Learning from one’s daughter what it means to be white

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Wednesday, January 23, 2008 9:00am
  • Opinion

By LYNANN POLITTE

Martin Luther King Day is a time to honor and encourage racial tolerance. How often do you think about race? If you are a white person, living in our predominantly white Vashon community, it’s likely you seldom do. I didn’t until I adopted a mixed-race daughter.  

Dixon was fair-skinned when she was born, and she became more “brown” (the word she used to describe the color of her skin) as she grew older. At 3, as we were getting ready for bed, she said to me, in her innocent childlike voice, “Mom, I want to be white like you.” She also said she wanted to have white hair like me, but the desire to be “white” was all I heard, and my heart sank. 

In reality, Dixon was only acknowledging her love for me and her desire to belong to my clan. But I ladened her comments with anxiety about racism, confusion and guilt.  

I thought I had failed as a (white) mother. I asked a black father, “Have I done something wrong? Why does she see the difference?” He chuckled and said, “Because she has a mirror.” She wasn’t commenting on racism, he pointed out; she was observing her difference. In my subsequent lengthy conversation with this black father, I asked him how and when racism is manifested. He regaled me with stories of numerous incidences. I realized then that racism is as systemic as I see sexism is. We all have it, no matter how much we think we don’t. And we must “out” it.

Before Dixon, I would say that I was race-unconscious. I didn’t think about race. I didn’t have to. I didn’t understand how race affects the life of a person of color. I lived in a relatively white community. And for the few people who were not physically white, they were culturally white. In my neighborhood there was no varied ethnic culture, just mainstream culture, which meant white middle-class culture. I was part of the majority (at least as far as race). But Dixon is not in the majority, and she’s observant enough to know that. With Dixon, race now has become part of my life as it is  part of hers.

When Dixon was about 5, there was an “aha” moment for me about racism and how it will affect my daughter. Dixon was playing with her white classmate. At first, I saw two girls giggling and playing, totally oblivious to anything but joy. One instant, Dixon was enchanting her friend with some story, and I was observing the brilliance of her creativity. Then in a flash, it dawned on me that no matter how brilliant or creative Dixon is, the world will judge her, hold her to different standard, make unfair presumptions about her, and they won’t do the same to her young white friend. A wave of unfairness washed over my burst of motherly pride. 

My brain raced through what future bigotries Dixon may face. Will she have to be smarter than her white counterparts to prove equal competency? Will people judge her if she doesn’t “speak well”? What other typecasts will be laid upon her because she is brown? 

My feeling of injustice didn’t stop there. What about me? I looked at the little girl’s mother and was indignant by the unfairness that she wouldn’t have to witness these injustices inflicted on her child and I would. I got it then that I am raising a black woman and that it is different than raising a white one.

One day, when I was reading an article about an African civil war, I saw a photo of a child, hurt, bandaged, dumped in a cart, and crying for her mother. The child was brown, the same age as Dixon and with her same big black eyes. The photo morphed into Dixon crying at me from those pages. Tears welled up as I mourned for that child, as if I she were my own. Because she looked just like my own. 

Once, long before Dixon, I encountered a young man of mixed race. Wanting to know more about him but before even asking him his name, I asked, “What are you?” He hesitated, then said, “I’m a lot of things.” I now understand the desire underlying his response, the need to be known as a person, not as a racial identity. I’ve since read a book called “What are you?” — a collection of essays by mixed-race young adults expressing frustration in facing that “race” question (even before someone asks their name). They speak of their identity struggles in a society that tries to classify them as one race or the other. 

A relative recently queried me about my growing race awareness. He was concerned that I was going to pump ideas of unjustifiable racism in Dixon’s head, creating a chip on her shoulder. My relative lovingly said, “Color doesn’t matter.” 

Color may not matter to him, a white man, but color does matter to Dixon because it is part of who she is. To negate that she’s “brown” is to negate part of her identity. Her ‘brownness” affects how she sees herself and the world and how the world sees her. The world is not color-blind.

As a majority, when we describe someone, we mentally visualize (and presume) the person we are talking about is white, unless we say differently. Before Dixon, I described myself as a middle-class, college-educated woman. I now describe myself as a middle-class, college-educated white woman. 

So what significance does the MLK holiday have for you if you are white? I would invite you to become more race-aware and to “out” your internalized racism. What does that mean?  It means looking at the assumptions you make about a person once you see them as a person of color. At the jokes you have made or allowed to be told that stereotyped some aspect of a person of color (or religion or socio-economic class, for that matter). Do you not go to “black” movies because they are about “black people”? Do you grab your purse or wallet closer when a black man walks by? Do you listen more intently when a white child is missing or hurt than when a child of color is in the same situation?

These are the subtleties of racism. We all have them. We are all color-aware. And we should be, but not to define what the individual should be, but because race is part of an individual’s identity.

Dixon has not only taught me the meaning of race. She also reminds me to keep my sense of humor. Recently, we were watching the movie “Hairspray,” when Dixon heard the term, “negro,” and asked me about it. After a lengthy conversation about the word, the 60s and segregation and watching Dixon realize this was part of her history, she said, with a smile, “Nee-Gros? So are those people that grow from the knees? Get it, Mom, KNEE – GROWS.”

— Lynann Politte is a mother and social activist who lives on Vashon.

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