Beyond Black and White

A few musings that I probably do not have the authority to make… and yet, perhaps I can offer a minuscule contribution to a collaborative, inclusive worldview.  

(By Teresa)

My five-year-old daughter does not know what “black” or “white” means. At least, not with respect to race. When describing a new friend at school, Jansamal sometimes says, “She has brown hair, blue eyes, and skin like mine.” Or, “She has brown hair and dark skin.”  She perceives skin color, but for her it is just one of many physical characteristics.

A year ago, after our third daughter was born, Jansamal (then four years old) commented, “I think Aqmaral is going to be brown.”  We had been discussing that in two years, Aqmaral (the baby), would be like Quralai (our then-two-year-old); Quralai would be like Jansamal, and Jansamal would be six.  To Jansamal’s interjection, we responded, “Brown?  You mean have brown hair?” “No, brown, you know, like Amari and Aaron.”  Amari and Aaron were two of Jansamal’s neighborhood friends.  “Oh,” we said, “Well, why do you have red hair and blue eyes?” Jansamal knows that her hair is the same color as her daddy’s, and her eyes are the same color as mine.  We reasoned, “You have hair and eyes like ours, and so does Aqmaral.  She will probably have skin similar to ours too.”  Jansamal accepted our explanation, but she has remained ignorant of race as a taxonomical concept.

Some will note that our daughter’s innocence is only possible due to white privilege.  After all, she has not heard racial epithets directed at her, nor has she been treated negatively as a result of her skin color.  The term “white privilege” is problematic, however; it implies that to approximate equality, we must strip privileges from certain groups, rather than restoring basic rights to the under-privileged.   Characteristics often cited as “white privilege”—being able to assume that law enforcement is on one’s side; regularly seeing oneself reflected in media icons and popular culture; and going about one’s life without wondering if negative interactions are a result of one’s race—should be common expectations for all, and not privileges for anyone.

Terms like “black” and “white” shift meanings over time, and we do not need to keep invoking race as if it indicated a fundamental difference between people.  I am reminded of the Lorax’s “unless” (when you’re a parent, all your literary allusions begin to come from children’s books): we will continue to view the world, and our country, as a conglomerate of various races unless…  we stop.  Unless we change our current discourse.  Unless we realize that, even though our brains will automatically note physical differences between people, we do not have to associate these characteristics with discrete categories.  Unless, in our minds we identify others not through the lens of race-related adjectives, but with inclusive terms such as “human”, “person,” or even “brother/sister.”

(I have written more extensively on this idea in my previous post “Social Change, not Dehumanization: Using Language and Emotion Productively in Our Conflicted World.”)

On an individual level, this shift is achievable with sufficient practice and intentionality. On a societal scale, race is not so easy to overcome; our racial construction of the world is tied to cultural identities, continuing inequalities, and past oppressions.  I am not suggesting that we cease to celebrate our ties to particular heritages, nor that we overlook correlations between social injustice and racial groups as we have defined them in the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, I believe that we can purposefully cultivate an inclusive sense of community as we strive to create a more equitable world.  If we deliberately choose to share and consume constructive media that affirms the dignity of all, we can slowly rise above the divisions we have created.  We will undoubtedly continue to disagree on certain points of policy, but we can promote discourse that recognizes each human being’s inherent worth.

At some point in the near future, my daughter will be handed the fruit of racial knowledge, and she will eat of it.  Her peers, her teachers, and society as a whole will inform her that she is naked, and that her nakedness is white.  Unless… perhaps for her children, if we start now, we can create a society in which we no longer interpret arbitrary characteristics as definitive indicators that separate us.  We can recognize as illusory the “clearly”-delineated groups to which we thought we belonged, and instead see one another first and foremost as fellow human beings.

1 thought on “Beyond Black and White”

  1. hi my teacher, i was ur student in shiely. i am very proud of you. you are the best teacher ever. you aredoing a great job. you have opened a great website

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