WHAT ARE YOU?

Though I'm full-blooded Filipino (which, only means that both of my parents claim Filipino birthplace and identity), I often get the "What are you?" question. My heritage roots come from a series of islands that have indigenous villages of people who would mistakenly be identified as African. Through colonization, immigration, and cross-pollination, I have roots of Chinese, Spanish, and local Pinoy. My skin is light, my hair is light, my eyes are colored light brown while their shape are distinctly round-and-almond. My brothers have coarse hair, dark brown skin, dark brown hair, and wider noses than my own. Yet, we come from the same two parents.

In this latest NY Times article "Black? White? Asian? More Americans Choose All of the Above", I am reminded of both my own What are you? questions but also that of my children, who in my opinion, truly identify with two distinct heritage backgrounds: Filipino and Puerto Rican. Like with any marginalized group that experiences isolation, young people of mixed heritage backgrounds are finding solidarity and a shared experience with one another. Where the what are you? question is usually served with a heaping dose of eye-rolling, individuals from blended heritage backgrounds are sharing stories -- some painful, some hilarious -- of "that totally happened to me, too!" and "I know what you mean!"

Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity.

Does the increase in multiracial families mean, as so many like to leap, that "racism, prejudice and discrimination are slowly losing their power"? I always say, there's personal racism/prejudice/discrimination which, I guess, you might be able to say blended families are beginning to deconstruct. We are starting to embrace the fluidity of identity, a concept that human development practitioners have always believed. That, with each life stage and each new experience, we have opportunities to grow and incorporate new ideas into our lives.

No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.

Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.

 

I have noticed an interesting occurrence as I work with college students around issues of identity. For the population I serve, there isn't a formula for how students identify: I have some students of mixed heritage of White and Black or Asian who strongly identify with one or the other. As the aunt of a few biracial children where 1 parent is White, I want them to know that the "White" part is just as relevant -- just as important -- as the Asian or Puerto Rican side. They need to know that being 1/2 White holds significance, that it holds information about what they will know about and experience about the world and our society.

 

While I don't believe that multiracial identity signals the destruction of racism (if it was only that easy!), what this does signal to me is movement in the direction of not just having to choose ONE thing. I believe this signals a move away from everything being so black and white (no pun intended!). That we can, indeed, be both black and white. We can, indeed, be both White and Asian; Puerto Rican and Filipino; or all four and more. In recent months, passport applications have changed to include "parent name" from "father and mother." More and more places are adopting gender neutral bathroom signs; more and more people are referring to "parents or guardians" rather than just "parents." And, more progressive environments are moving away from the assumption that everyone has a father, mother, one of each, or both.

None of us want for our children to be excluded. Whether it's a spot on the soccer team, a seat at the cafeteria table, or a chance to be in the school play, we seek to include our own children. That seems a natural role for us as parents.

How are we including the stories, lives, and experiences of all children -- of all adults -- in our world?

Make it a daily practice to ask yourself, how am I including all voices and all people in that which I do.

Ask To Loosen the Mind

A mother turns to her 9-year old daughter and says, "It's an incredible moment in history, dear. This is the first time, the FIRST time, that we have come so close to having a woman help run this country! Do you know what this means? It's such a proud moment in our lives. I don't agree with everything she stands for, but the fact that a woman is even on the ticket is monumental. Do you know this? Do you get it?" While that conversation could have been any mother-to-daughter discussion in the 2008 election cycle, it actually took place 14 years earlier. Geraldine Ferraro. At that time, Ferraro was the first woman nominated by a major political power as its candidate for VP of the United States. I remember my mom talking to her friends, cheering, hoping, wishing that this would be the historic moment. They didn't necessarily agree with the political agenda, but they definitely understood the significance.  And, they made sure we - my sisters and I - knew that it was significant.

But, did we? Nearly 15 years later, I can't really say that I held on to the lesson of Geraldine Ferraro. I mean, I get it now. In fact, I'm even more amazed that it happened back in the mid-1980s because I don't recall that decade being a particularly progressive one. Then again, I was 9-years old. The only "superwoman" in my life (aside from my mom, of course), was Barbie. She had a Corvette, a cute boyfriend, an amazing swimming pool, and cute clothes. Because, after all, that was the measure of success to a 9-year old. I also loved Care Bears, and felt it was my moral and humane duty to adopt a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Politics, not so much. I didn't really care. I was nine. But, my mom wanted me to make sure that I knew that it was a significant moment. While I didn't quite understand it back then, I certainly gained an appreciation for the context of her candidacy 15-years later. There were many events that helped to shape my early interest in feminism and gender equality, and I wonder "Was the Geraldine Ferraro event something that shaped it with latent effects?" I can't say that I looked at her and thought, "If she can do it, I can do it too!" related to a career in politics. But, did something stick with me about power and gender?

