How to Teach Biracial Children about Racism and Prejudice
As the mother of biracial children, I am well aware of racism in America and how subtle it’s become. Although we like to think of ourselves as evolved, there are still many among us whose actions reveal attitudes about those they consider different from themselves. As a parent, how do you raise biracial children, so they are equipped to deal with racism and all its subtleties? How do single white parents raise children of color, while preparing them for the prejudices they will face? How do we teach a biracial child to recognize a racist's inhumanity without turning it against himself?
Although I could give you answers that might sound comforting, the solution is not that simple. Before you can offer biracial children guidance, you must explore your own experiences of racism in America. To help you get started, I will share some of my own.
Growing up in white America, I learned in school that the United States was a melting pot of ethnicity and culture. The fact that many races and cultures could live together in one land was supposed to be a source of pride and proof of our evolution. As a student, I pictured this melting pot as a simmering pot of stew, in which each morsel contributed to the flavor of the whole, while retaining its individual taste, form and texture. Of course, this ideal belied my experiences in the real world.
Understanding this is key. Although we want to give biracial children ideals to which they can aspire, we must first teach them how the real world operates. Only when we recognize the gap between what is and what could be can we take the steps to change. This gap and the yearning it creates builds the bridge between today’s reality and tomorrow’s dream.
When I was a child, my father was a deacon in our church. Although I grew up in a lower middle class family, my father took us to a church that was in the heart of the inner city because he wanted to devote some of his time and energy to black children who were growing up in single parent homes. After one of the church-sponsored sports events, I was left in the car with some boys, while my father had a discussion with the minister. As soon as he left the car, the boys began slapping me across the face, taunting, "Take that, cracker."
This was my first experience of racism. In that moment, I knew that I was different from these boys and that they wanted to hurt me because of that. I was terrified because I was unprepared for this experience and because there were four of them and only one of me. I will never forget how I felt – like I had shrunk inside. Rather than try to stop them, I covered my face and cowered, letting them strike me. At the heart of my refusal to defend myself was my sense of cultural shame – I knew some of the things that whites had done to blacks and so I let them vent their rage.
During this experience, I was well aware of my powerlessness in the face of the inhumanity of these boys. This is what racism feels like. Someone exerts their power over you because they want to and because they can. You are judged for what, rather than who you are. The sense of injustice is overwhelming. Although sometimes the oppressor is someone who holds no true power in the world, it’s an experience that leaves the victim feeling dehumanized and shamed. Imagine feeling this way every day of your life.
Imagine growing up, as my Native American husband did, in a world in which you were constantly barraged by racist comments and prejudicial treatment. In such a world, even the people who were supposed to take care of you would use their authority and knowledge against you. In fifth grade, my husband’s teacher used him as an example in front of the class, although he’d done nothing to provoke her. She told the class that they’d better study hard or they would spend their lives picking in the fields, as she predicted my husband would. (Today, my husband is a well-respected psychotherapist.)
Or there’s the time when my husband was rushed to the doctor with a gaping wound over his eye. The doctor didn’t want to waste a painkiller on a Native American, whom he saw as less than human, so he stitched him up without an anesthetic. My husband was four at the time.
Of course, my husband’s experiences were different from his father’s, who couldn’t walk down the street without seeing signs in restaurants that read, "No dogs, No Indians allowed."
When I hear these stories, I’m in awe that people of color have managed to hold their heads up high. When the mainstream culture despises you, the one thing that can save you from turning this hate against yourself is a healthy sense of rage.
My sense of rage over what those boys did to me in that car will prevent me from ever cowering again under a racially motivated attack. It will prevent me from feeling shame over a legacy I did not create. My husband’s sense of rage over the injustice of his childhood experiences led him to create a life that empowers him and in which he helps to empower others, regardless of their skin color.
Although it might seem that we’ve made progress since the days of "No dogs, no Indians allowed," racism has not been eradicated, it has simply been driven underground. Although the American media has made racism into a black/white issue, all indigenous people have been oppressed by racists, including some whites, like the Irish. Some of this oppression has been quite recent. (Most people are unaware that it wasn’t until 1978 that Native American people were given the right to vote and practice their religion in this country. That’s less than thirty years ago! )
The racism of today is often carried out with such subtlety that it takes an attentive eye and ear to recognize. But it must be recognized and it must be pointed out.
