rape people’s cultures (instead of the lie that these things happened “before”) requires awareness that we are empty and powerless and disconnected. This is painful and many people can’t tolerate the soul pain caused by seeing without blinders on what it means to be white.

I encounter these white people in my work everyday. They can’t even swallow the fact that they have privilege. It is too painful and they’ve been taught that self reflection or listening to the voices of their soul is a sin (religiously) or condemned (socially). They are powerless and trapped in their whiteness. Cut off from their own source of power.

How could such a person understand cultural appropriation? They will always use the scripts of white culture they’ve been taught: we share culture, these people are better off with our culture because we bring them medicine and salvation. What we do is benevolent. They have to believe this or face the fact that they are part of a system of demonstrable evil.

I think when white people are able to break through their conditioning – and it is a break: painful rending of our white facades to expose our souls who’ve been neglected and forgotten – they then feel lost. When everything you know and everything you’ve done and had done to you was damaging your soul and (since we are all one) every single other person and living thing on the planet it can be easier to hide. Get busy again so you don’t have to think or feel.

Some social justice minds call this the colonized mind. We (white people) colonize indigenous peoples taking their culture and language but we never take their souls because they know their power. They know they are one. But, in order to make us docile accomplices to white colonization we also had our minds colonized. We operate and are victims of racism too. Racism takes our power by disconnecting us from our souls.

The spiritual traditions of indigenous people all have the same root. The way the “major” “religions” of the western world have the same base – literally the same “god” – indigenous belief systems, from Tibet to the Yucatan, share the common thread of flowing from personal power instead of personal submission.

When we first hear a spiritual tradition that wakes up our dormant souls we don’t know how to make it our own. How could we? We’ve been told to look outside ourselves for spirit since birth. So, we drape ourselves in the outward appearance of the tradition. We wear saris and bindis or start smudging everything with sage. I’m not saying those things are necessarily bad but they are the empty shell of the spiritual tradition and veer toward cultural appropriation.

This is why social justice work is so important to spiritual development. They can’t happen in a vacuum. Without understanding how to decolonize our minds we will continue to “adopt” native cultural traditions in a way that continues to demean and harm said culture. But, with the hard work of dismantling our colonized attitudes and beliefs we can reclaim our power. Our power that we are all one and that any harm to the least of us harms us all.

This is the way we find our own spirituality. I don’t think it can be done without the examples of native cultures. We need a lighthouse to help us navigate in the dark until we can shed the layers of lies that are “white culture”, find our own power and then turn it back on the white culture that sought to harm us in the first place.

Vaccines and Feminism

I think the vaccine debate is often a hidden misogyny. Saying things like “2 seconds on Google” or calling those who don't vax “anti-vax truthers” implies that non-vaxers are stupid, alarmist, and selfish.

I love and respect science which I worked in for a decade. But, believing in science doesn't mean I have to ignore non-science. Science can't explain why acupuncture works but it does. Science says vitamin E doesn't reduce pre-menstural breast tenderness but I have 20 years of experience that says otherwise. That's fine. If the science isn't there then the medical profession should steer clear but we – individual people – don't have to steer clear. It is the same with vaccines.

Like the story of a mother whose daughter got a vaccine on Friday and by monday morning had pulled all of her hair out. She is a statistical anomaly and therefore her mother is just being hysterical. That's misogyny. We have no respect for motherhood, mothers, or the choices women make for their families.

While worrying about measles I think we should also worry about how we treat women and women's choices in the process.

I don't consider myself anit-vax. To be anti-vax would mean I want to end the practice of vaccination. I don't. The science is clear that vaccines produce the intended effect (reduction of childhood illness and loss of work productivity of parents due to illness) at an acceptable societal risk. If I were a government policy maker I would look at the science and recommend vaccination.

However, I would also respect a person's right to choose. I would never want to live in a country that mandated medication. Would you?

The fact is that Dr. Offit (an infamous pro-vaccine expert) and I agree on many things:

* vaccines produce antibodies

* vaccines reduce the occurrence of clinical illness

* vaccines reduce work absences

* vaccines are effective in the majority of those who take them

* vaccines don't work in 5-35% of people who take them – even after boosters.

* a small percentage of people will have a vaccine reaction that is moderate to severe.

A minute on the last one: Yes, vaccine proponents know and admit that sometimes vaccines harm – even kill. An infant that dies after the HepB vaccine because of a yeast allergy is an example of a person for whom a vaccine was NOT the best choice for health. No one disputes this.

And yet Mr. Offit and I disagree on a few points.

* the risk is negligible.

* the risk/benefit is not needed on a per-patient basis – a one-size-fits-all plan is sufficient

* the small number of adverse reactions is an acceptable risk for the wealth of good vaccines do.

I'm a conscientious parent. I don't do anything on a one-size-fits all plan for my three kids. I weigh the specific information about my child with the risk/benefit of a treatment. As with childbirth, education, nutrition, etc. I've done extensive research from good old medical journals and the CDC's own website. I never once consulted Jenny McCarthy (/eyeroll). My choice is that the benefits of vaccination did not outweigh the risk which was elevated in my case due to a family history of adverse vaccine reactions.

This is a right that should be respected. Respected because this is a free country where we can make our own decisions about our bodies. Respected because I should be respected as a woman and a mother as capable of making decisions for myself and my kids

Of course, some then say that I'm being “selfish” and putting others in harm's way. This is a difficult one because my obligation to society is very important to me. I would never take lightly the idea that my actions effect others. I don't “hide in the herd” and hope other people keep vaccinating.

The fact is I don't believe that non-vaccinated kids are anymore dangerous to can't-be-vaxed people than vaccinated children. There is plenty of science that agrees with me.

“Herd immunity” – a term stolen from natural disease vectors and used in vaccination despite no experimental verification of it working the same in induced immunity – is very debatable. But, let's say we believe whole-heartedly in herd immunity. There are still other ways in which vaccinated children also pose a threat to the non-vaccinated. For example, serotype replacement with HiB, carrier status with whooping cough, and vaccine shedding with live viruses like flumist and chicken pox.

These are agreed upon cases where a vaccine actually harms the herd. The decision that Dr. Offit makes is that this is an acceptable harm. That's fine. I don't make the same decision.

My children are a harm to an immunocompromised person when they are sick or carrying illness. I meet my obligation to the community by keeping my kids healthy and then keeping them home when they are ill. Vaccinated children are a harm to an immunocompromised person when they are sick or carrying illness. They are less likely to be sick (with vaccine available diseases) but just as likely to be carrying illness.

So here are some things that are terribly misogynystic to say to a mother (sarcasm in parenthesis):

* you just don't remember the death and destruction before vaccines (because, yes, I'm incapable of using history to make decisions and if I can't see it it doesn't exist)

* you don't understand the science (let's talk about the immune system and see who knows more)

* you just follow Jenny McCarthy (yes, I'm a vapid celebrity devotee because I'm a girl and girls are like, totally superficial)

* you are harming your children (OMG, this parenting thing is sooo hard! When will they feed themselves?)

* you are harming your community (whatever that's their problem I don't want a stinky chemical in my precious and pure children)

* you are just a conspiracy theorist or “truther” and thus anti-science (I'm a girl, math is so hard!)

I know an awful lot of non-vaxing moms and none of them are alarmist or uneducated on vaccines. None of them are shitty moms that don't care about their kids. They are smart, compassionate, wonderful mothers who have made a decision for their families that should be respected even if you disagree with it.

I'm all about common ground. I know that vaccines are a heated issue. I don't expect pro-vax people to completely understand my viewpoint. I do expect that we can both respect the humanity in each of us.

 

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