So, this leads me to a question I've been asked a number of times in the past few weeks: "How much do I make out of Princess Tiana's racial identity to my children?" Do our kids even get it? Do they care? Do we want them to care?

Ask To Loosen the Mind: In anticipation of the new Disney release "The Frog and the Princess", a number of readers have written questions about whether or not they should draw attention to the fact that Princess Tiana is the first Black princess in a major Disney film. Here is a question from Emily H. that sums up many of the questions.

How would you suggest that I bring up the race of (Princess Tiana) in the new movie? I'd like to talk about it with (my) girls, but I don't know how. On the one hand, I don't - at all - want to "pretend" that she's not African American, nor is her race any kind of taboo topic. On the other hand, since my girls seem totally comfortable with people of all races and race doesn't faze them... How do I discuss it with them without ME making it an issue for them? -- Emily H.

 

If I wasn't too cheap (Wordpress charges me to put video on my blog), I would be able to upload a video I took of me bringing home Princess Tiana dolls to my girls. In the video, my girls open up their Princess Tiana action figures and are thrilled by having a new toy. "Ooohh!! It's Princess Tianaaaahhh!! Thanks, Mom!" they squeal and run off to play. Off camera, you hear my voice: "Girls, come back here! I want to talk to you. Do you know she is the first Black princess in Disney? It's that so great! It's so nice to have a doll that looks like you! See feel her hair, she even has hair like yours!" The girls continue, "Oooh!! Let's play! Let's play!", virtually ignoring my historic lesson in racial identity and politics. I can't b-e-l-i-e-v-e they want to go and just play!

The video goes on for about a minute. The girls talk about wanting to play. I lecture about how great it is that there is a princess that looks like them. They ignore me. I get upset they are ignoring me and my anti-racist lessons. They leave. I shut off the camera. But, before I hit the red button to turn it off, my off camera voice says, "You'll understand it later."

I didn't quite think anything of it while filming. When I watched the video again later that night, though, I felt differently about what I had just done. As Emily asks, was I making more of an issue for them?  Certainly race is not a taboo topic in our house, either, but how much was I pushing this? If you ask my girls to tell you something important about President Obama, one of their first responses (after, "He's the President" or "He's smart" or "He's a good dad") would be "He's our first President with brown skin." That lesson certainly was not lost on them. President Obama has the same skin color as their dad, as their grandfather, as the leaders in their school, and as many of their friends. During the election, we showed the girls pictures of our past presidents and did a lesson on "differences and similarities." They quickly picked up the difference in skin color. They also quickly picked up the similarity that the Presidents were all "boys". My husband and I felt it was very important that we highlight President Obama's heritage. Also important to us was that he was the father of 2 young girls, and my daughters shared that in common with their dad. They liked that the President had 2 little girls.

I don't think my girls completely understand the "FINALLY, a Black Disney Princess!!" response that I feel when I see Princess Tiana. I grew up on Cinderella, Snow White, and Belle. I grew up on Barbies, white Cabbage Patch kids, and white characters in my books. I rarely owned anything that wasn't white. I certainly didn't own anything or read anything that had an Asian character. Now, as an adult with some purchasing power, I seek out dolls that look like my children. These days, I have more options. I recently bought a few dolls that have textured hair, like my children's. And, I think that's what I appreciate the most about Princess Tiana dolls. I like that my kids can play in this fantasy-like world and imagine themselves in it, included in it. I like that they feel her hair, and her hair feels like their hair.

We haven't seen the movie yet, and I hope to write more of their reactions after seeing the movie (where, ahem, Princess Tiana spends most of her time as a FROG. Uh, huh.). But, much of what I have been reinforcing with my children in many examples (when we read multicutural books, play with multicultural dolls) is to point out differences AND mention that differences are a good thing. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that my college students seem to run into is the notion that differences=bad. They have been socialized to not recognize difference; that if you are different, you must be strange. So, if I think of you as the same as me, you must be okay. I find that, on a basic "treat me like a human" level, to be fine. However, pointing out any difference beyond basic humanity makes them socially uncomfortable. This discomfort around talking about differences is why I make a point to discuss it in a very casual way with my children. It's been important for me to point out to my children that differences=good.

