My Children and the Limits of White Privilege
Nursing Clio is honored to have Danielle J. Swiontek as our guest author today. Danielle is an Assistant Professor of History at Santa Barbara City College. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation, entitled “With Ballots and Pocketbooks: Women, Labor, and Reform in Progressive California” examines California women’s campaign for, and subsequent use of, the vote in the 1910s and 1920s.
The community in which I live held a march in memory of Trayvon Martin two weeks ago. It seemed so dated, in a way. In this 24-hour news cycle that we live in, it feels like forever ago since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, 2012. It seems like ages since the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of his death this past July. Yet the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to haunt me, as it probably does the people who joined the march. The news cycle has moved on, but the issues that Trayvon Martin’s death brought to the forefront have not. When I first heard about Trayvon Martin’s death, it made me fear for my son. That fear has not gone away in the last two months. It will probably never go away.
In a very specific, concrete way, I worry that my almost three-year-old boy will someday be shot by an overly zealous neighborhood watcher, by a police officer, or by someone who simply feels threatened by him, because of his size and the color of his skin. This is not a fear I would have if my son were white. I know this in my bones.
When President Obama offered his thoughts on Trayvon Martin and the experience of race in the U.S, I was not surprised by the experiences that others have found so striking. He talked about how he had been followed in department stores, how people locked their car doors when he walked down the street, how women were visibly nervous when he got on the elevator with them.
I am a middle-class white woman, but I believe I have some understanding of what those experiences feel like. I come to this conversation about race from a position of racial and class privilege. I was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood by parents who lived out an archetypical American narrative of rising from working-class roots to a comfortable upper-middle class life. Although my best friend was Japanese American, I grew up in a white ethnic neighborhood, where people cared whether you were of Polish, Italian, or German heritage. I was raised Roman Catholic, sent to conservative Catholic schools. Inadvertently, those conservative Catholic schools turned me into a feminist. At the age of eight, I sat in Mass enraged as my male classmates screwed up the service, ringing the bells at the wrong time and overfilling the incense ball, knowing that I could do a better job. But the Church did not allow me to take on those roles, because I was a girl. I worked hard and succeeded in school. After college, I worked in public relations in corporate America, where I ran into clear gender barriers. I watched as younger, less skilled men were assigned Fortune 500 clients and earned praise and bonuses, while I slogged along with underfunded start-ups and small manufacturers. Though I had experienced sexism, I had no direct experience with racism. When I exchanged corporate life for graduate school, I came to better understand ideas about race and its history in this country.
I did have one moment in college, when I took a class on Black American playwrights and I was the only white student in the room. In that moment, I understood what it was like to be marked by color and to be physically unlike anyone else in the room. But this experience could only offer me a glimpse of what it’s like to be marked by color everyday of your life. Moreover, it came in the context of a wonderful and welcoming class. I’ve come increasingly closer to understanding the experience of race and racism since I became a mother. I am still that same middle-class white girl, but over 8 years ago my husband and I adopted a mixed-race baby girl. Almost 3 years ago, we adopted an African-American baby boy. We are a mixed-raced family, and that has pushed me out of my comfortable, analytical space of an academic into the messy, painful arena of race in American culture.
My children are, in many ways, protected by our white privilege. My husband and I are both white and well-educated. We both have Ph.D. degrees, which puts us outside the mainstream of American society. Our education means that we are well-equipped to navigate legal and educational systems. We know how to lobby; we know how to complain and get results. We live in a mostly liberal community on the California coast. The university is the major employer in town. We are better able to protect our children and offer them access to education and other opportunities than the average American, black or white.
And yet our white privilege only extends so far. These are some things I’ve learned about race and racism in this country, through my children:
Race is, in truth, socially constructed.
When my daughter was three, I explained to her that she was African American and her mommy and daddy were white. I had just finished reading an account of an African-American girl raised by white adoptive parents who had been shocked to find out she was black on her first day of kindergarten. I did not want that to be my daughter.
