by Jan Johnson
This is a condensed version of chapter 15 of Jan’s book Growing Compassionate Kids.
Before Father’s day one year, my children picked out a card that surprised me. The dad on the front of the card was not white like their dad. When I pointed this out, Janae said, “But he’s smiling like Dad.”
I started to explain the problem, but nothing I wanted to say made sense. Many of my daughter’s friends’ dads were black. Some were Hispanic and Asian. The color of a dad’s face didn’t make much difference to her. We took the card to the cashier.
So far, so good, I thought. I had hoped to raise my kids to be “color blind” to racial differences, to understand that most people are basically alike, regardless of ethnicity. They want happiness and security for their families. At times my children grasp this better than I do. When I’ve been on the teaching end, I’ve used several strategies. Here they are.
Enjoy cultural differences. These things don’t have to divide us. Differences can make life more interesting and expand our perspective. When a Hispanic family moved in across the street, I confess I had ulterior motives for being extra-neighborly. They had two teen age girls with all kinds of mothering attitudes who became great babysitters for my kids.
Soon we were back and forth at each other’s houses unlike we were with other neighbors. Their culture seemed more relaxed and easygoing. Every weekend cousins, aunts and uncles dropped in. Once when I popped over to pick up their daughter to babysit kids, the mother, Angela, motioned for me to wait. Then she blushed and sputtered in broken English, “I’m glad you’re my neighbor and I hope you’re comfortable at our house.” No other neighbor — black, brown or white — had ever said anything like that before.
– Avoid slanted language. I have to check myself from using the stereotypical language I grew up with. I no longer refer to sections of town by their ethnic make-up. Even the word “ethnic” is slanted. In truth, we’re all “ethnics” in that we come from a distinct background.
– Explore cultures outside our own. From literature, museums, and television, we’re learning together about different heritages. One of my son’s reading assignments told of the trust Cochise, an Apache chief, showed as he made treaties with white men. Another talked about the courage it took for Jackie Robinson to be the first black man to play on a professional baseball team.
Public television programming during February, Black History Month, fills us in on heroes we’ve never heard of. When the news recalls the ’60s, I tell my kids what I remember of freedom marches and sit-ins. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this isn’t Black history only — it’s American history too.
Cinco de Mayo (celebrated on the fifth of May which commemorates a Mexican victory over French forces) finds us eating tacos and tostados. On the Chinese New Year, I helped my daughter’s class bake almond cookies. It makes sense to observe holidays that have become part of the American melting pot. My non-Irish friends wear green on St. Patrick’s day just as my Irish relatives always have.
It’s more than just exploring cultures, it’s respecting them too. I felt this keenly one day while standing our local post office. Two older white women were murmuring about the “changing community.” I looked past them to a huge mural spanning the entire wall, and giggled.
You see, it portrayed our “community” back when Native Americans inhabited it. I wondered how the European explorers looked to these people who had known and loved the Centinela Springs just a few miles from the post office.
In my earlier days, I would have barked at those older women, but I’ve learned that ethnic acceptance is a condition of the heart and not easily changed. I probably wouldn’t influence those ladies much, but I could work on my own kids. So I turned to Janae and Jeffrey, and we examined the mural together.
“So when did the white man come”? Jeffrey asked. I threw out a few dates and mentioned my grandparents came here from Germany. When you stop and think about it, our family hasn’t been here that long, I thought. I told my children that my grandfather could speak only German when he arrived. He did poorly in school because he understood nothing the first few years.
“Why didn’t they put him in an ESL class?” Jeffrey asked, referring to the English as a Second Language classes at his school. I explained that they didn’t have those back then. But it got me to thinking about how I have complained that newcomers don’t learn English. Do their parents insist, as my grandfather’s did, that they only speak their mother tongue at home? I hadn’t considered these issues before.
– Invite friends of all races to our home. People may know each other at work, school or church, but crossing each other’s home thresholds is a key. Will I be comfortable at a party in their neighborhood? How will I feel if I’m the only white person? It’s more than just information about other cultures; it’s also interaction that brings respect and camaraderie.
The first time our friends who are African-American ate dinner with us, I caught Jeffrey peeking at me during grace. We were staring at the same thing. Our clutched hands created an “ebony and ivory” effect – black and white and black and white.
Some of my white friends have told me that I make too big a deal out of racial harmony. They think it’s odd that we lived in a mixed community in south Los Angeles for so many years. They notice that my kids’ birthday parties include a mixed group. When a bunch of us visited the local museums, my kids and I didn’t skip the Afro-American Museum.
I admit I’m a little radical, a little overeager to see my children accept ethnic groups besides our own. To me, racial acceptance is a character builder. Being “color-blind” is one more way I can help my children shed the self-centered thinking that their ways (including their own culture and physical characteristics) are better than others. This others- centered attitude will one day make them healthy people, loving spouses and productive coworkers.
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