With my older daughter's disability, it would be silly to pretend like she doesn't have a prosthetic eye. It has become a part of her. That experience of going through chemotherapy, prosthetic fittings, dozens and dozens of doctor's appointments has shaped who she is. So, to not treat her as such would dishonor her very difficult journey. It would be silly to ignore that she is different; different is what makes her so interesting.

I suggest finding a casual and informal way of pointing out that Princess Tiana is the first Black Disney princess. Perhaps gather their other dolls and do a simple lesson in "Similarities and Differences." They will likely come up with things like, "They all have long hair; they all have 2 eyes, 2 arms and 2 legs; they all are Princesses." They will also likely come up with "This Princess has brown skin; this Princess has white/peach skin." Your reaction, and your leading, is what's important here. It's a good chance to talk about where Mulan comes from. In Emily's case (she has biracial children with an Asian man), they might draw similarities between the way Mulan looks and Asian family members/friends. It might be a neat lesson to introduce them to the heritage of Pocohontas and Jasmine. If you react positively, and casually, to the different characters, your children will pick up that these differences and similarities are just a part of who we are.

I would also add that simply being comfortable with race is very different from talking about race.  Talking about race is something that takes practice and effort. It's not enough to simply be comfortable with "being nice", we need to practice "being nice", right? Same with the race/diversity/etc. My colleague, Donna, the budding athlete, said to me, "It's not enough to just like basketball and to be comfortable watching basketball. If you want to be good at it, you've got to pick up the ball and shoot some hoops." (thanks, Donna).

My kids may not quite understand what that means for them or for me right now, but my hope is that they can look back and connect the significance later in their lives. The more exposure they get to different skin colors, hair colors, and stories, the less narrow their world becomes. So, thanks Princess Tiana!

Now, let's just see if the "live action" Tiana (at Disney or on Ice) is actually played by a woman of African heritage. That'll be the real test, right?

Changing the Complexion

A little too mad to even respond to this one, so I'll just do blips. I think it's one thing to do racist stuff to adults, it's another thing to make kids the subject of one's racism and stupidity. This story is going viral, so if you haven't checked it out, here it is.

More than 60 campers from Northeast Philadelphia were turned away from a private swim club and left to wonder if their race was the reason.

See, white kids never have to wonder if a negative behavior is attached to their race. It's called white privilege....

"When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool," Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. "The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately."

Except for the fact that the day camp PAID to use the facility for the summer, was accepted to do so, and entered into a contract with the Valley Club. So, yes, they were allowed to use the pool. And, if the white kids didn't want to swim with them, that was THEIR CHOICE. But, instead of stating it was a choice, the white parents/children instead decided to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation and just deprive another EQUAL paying customer the right to a service.

After being told the Club would refund their money...

"I said, 'The parents don't want the refund. They want a place for their children to swim,'" camp director Aetha Wright said.

They just want a place to swim. Jeez, really, people? Are the club members working on old school racism that the black kids might a) pass on cooties, or b) steal something from kids in the pool (perhaps their shorts? I dunno?), c) act like... kids?

While the parents await an apology, the camp is scrambling to find a new place for the kids to beat the summer heat.

And, that's what white privilege does. It puts white people ahead and POC behind. So, while the white kids get to just sit back, relax, and enjoy their summer, the black kids have to scramble and find something to do. Next thing you know, you'll hear from white people saying "I can't believe all these Black kids are out on the streets. Don't they have anything better to do?"

YES. THEY COULD BE SWIMMING.

The Diverse Friends

And so it begins -- the marathon stretch of birthday parties, graduation parties, long weekend parties, and just-because-its-summer parties. This weekend was no exception. Except, this time, my husband, who usually doesn't engage me in diversity conversations (knowing that we'll talk about it for the next few hours) actually turned to me during a birthday party and said, "Why are we the only brown people here?"

"Because. We are," was my witty response. "What do we want them to do about it?"