I thought the conversation with Ella was going well. I talked about where our ancestors came from, we compared our skin colors, we named our African-American friends. Ella nodded her head in understanding and then began pointing to things in the living room. “The TV,” she exclaimed, “is African American!” The television was black, as was the African-American microwave and the African-American chair.
The entire concept of race and the importance that we as a society attach to skin color made no sense to her, because it makes no sense. Race is made up. All the things we assume about “athletic” African Americans or “good at math and science” Asians is entirely made up. Nevertheless, skin color matters in our society.
Most people are not racist towards babies.
Everyone thought my daughter and my son were beautiful babies. People ooohed and aaahed over both kids, just as they do over white babies. No one ever said anything to me about them that seemed to be even remotely racist. At the same time, when I was out by myself with my children, there was a noticeable disparity in how people reacted to my family. Most white people automatically assumed that my kids were adopted. This assumption often led to awkward questions such as, “Where did you get them?” By contrast, most African Americans assumed that I was their biological mother.
I’m still puzzling out these assumptions, but I do think they reveal that it remains almost inconceivable for some whites to imagine that a middle-class white woman like me might have a relationship with an African-American man.
A lot of people still have problems with interracial sex.
Once, upon the invitation of a neighbor, we visited a conservative church in town, and my then-3-year-old daughter attended Sunday School. My husband had dropped her off, and, at some point, a new teacher had taken over the class. When I went to pick her up, the new teacher said, somewhat accusingly, “You’re Ella’s mom?” The disapproval hung in the air, almost palpable.
By having a black daughter, I had become in the teacher’s eyes someone who had transgressed racial boundaries. The implication that I had sex with a black man, made me somehow contaminated. This disapproval seemed to have extended to my child, who complained, in an inarticulate 3-year-old way, that she “didn’t like” the Sunday school, that the teachers “were mean.”
There were many states where the marriage of Barack Obama’s parents would have been illegal at the time of his birth in 1961. Anti-miscegenation laws existed in colonial Virginia as early as 1691, as English settlers tried to reserve white women for themselves. These cultural taboos were not simply eradicated when the Supreme Court declared these laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
The fear of racial contamination still exists, even among self-described liberal whites in a liberal white community.
When she was three, I took my daughter swimming at the athletic club where I swim regularly. We entered the children’s pool. It was looking a little murky at 3 pm on a hot summer’s day, and I tried not to think about how much pee was in the pool. When we got in, one of the other moms in the water was clearly perturbed. She stared at us and moved away. I ignored her and hoped that one of the many families that we knew there would turn up soon.
My daughter proceeded to do somersaults in the pool, swallowed a lot of water, and spit up some of it. The woman freaked. She started screaming at me, made everyone else get out of the pool, ushered all the other kids into the hot tub (where they sat and glared at us). Then, the weekend management closed the pool, despite the fact that the public health department only requires that pools be closed for fecal contamination.
The only person who defended me was a physician dad who said, “You just caught someone on a bad day.” I thought, “No, I caught someone on a racist day.” Two days later, a little blonde boy pooped in the pool, and no one screamed at him or his mom.
This incident was traumatic for me. Racism hurts. It doesn’t simply limit your opportunities or affect where you live or go to school. It is emotionally devastating. It is humiliating. My daughter was young enough not to notice what had happened. But, for about a year, I was anxious every time I took her swimming at that particular pool. I was always relieved when we saw someone we knew, because we could create a circle of white privilege that might protect my daughter.
The humiliation I felt was much more painful than the righteous, feminist anger my 8-year-old self felt at not being allowed to be an altar server. Here, as an adult, I had to endure a walk of shame from the pool to the locker room, with all disapproving eyes upon us. I felt ashamed of and stigmatized by what was a totally normal kid-pool incident. I was angry at myself for feeling ashamed. I was angry, too, at the racist, freaked-out woman. My inexperience with racism, the limits of my own understanding as a middle-class white woman, meant that I had no response to her. The incident just turned me into an inarticulate, humiliated, ashamed mess.
You can’t identify racists on sight.
