I descend from hard-scrabble pioneers and ranchers, immigrants from Northern Europe who left family and home to scratch out prosperity in the American West. Growing up with this narrative, I learned from an early age that my identity was up to me—that through hard work and a “pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps” mentality, I could make anything of myself. As a young white male growing up, I knew inherently what individualism meant, and had little hesitation to pursue my own dreams and opportunities. Not till I was a white father of adopted black children did I have to confront the reality—or lack thereof—of American individualism in contrast to color collectivism. Even though privilege grants me the right to not recognize the role race has played in my own life, my children’s hyper consciousness of their racial identity brings me back daily to our collective reality: race is real, and racism both historical and present impacts our modern experience. Our kids and students of color see race daily and if we don’t recognize this, it is only because we as adults choose not to listen.
Three recent comments from my kids illustrate how they feel as much a part of a brown and black collective as I have felt a part of white individualism:
One evening I picked up my 12-year-old son’s iPhone and saw that he had changed the home screen shot to read:
I asked him where he got this from and he pulled up a music video called “I’m not Racist” from the hip hop artist Joyner Lucas. He started playing the clean version, heard too many bleeps, turned to me and said, “Dad, you have to hear the real version to understand…” He then started playing the explicit version, which says the “N-word” at least half-a-dozen times in the first minute. The video is about a white guy and a black guy conversing about the reality of race in Trump’s America. At the end of the video is the screen shot my son chose to put on his phone. I have no idea where he found this video, and we have always prohibited the use of the “N-word” in our home, but this song spoke strongly to him—enough that he used the video’s concluding message as his screen shot.
Another night my son challenged me by saying that my daughter was not from the same country as I am. I asked him to explain and he said that he and his sister are not from the same country as we are—their mom and dad. I asked him where all of our passports are from and he said the United States. “So, aren’t we all from the same country?” I asked. “No,” he stated emphatically. I then shared that we had been in the birthing room with both of them—we had adopted them on day one. “But, we are from Africa!” he reiterated. He is right—ethnically, my son and daughter both descend from Africa. Even though our citizenship is the same, and even though we are all in the same family, he identifies us as having different origins: Africa versus Europe. He identifies collectively with black people, even though he is growing up with white parents.
Shortly after that discussion, my 8-year-old daughter overheard a work conversation where I was discussing a product we are developing. She asked me what a “product” was. I responded that it is something we sell to people who want or need it. She then looked at me directly and asked, “So brown people were products?” I was floored. She is only eight. She took a benign conversation she overheard and on her own connected it to her own racial identity—no prompting, no set-up, just honest introspection from a child of color.
Each of these moments were rife with opportunities for me to minimize their thoughts and questions so that they better fit my own perceived racial reality. But to do that might further convince them that I simply “don’t get it.” And when a child sees the caring adult as not understanding their own realities and needs, the child quits trusting the adult.
The racial identity development that I witness at home as a parent is as ever present as what a teacher witnesses in students of color in the classroom. When a teacher is white, their black or brown students are developing differently in their identity as a person of color. The teacher will witness students of color disengage more and more from what is being taught if it seems out of step to the student’s own developing sense of identity. Phases such as “I don’t care” and “You don’t get it” are as likely to stem from a growing sense of racial difference as they are from indifference to academic success.
As any parent does, I raise my children heavily influenced by the way I was raised, which means I share with them stories of hard work and triumph—I regularly reinforce the idea of individual exceptionalism because that is the way I have tended to see the world. But despite this narrative existing within our home, my children regularly bring me back to their collective reality. Again and again they astound me with their self-identification of “brown” or “black.” These two beautiful African American look around the world and identify more and more with their collective black identity:
There are no black people in that tv show…
I wouldn’t want to go to that school—there are almost no brown kids…
I want to live in DC because there are lots of black people there…
With each of these racially prescient statements, I can forcefully reframe the issue by reinforcing that there are still “good” people on tv, in school, in our community, etc. But when I do this, what I am really saying is that “white” is “good” and that lack of color is their problem, not mine. This feels good for me because I am white and it pains me to imagine that they don’t feel as comfortable in my world as I do. It is the same for a teacher in a classroom—when a teacher tries to minimize the racial realities of their students, that educator reinforces the institutional white power structure of the school system—whether or not the teacher is even white.
But does this attempt at racial reframing really serve my kids? How does it actually serve students in the classroom when we reinterpret their racial realities so that they better fit our own? When we stop and listen—really listen—to our kids and students of color, we hear a serious reflection on the world as it exists today, whether or not that matches what we wish it would be. I have the privilege to live in my own individualism, but my children deserve to be honored within their collective identities, as do all diverse children.
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