"I mean WHY are we the only brown people here? It's not like there is a shortage of people of color in this area or anything. So, why, in a room full of about 50 people, are we - and our children - the only brown people here?" He began to go on about how the children at the birthday party were all of school age, ranging from 4 year olds to 6 year olds, and that if this was an actual "school" party (the kind where you have to invite everyone in your class), then why were we the only brown people in the room (note: our children don't go to school with the children at the party - we know the parents from college).

"I don't know, honey. Believe it or not, there are people who don't know any people of color - at least not well enough to invite them to their kid's birthday party."

Husband wasn't impressed. "I just don't understand. I don't understand how kids can be in school and not know any children of color."

Needless to say, the party ended but the conversation didn't.

I reminded Husband of all the posts I have written over the past few years, all of the questions very well-meaning white parents write about how to engage in diversity, and all the frustrations people have about truly not having a diverse circle. Husband wasn't implying that the people at the party were racists nor that they were ignorant. Not at all.

Rather, the point he was making was this: How can we truly teach our children to accept others if the "others" are never in the room. How can we teach children to see the beauty in our diverse skin colors if there is only one color in the room? Religion? Regional accents? Hair texture? Language?

And, while this question often gets posed, it's worth bringing it back again -- can we truly learn to accept all people if we only meet one type of person?

Is There a Right Way?

My husband and I have been trying to make more connections with families in our area - a task somewhat difficult given that so many of our family members live within a 1 hour radius from our house. Weekends are usually spent hanging out with the same brothers and/or sisters along with their kids. But, we realize that we and our children need to also get to know more people outside of that small circle -- no easy task for introverts like my husband and me. 608110045_buttermilkpancakeRecently, we met up with a friend of mine and her husband who have children in the same age bracket as our kids. They are both white, though the mom grew up and was educated outside of the U.S., and have biological white children. We joined them for brunch at their house which gave the kids time to play and the grown ups time to talk.

It was our first real get-together, so we kept the conversation pretty light. We talked about work, where we lived prior to our current location, things we did over the holiday, etc. At one point, though, the discussion touched race, diversity, and our children. Both sets of children go to racially diverse schools. The mom talked about how she doesn't encourage her children to use racial descriptors when referring to people. On the flipside, she doesn't discourage it either. She said she pretty much waits and sees how her child will talk about a particular person. My husband then said, "For us, we always bring up color and encourage our kids to do so. When our kids describe others in their classes, one of the things they talk about first is whether the child has 'brown skin' or 'peach skin'. There are two boys named Tyler in the school, and when we ask for clarification, we ask if it's the Tyler-with-the-brown-skin or Tyler-with-the-peach-skin."

For my husband, who is Puerto Rican and who, too, has worked in predominantly white environments, he has always expressed frustration in the practice of using every single other descriptor about a person other than race, especially when race is the only thing separating someone from all others.  So, it's the "see that guy over there... kind of athletic build .. with the brown hair... with the book bag... standing up straight... with the nice smile...." rather than, "The Puerto Rican guy in that group." You know what I mean....

The mom responded with, "We don't bring up race because we're afraid of doing it wrong."

It got me thinking -- I definitely didn't get the "colorblind" vibe from her. Not at all, in fact. She has lived in enough places and knows enough not to live in a whitewashed world. I got the sense that it was a true issue of  "I don't want to mess it up". But I was wondering, how many other diversity saavy parents out there have chosen not to talk obviously about race? Is there a right way? More specificially, is there a right way for white parents? Is there a right way for parents of color? And, is there a right way for parents of transracial adoptive children?

Most parents of color I know always talk about race with their children. I remember when my daughter had just turned 2 years old, and we were walking on a city street. We walked by a tall Black man, and she said, "Mommy, he has brown skin."

"Yes," I responded. "He does."

That was all. No big deal. I didn't "shush" her. I didn't falsly patronize a stranger by saying how beautiful his skin was, how smart the man must be, etc. My daughter's statement about brown skin was just an observation. She noticed his brown skin in the same way she noticed the car that we walked by was red; color was just a part of her vocabulary.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues came to me asking for advice. She said that she picked up her 6-year old son from school and asked about his day, his friends, etc. Her son mentioned a few of names of some kids, and then said, "There is also David. But, we don't like David because we don't like Black people." My friend said she nearly drove off the road in shock. "What do you mean we don't like Black people? Where did you hear that? Who told you that??" she screamed, later admitting that she probably shouldn't have reacted so strongly at that moment. "Oh, never mind. Sorry, Mom, I mean, yes, we like Black people. We like Black people, right, Mom??"