For instance, the other day, my husband went to a convenience store and set down the items he wanted to purchase on the counter. Behind him was a white woman, who was also waiting to purchase items. Although my husband was first in line and had already set his items on the counter, the white cashier rang up the woman behind him first. When she protested and indicated that my husband was clearly first, the elderly cashier smiled smugly and said, "He’s being a gentleman." Unperturbed, my husband replied, "Is that what you call it?" Embarrassed by the cashier’s behavior, the woman apologized to my husband because she realized what was really going on. Although the cashier had said nothing that could be used against her, her power play had conveyed it all.
These are the people we need to teach biracial children to watch out for. With a lifetime of such experiences under his belt, my husband knew that this cashier’s actions exposed her and revealed nothing about himself. Although he has endured many such experiences at the hands of whites, he does not generalize because at critical moments during his life, there were also those who helped him. But if this cashier exerted her power over a child, the outcome would be different.
If you’re raising biracial children, prepare them for the realities of the world by sharing stories from your life. Avoid the trap of lumping people of one color or culture together by telling stories that illustrate that there are people in every race who hate others simply because they’re different. Explain that intolerance is the true inhumanity, which we all must fight against.
Explain to biracial children that racism is based on fear and insecurity. Extremists and hatemongers are fearful bullies at heart. Hating others because they don’t share the same ideas or views gives birth to intolerance.
If you are a person of color, put the historical struggle against racism into perspective by sharing stories from your recent past, your childhood, your father’s past and your grandfather’s past. Teach biracial children that many have struggled before them, so they can have some of the rights and freedoms they enjoy today. Be careful of creating prejudicial attitudes by also sharing stories of those who have helped you. Remember, your child must learn to judge each person individually, based upon his actions. Pass on your wisdom and your generosity of heart, rather than small-minded prejudices.
Read biracial children biographies of those who have achieved their dreams in spite of growing up in racist environments.
If you are a white mother or father, raising biracial children without a partner, find a trusted person within the child’s community of color to share cultural stories and experiences with your child. Although this will be the subject of a future article, for now, understand that it is crucial for your child to identify with someone who looks like him. In that vein, buy biracial children dolls that look like them - dolls which have the same skin color and facial characteristics.
Although ethnicity is crucial to identity, teach your biracial child that first and foremost, he’s a human being. If someone belittles him for his appearance or personal beliefs, then this person reveals his fear and ignorance. I tell my kids to imagine that the heckler’s clothes have fallen off, but he doesn’t know he’s naked. This will empower biracial children in a situation in which someone is trying to take their power away.
If an adult treats your biracial child with racial prejudice, instruct him to report the incident to you. It's up to you to fight the battles in the adult world.
Act with your highest ideals in mind, while acknowledging reality. There have always been and will always be racists in the world. Despite this, we must continue to strive for common ground, while encouraging freedom of expression within the limits of decency and respect for others.
If you’re white and think you’re immune to the effects of racism, begin to investigate how it dehumanizes us as a people. It destroys and discards entire cultures, preventing them from contributing their unique flavor, aroma and texture to the stew. Racism is anti-spiritual and anti-humane. You can’t be spiritual and be a racist.
Realize also that as the tables turn and the minorities in this country become the new majority, the pedagogy of the oppressed will dictate that at least some of those who have been oppressed will become the new oppressors.
In a country in which diversity is supposed to be a hallmark of our spiritual evolution, racism is a perversion that degrades us all. It shrinks our hearts and stunts our potential as individuals and as a people.
As a parent, you have a choice. Teach your biracial children that racism is a fearful god that diminishes those who follow it. The true joy of living in this melting pot called America is in savoring the flavor of each ingredient and the full-bodied experience of the stew.
This article may not be copied or retransmitted, electronically or in any other form, in full or in part without the express written permission of the author.
About the author:
Laura Pickford Ramirez is an Irish-American, who lives with her Native American husband and two biracial children, Dakotah and Colt, in the sage-dotted foothills of Nevada. She is the author and publisher for Family Matters! Parenting Magazine. Laura is the award-winning author of Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting, a book that shows parents how to raise children (of any creed or color) to develop their strengths and lead lives of meaning, contribution and fulfillment.
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