Race has been on my mind lately. Race, ethnicity, culture, color. I’m sure my heightened awareness has something to do with politics and the news. Every day, a story is published, a post shared, a tweet tweeted about another incident that has something to do with race. It seems clear to me that a person would need to willfully look away in order to not see the conversations about race—and racism—happening today.
We aren’t supposed to talk about race. It’s one of the taboo subjects, along with politics and religion, we’re supposed to avoid in order to have polite dinner conversation. We tell kids that skin color doesn’t matter. We teach our kids to be color blind.
But I think color does matter. It matters a lot.
A few months ago, when we were driving home from school, I asked my boys, “Does the color of a person’s skin matter?” At the time, they were in kindergarten, 3rd, and 5th grades. Without hesitation, my third grader said no. He seemed surprised I would even ask; the answer was so obvious.
When I said that I thought it did matter, he and his brothers were curious: “Wait. What do you mean?” (Clearly this was the exact opposite of what they had been told in school.) I pointed out that our own skin color was brown, and that’s because our family was from the Philippines. As they already knew, their grandparents—my parents (as well as my husband’s)—grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States in the 70s.
My boys have always been close to their grandparents. When my dad retired ten years ago, he was the one who took care of the boys every day while my husband and I worked. Even today, he picks them up from school 2-3 times a week while I finish planning or grading papers. The boys often eat dinner at my parents’ house, and with my mom cooking, this means that they’ve grown up on Filipino staples like adobo and pancit, with the smells of garlic and patis in the air. My parents are fluent in English, but Tagalog also fills their conversations, so that the boys, even if they can’t speak Tagalog, they know its sounds, how it feels.
To ignore skin color, to say that color doesn’t matter, that race doesn’t matter, is to ignore that which makes us who we are. My parents—their values, our Filipino heritage—have helped to shape me into the person I am and the people my boys are becoming. When we teach children to be color-blind, to look past a person’s skin color, we teach them not to see the whole person, to willfully ignore specific parts of a person’s identity, and thus send the message that those parts of a person’s identity don’t matter because color doesn’t matter. That my parents—their values, our Filipino heritage—don’t matter. That’s not only offensive, it’s just not true.
Maybe this is part of the reason it’s so hard for us to talk about race. I once had a student suggest that even mentioning race was racist. We were reading an article that discussed the growing diversity in the United States and the possible implications, culturally, for the country. When I followed up and asked him why he thought the article was “racist,” he said that “race doesn’t matter.”
I could see where he was coming from, even as I disagreed with him. And I could see where my own boys were coming from, too. From an early age, we teach kids not to judge others who may be different from them. The problem, though, is that the message has become overly simplified, reduced to “skin color doesn’t matter” and “race doesn’t matter.” We misinterpret Dr. King’s great dream that his children “will be not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King wasn’t saying that we should ignore the color of a person’s skin, just that we shouldn’t use that color to pass judgement. Color matters.
And maybe this is also why empathy—especially empathy for others of different racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds—is in such short supply these days. It’s hard to empathize with others when you’ve gotten into the habit of looking beyond who they really are and everything that informs their identities.
And this is why stories and books are so important. This is why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” is so powerful. This is why we need books that can be both mirrors as well as windows and doors.
I don’t often talk about race. This post is only one of a handful of times I’ve ever written about it, and the first time I’ve talked about race in any public kind of way. Even as I wrote this, I found myself questioning how my words might be misinterpreted, and there was more than one moment where I was tempted to hit “save draft” instead of “publish.”
And if I’m really being honest, I have spent most of my life looking beyond my own skin color. My brother and I were among only a handful of students of color in the parochial schools we attended. All of my friends were white. Our neighborhood was white. Even when we lived in north Philly (until I was five-years-old), among predominantly African American neighbors, we were still the minority. I’ve spent much of my life assimilating, of trying to fit in. Of trying to pretend or forget that I was different from other people because race doesn’t matter. (Looking back, I wonder if I didn’t use all those Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club books not just as a way to escape and be entertained, but as a window into white, middle class culture. That’s probably a topic for a whole other essay…)
But I’ll hit “publish” here on and perhaps on future writing on this… I just know that I can’t really stay quiet anymore. And not because I’ve decided to take on some social activist mantle. No, my purpose is much more personal. Writing happens when our hearts and minds become too full. We need to exhale.
Time to breathe out.