My colleague -- again, another person who I consider diversity saavy -- realized her reaction had just simply scared him into not talking about it anymore rather than engaging her son in the conversation. Now, when she tries to revisit the conversation -- even weeks later -- her 6-year old son clams up and says, "I don't want to talk about it, Mom. I'm so sorry. I like Black people. I really like Black people." She's struggling to re-engage him into the conversation. She says she tries to bring up race and the color of skin in very nonchalant ways, but her son immediately flies into apology mode and wants to end the discussion. I encouraged her to buy some children's books that have kids of color in it, etc. Her son likes to hear a bedtime story each night, and so I suggested this might be a good way to introduce the discussion back again without obviously talking about the comments in the car.

My colleague asked questions that many of us hear often: "Where did he learn that? Why did he say 'we' don't like Black people?  Am I doing something that is sending him messages about Black people? Is it school? Kids at school? Television that we watch?"

"Probably a little bit of all of the above," I replied.

Was this the "we-don't-want-to-do-it-wrong" example that my brunch friend was talking about? Did my colleague do something wrong by reacting as strongly as she did with her son? Or, was she just sending a clear message that the sentiment of  "we don't like Black people" is unacceptable?

wrongway1So, back to my question -- is there a right way to bring up race? Is there a wrong way?

Are You Kidding Me?

 I've heard of lots of "good luck" cheers and traditions, but this one is a new one -- pulling the corner of your eyes so that you "look" Chinese is now the new "good luck" cheer. Really?

Spain's Basketball Federation published a "good luck" advertisement to wish their team well in Beijing.

There is no obvious intention to upset their Olympic hosts in Beijing, but the irresponsible picture is likely to cause controversy and could be interpreted so as to lead to accusations of racism.

Really, ya think?

This reminds me of Tami's recent post about ownership of offensiveness. This is certainly a moment where I think everyone should feel offended - and, yes, feel free to tell me how much I should be offended, too.

Seeing this picture, as an Asian American woman, brings me back to those playground days of kids pulling at their eyes and asking me if "I can see them" or "Ching-Chong"-ing me in a playful, yet hateful, way. This picture brings me back to the days when I was humiliated that my parents chose to use their native language in the our white, Irish Catholic neighborhood. This picture brings me back to being picked last at kickball or picked-NEVER at basketball because, after all, Asian kids weren't good at anything but karate...

But, here. Now. And, at the Olympics? I often hit a cross road when I talk to young people who say that they don't think their world is as racist as it was when "we" were growing up, and then images like this surface.

What troubles me even more is that the article is, maybe, 4 paragraphs long and it ends with a promo of when you can watch the Spanish team play.

Hopefully, I'll be able to see the television with my pulled, slanted eyes. Or, not.

Who are the people in your network?

Much of the educational work I do tends to involve groups made up of predominantly white individuals – students, parents, professionals, educators, etc. And, as many diversity facilitators would agree, I tend not to take the “guilt” route, but rather I work to point out ways in which we must actively make decisions now that we are adults. Photo from www.reneebeads.com

One of the exercises I begin with in group facilitation is a variation of a popular exercise called “The Bead Exercise.” There are a few variations of the exercise that are designed to visually point out ways in which our circle of trusted individuals is often not diverse, or tends to reflect our own ethnicity or racial identity.

In my version of The Bead Exercise, I have various circles on a piece of white paper that have between 15-20 different professions or interests written within the circle: doctor, neighbor, roommate, best friend, hairstylist, favorite movie actor, favorite singer, mechanic, etc. The participants write down the name of the individual who they trust or admire. Then, I give them a “key” - - a list of colors that correspond to the major racial categories, with a few more thrown in. The participants must them color in each “bead” as it corresponds to the racial key. As the participants are doing this, I duly note that this exercise is very focused on “race” – and that we are well aware that individuals may have other areas of identity (ability, sexual identity, religion, etc) that are not mentioned here.

In the many times I’ve run this exercise, I usually hear the same thing in predominantly white groups: “Oh my gosh. I had no idea there were no people of color included in my circle.” or “Woah. I guess I’m not as inclusive as I thought I was.” Now, because I don’t operate from a philosophy of guilt, I process this exercise in a very different way than others. I encourage people to look at the entities that were chosen for us prior to having independence as adults (or that are still being chosen for us, if I’m working with a group of young people) . We typically don’t get a chance to choose our doctors when we are younger. We don’t get to choose our neighbors, our religious leaders, and we sometimes don’t get to choose our roommates.