Whenever incidents like this happen, I’m always knocked sideways. It always surprises me. I move in liberal, educated circles, and I assume the best of the other people in my circles. I imagine them to be tolerant and aware of their white privilege and the pitfalls of race. My husband teaches at a major research university. I teach at one of the top community colleges in the nation.
The woman who screamed at me at the pool no doubt had a college degree and was almost certainly middle class. She probably did not — and does not — consider herself racist. But her discomfort at sharing a pool with a 3-year-old black girl suggests a lingering, unconscious prejudice. The idea that “education” can eliminate racism is naive. It can help. Knowing the history of slavery, race, and civil rights helps people understand the larger context. But knowing the history is not enough. These prejudices are not simply deep-seated in individual psyches; they are deep-seated in our culture. Overcoming racism requires that white people know black people. This seems simplistic. But racial segregation, which in this country often stems from economic stratification and from the tendency of culturally similar people to live together, allows racial stereotypes to persist.
For many white people, African Americans remain mysterious beings. This lack of knowledge can have innocent and amusing consequences. Complete strangers walk up to us and ask questions like “Can black people suntan?” (Yes.) “Can I touch your hair?” (No.) My daughter gets asked this question often. For a while she thought “I like your hair” was a way of greeting people you didn’t know.
My children use very different hair and skin care products than I do. But these seemingly innocuous differences have real life consequences. We have to use five different conditioners and styling products on my daughter’s hair. And her hair, her beautiful, black hair, might be part of the reason a white woman would freak out when Ella got into the swimming pool.
Kids are better at the race thing than adults.
Kids notice race and color. They are curious about it and speak about it directly. When my daughter was in preschool, she came home one day insisting that she was from India. One of her teachers was from India; she and Suki had the same color skin; ergo, Ella was from India. Just a few weeks ago, a 2nd-grader asked me how I could be Ella’s mom because I wasn’t brown. Occasionally, this frankness results in odd explanations of difference. For example, my daughter’s classmates sometimes insist that her hair is curly because she has lice. How else to explain hair that is so different from their own? Especially in the midst of a 3-year-long lice epidemic in the public school system?
The goal of a colorblind society is the wrong goal, in my view. Instead, we need to acknowledge difference, discuss it, value it. The franker we are about race, the more likely we can blunt, if not overcome, the consequences of racism. Pretending race doesn’t exist — or shouldn’t be noticed — just allows prejudice to carry on. It makes “white” normative. We can’t have a “postracial society” — an inclusive society, enriched by difference — if my daughter with her curly hair and brown skin is still the “other.”
Most of these anecdotes have been about my daughter. My son is mostly too young to have these experiences yet. I have also become better at navigating race and finessing situations to avoid these incidents. And, yet, my son was kicked out of a preschool for bonking two little white girls on the head with a toy, which was his 20-month-old way of displaying affection. He had been at the preschool for only 2 months. Apparently, the girls’ grandparents insisted that either Finley go or they would go. The first I learned of all this was when I picked him up one afternoon and the preschool director told me he couldn’t come back. There was no effort to try to work with him on his behavior. Just a rushed apology and a sticky note with the name and number of a preschool that might take him.
This is why the killing of Trayvon Martin continues to haunt me. My son is big — almost 43 inches tall and over 50 pounds and he’s not yet three. Based on the various height predictors online, he will probably be close to 6′ 6″. He’s built like a linebacker. In 20 years’ time, he might be welcomed and celebrated on a football field on Thanksgiving Day, but, on a street corner, he might also be perceived as a threat. I have various worries for my daughter, but I don’t worry that she might someday be shot and killed for walking down the street. I do worry about that for my son–for my beautiful, big, funny, smart, active, athletic, truck-obsessed boy. And what the killing of Trayvon Martin and my fears for my son tell me is that I think we need to discuss race and racism frankly, openly, and honestly. And I think we need to have these conversations in our families, in our communities, and in our classrooms. We owe it to Trayvon Martin and his family. We owe it to the children in our communities. We owe it to my son.