Ruby and I have been having important discussions since she was a tiny baby.
“Your friend Zaydie has two mommies,” I would tell her as she drooled all over a teething cracker. “All you need to build a family is love.”
“There are no such things as boy toys and girl toys,” I’d lecture as she shoved her feet into her mouth. “Boys and girls can play with whatever toys they like.”
“Your friend Maya is Asian,” I’d tell her as she threw Gerber Puffs all over the house. “And your friend Charles is black. And your friend Gramm is white. Mommy and Daddy are white, too, and so are you. Having lots of friends from different backgrounds is great!”
I started having these conversations with her when she was too young to understand them because they made me nervous. I didn’t want to talk to Ruby about homosexuality, homophobia, gender identity, sexual discrimination, race or racism. I have strong feelings about these issues, but I don’t like talking about it unless I know I’m in a room full of people who agree with me – and even then, it kind of makes me squirm. I wish I were the kind of person who spoke my mind when someone told me an offensive joke about blacks or gays or Jews. But instead I just laugh nervously and try to get out of the situation. I know this makes me, a heterosexual WASP, complicit, and I hate that, but I just freeze up when I even think about objecting.
I had to take a cross-cultural journalism class in college, and I think I cringed throughout the whole semester. It was a huge lecture class that was broken down into smaller discussion groups that met weekly, and all I remember from my group is one white girl from Coffeyville, Kan., getting into constant screaming matches with a black girl from Brooklyn. I don’t even remember what they were fighting about most of the time because the whole situation just made me so unbelievably uncomfortable.
I am not alone in this, I know. In fact (as I’ve discussed before), one of the most interesting parenting books to come out recently, NutureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, has one chapter devoted to how white people in particular don’t talk to their children about race because it makes them so self-conscious and ill-at-ease. The premise of the chapter is that most white parents are afraid to point racial differences out to their children, wrongly believing that young children are “colorblind.” This is, the books states (with conclusions borne out by research), the exact wrong thing to do because children do notice differences in skin color – which makes sense because, along with sex, it’s one of the first things that is readily apparent about another person.
“Kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own,” the book says. “Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. … The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics – such as niceness, or smarts – is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random.”
But so many people believe that racism is purely learned behavior, and so they are afraid to say anything about race at all, afraid they will somehow say the wrong thing. In the absence of parental guidance, though, kids will draw their own conclusions about race, conclusions we don’t want them to draw, conclusions that we ourselves don’t believe. And just assuming that putting your child in a diverse environment will teach them, all by itself, that we’re all the same isn’t enough either, and again, absent parental guidance, will lead to wrongly drawn conclusions.
This is why I’m glad I’ve been having hard conversations with Ruby since she had only four teeth. I’m not talking about sad conversations, although we’ve had our share of those – about childhood cancer, untimely death, alcoholism, divorce, Jeremy Shockey leaving the Saints … Those conversations aren’t fun, but they don’t make me uncomfortable – probably because I share her sadness on all of these topics; I can call it by a name (“sadness,” “grief,” “fear”); and probably most important, I am comfortable owning my pain and mourning in a way that I am not comfortable owning my thoughts on racism, discrimination and injustice. After all, what right do I, as a heterosexual WASP, have to opinions on discrimination I’ve never experienced first-hand? I feel so awkward trying to explain these things to Ruby from my perspective. But now, almost five years in and after a lot of trial runs, I have achieved an uneasy kind of peace with these talks.
That’s not to say I’m not still uncomfortable when she asks me, loudly and in public, “Mommy, I’ve been wondering: How can Miles have two daddies? They both have penises! Where did the baby grow?” Or that I don’t look around nervously when she overhears people speaking in Spanish and yells out, “Mom! Spanish! They must have gone to Morris Jeff!” (They teach Spanish at Ruby’s new Big Kid School, and apparently, in her mind, nowhere else in the world.)
But I know we have to have these discussions. And when they discuss race at Ruby’s school, it makes me happy, not uneasy. I love that her school is a perfect microcosm of New Orleans, but I also love that the teachers don’t let the diversity just exist. They talk about it. They read poems about it. There is a picture of Ruby Bridges in the lounge, and the students know who she is and what she did and why it mattered.
As Brian Beabout, a fellow Morris Jeff parent who was instrumental in the school’s creation, wrote to the Times-Picayune last year: “It is unfortunate that our schools are held accountable for math and English scores but not for the preparation of successful citizens. In a city such as ours, we cannot afford a narrow conception of public education, one that sees only test scores and not citizens. We used to have a name for educating students without worrying about integration. We used to call that ‘separate but equal.’ This doctrine was born in New Orleans, at the corner of Royal and Press streets. We should not be content until it dies here as well.”
This is why I try not to second-guess my decision to send Ruby to public school. This is why I try not to get upset when my boyfriend’s 10-year-old – who goes to private school – has never heard the n-word and my 4-year-old has – not from me but on the playground. This is why I keep taking a deep breath and having the same talks with Ruby I’ve been having forever.
Practice has not made these talks perfect, but it’s made them bearable.
Do you talk to your kids about these issues? Do you remember how or if your parents talked about them with you? Do you not want to comment because you don’t want to talk about it even on the Internet?