But, the question is … now that we may be of age to make our own decisions, how are we actively diversifying our close network of professionals? What are the early messages we received about certain races, ethnicities, religions, colors, identities and their abilities to perform or not perform certain jobs?

I always challenge people to envision the “old boys network” – if we only see one type of professional, then we only refer one type of professional, then we are building our “old boys network.” One of the criticisms I’ve received (mostly online) about this practice of actively seeking to diversify is the comment that “I’m not going to just go out and pick a Black doctor if the Black doctor isn’t the best one” or “I’m going to go to the best professional … not the brownest professional” or my personal favorite is “That’s a racist thing to say – that I should actively seek to exclude Whites from my professional network” (no, that's not the message of the exercise…)

Seeing the point, yet?

Here are a few stories that individuals have told me who have stepped up to the challenge of actively seeking to diversify their professionals. Their names have been changed, although, they should be very proud of themselves for rising to the challenge!:

Jennifer, mother of twins, said that she wasn’t happy with the care her pediatrician was giving her toddlers. She was in the process of looking for a new doctor. After attending a session I held on this topic, Jennifer looked at her list of doctors she had prepared to call and interview. Sure enough, of the 12 doctors she had on her “call” list, all 12 of those doctors were white. She got online, logged into her health insurance network, found a few names of doctors from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and added them to the list. Jennifer went to the first African American doctor on her list, interviewed him about his medical philosophy, his training and experience, and watched him interact with her children. Jennifer absolutely fell in love with him and his care for her toddlers. With due diligence, Jennifer went and interviewed a few of the other doctors on her list, and she felt the African American pediatrician was the best fit for her and her family. Jennifer now has an African American pediatrician who she has been recommending to other parents.

Jennifer’s is such a great story because she never really thought about including a doctor of color into her mix. She didn’t think she was actively excluding one, but she certainly never thought to include one. Probably every doctor on her big list was talented, kind, smart, and well-respected. While she would never consider herself a prejudiced person (and I wouldn’t refer to her as that, either), it’s great to hear that she is now looking at the other types of lists she makes and thinks “Is this inclusive or am I just going with the type of professional that meets my comfort needs?”

Likely feedback from readers is, “Well, if the African American doctor wasn’t a good fit, should Jennifer have stuck with that doctor?” No. Of course not. In the same way that she shouldn’t stay with a White doctor if she didn’t feel comfortable. But, I hopefully Jennifer has a new awareness to then ask herself, “Well, what is it that I’m not comfortable with? Am I not comfortable with something associated with the doctor’s race? With the doctor’s gender? Am I uncomfortable if the doctor has an accent? Or, did I simply not like the his medical philosophy about pediatric medicine?”

We always challenge people to actively reflect on conscious and subconscious bias … that’s how we start to work towards becoming an anti-racist.

Another story comes from Ben who also participated in the exercise. What made an impact with Ben was the “bead” asking about favorite movie actor. Ben began to reflect, not on his movie taste, but on his movie choices. As we began sharing his favorite movies, he realized that many of the movies that he has watched that had POC’s were slapstick comedies. He came to realize there was an absence of movies that showed POCs as heros/heroines. He didn’t watch any movies that addressed POC issues or history. He felt he owed it to himself to start watching some movies that addressed these issues. As a frequent Netflix user, Ben added some of the “must watch” movies to his list, and soon began committing to 2 movies a month.

See, it’s not that hard. No one is asking Ben to start liking those movies. Rather, the challenge is including those movies into his mental library. Doing so challenges his perception of POC, issues around politics, etc. Soon, Ben even began to rent movies that were subtitled (and, if you knew Ben, his favorite line was always, “If I wanted to read a movie, I would have gotten the book!”).

One of my favorite “A-ha” moments was when I did this exercise with a group of upper-middle class adults, and I happened to include “mortgage broker/banker/financial planner” (which I knew many of them had). After we had processed the exercise, Ryan came up to me with a “lightbulb look” on his face – you know, that look when someone just realized something big! He looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, at first I thought this whole exercise was a little ridiculous, until we got to the one about the person who handles our money. I thought about why Jim was our financial planner, and I know that we are with him because he’s trustworthy, honest, and has our best financial intentions in mind. Well, I began to think about messages I received about people who weren’t white, and came to the realization that I would never have a Black person or Mexican person handle my finances because my dad always told me ‘you could never trust a person like that with your money’…. I’m 35 years old, and I’m just realizing that now.” Ryan was on the verge of tears and definitely on the brink of disgust.

Now, going back to my original point about “choosing the most talented and not necessarily the brownest….”, my advice wasn’t to ditch Jim and find a Black or Mexican financial planner. No, obviously not. But, it was because of the exercise that this man challenged his practice of NOT including people of color in his trusted circle. I never heard from Ryan after that day, but I’m hoping he took that a-ha moment with him and challenged other ways he might have internalized early messages about people of color.

From my own experience, women of color are often shocked when they hear that I bring my daughter – the one with the hair issues at age 5! – to a white woman who does her hair. When we go to visit her grandparents in NYC, we go to an all Dominican hair salon. Here in Boston, my daughter sees a white woman who braids, conditions, thins out, etc. her hair. “Why are you sending her to a white woman!!??! They can’t do her hair!!” Yes. Yes, she can. And, she does it quite well, actually…. She fully understands my daughter’s hair, has worked on hair exactly like my daughter’s hair in her 10 years as a hairdresser, and my daughter loves her. So, yes, the white woman does an excellent job with my daughter’s tight, curly, hair.

Actively seeking to diversify the professionals in your life goes a number of ways. I’ve also run this exercise with predominantly Latino, Black and Asian groups, too. And for many of these groups, they, too, have mono-chromatic “beads”. In some of those groups, they were also given early messages to only trust people within their ethnic neighborhoods, etc. They went to schools where they were the majority, went to the local bodega or corner store to buy their groceries, and/or only listen to music popularized within their community. Imagine the look I get when working with predominantly Latino students from the Bronx when I encourage them that “for 1 week, listen to Country Music and Classical Music or music that is not in English or Spanish!” I ask them to look at the messages they received about different races, ethnicities, religions, identities, etc., and jobs those different identities can and cannot perform, in their minds.

I find it interesting that, out of all the anti-racist “working points” I give, this is the one that gets the most controversy. But, it’s also understandable given that these choices are often the most loaded with our own subconscious messages we received about different identities. It’s also the area where people are interested more in “merit” – when, in fact, merit is very racially loaded in our U.S. society.

So, in what ways are you looking to diversify your life? What will you now include in your toolbox? What messages did you receive about different identities as they pertain to “who can or cannot perform a certain job?”

Teleseminar on Anti-Racist Parenting

Join Carmen VanKerckhove and me as we host a free teleseminar on Anti-Racist Parenting! I believe it may be limited to 50 callers during the Q&A session. Within 24 hours, Carmen reported that we were up to 121 registered participants! Carmen will likely post the MP3 online a week or so after it's done. So, be sure to check back

On this 60-minute call, you’ll learn:

  • Why avoiding conversations about race is the biggest mistake you can make
  • How you are sending hidden messages to your children about race without even realizing it
  • Why you should never proclaim to be colorblind
  • How to transform the simple act of watching television into a profound lesson about diversity

and much, much more.

No matter what your current situation is, I guarantee you’ll get at least one golden nugget of information during this never-before-offered call.

So, won’t you join us? Reserve your spot now!

******

On a separate note, our dog of 8 years just died :(, so I'm doing more parenting than blogging these days. Will be sure to write again very, very soon!

At Least for Today

"If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." When my husband was away on a business trip to Washington state, he had set his status on his Facebook account to "If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." Hmmm, I wondered what was going on during his trip and where he was that spurred him to write that.

Fast forward.

Today, I am in Vermont. I was asked to be a guest speaker at a conference for admissions and college counseling professionals. "Liza, we really would like if you could offer some sessions on diversity at this conference. We just don't have a lot of presentations but feel that the diversity conversations need to occur." I happily accepted (unpaid, AND had to actually PAY to be a presenter.... file that into my "WTF?" moments) because the person who asked me is a friend, a colleague, and a person who I know is committed to diversity issues.

And, hell, I had never been to Vermont.

In context, I just returned from the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity where there were approximately 2,500 people. I don't have the actual statistics, but I would venture to say that 90% of the people there were people of color. Now, I am here. Where out of 500 participants, there are quite possibly a few dozen POC's. And in the state of Vermont, there are roughly 3% people of color (ALANA).

I'm all for conferencing. In fact, I love going to conferences - the social networking, the professional connections, the like minded conversations, the people who "get you." Yet, as I found myself with a Bingo Blotter and a Sam Adams in my hands, I felt foreign. Alien. Like I didn't belong.

I have worked in Admissions, so I do share a professional connection with the people here. I know the lingo. I know the travel season. I know the late night reading of applications, the waitlist, the yield events. But, I found myself wanting to break free from the calling of "B-4.. and after..." and get on to my political and racial blogs. I wanted my safety blankets. I wanted my like minded people. I wanted people who "got me."

Driving up to Vermont was fantastic thinking time for me. I caught up on all my back issues of Addicted to Race podcast, and I used the time to reflect on my present experience.

I had to pee. Really bad. Both the blessing and the curse of Vermont (at least for me at the moment) was that there are very few chain organizations on the highways. I'm so used to driving I-95 to NYC and having multiple options of Mobil/McDonalds combinations to stretch my legs, grab something to eat, fill up on gas, or just catch a snooze for 10-15 minutes. I felt those same urges on my 4 1/2 hour ride to Vermont, but didn't find anything on the side of the road. I was getting desperate and decided to exit. I drove by trees, trees, and more trees. Then, I came upon a "rest area" where there was a store (no drive through) and gas station. The small parking lot was overtaken by big white men trucks.

What did I do?

I turned around, got back onto the highway, and kept on driving.... the rest of the 2 1/2 hours to my destination. Pressure was mounting.

As I was driving, I kept asking myself,

  • "What's going on here?
  • Why didn't I go in?
  • Why am I waiting so long?
  • What is this internal dialogue I'm having with myself about my comfort level? About my situation? About my own pre-judging? What is it?
  • Why would I rather experience physical discomfort (hunger, thirst, the need to pee really bad!) than stop at a local area in Vermont where I would have to get out of my car, ask for a bathroom key, and order some food.
  • Was I being unfair to Vermont? Was I pre-judging a place I had never visited before now? Was I making the same assumptions that a white person makes when deciding whether or not to stop in a predominantly POC community? How would I feel about that?

I put myself through the same exercise I often do in diversity discussions called "What were the first messages... ?" In this exercise, I challenge people to think about "What were the first messages you received about .... (race, women, poor, religions, etc)." So, "Liza, what were the first messages you received about Vermont?" I thought and thought ...

I fought the urge to edit at this point, because above, I wrote, "I had never been to Vermont." After pulling from deep within, I realized I actually HAD been in Vermont - overnight, in fact! When I was looking at graduate schools back in 1997, I had applied and was accepted to a great graduate program up in Vermont. I went on the internship interviews. While here, I was driving to campus and both felt and heard something hit my car window (later, identified as a snowball).

Recalling that memory, I felt a surge of fear coming through my body. I recall a young white man laughing and pointing at my car as I drove away. Windows were up, and thankfully, I didn't hear what he was saying as he was pointing to me. Needless to say, I didn't attend that university for graduate school, despite the opportunity to not only get a tuition-free graduate degree but also the chance to get PAID to go to grad school!

Prior to my drive up to Vermont, I hadn't thought about that experience. More importantly, I blocked it out completely - telling people, "This is my first time in Vermont" as I arrived to the conference.

I'm finding the need to be with people who 'get me.' I very much believe in Janet Helms's theory on racial identity development, and feel I am sneaking back into the Immersion stage -- that people of color may be the only ones who get me, at least for today.

Tools for Teaching Diversity in a Diversity Free Zone

(Originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent) I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of how to teach, expose, and experience diversity in a “diversity-free” zone (thanks for the segue Tami!). I directly experience this issue personally and professionally every single day of my life as the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small, private college in the Boston suburbs, where there are very few students of color. Not only are there very few students of color, there are very few people who have ever met or talked to a person from a historically underrepresented group prior to coming to college. So, each and every single day, I actually get paid to teach diversity in a diversity free zone.

I could certainly go on and on about the challenges of my job serving as a person who is often tokenized in meetings, being the go-to person on issues of diversity, or being the “brown friend” to well meaning people. But I’m assuming here at Anti-Racist Parent I’d be preaching to the choir. So, rather than give my vocal chords a workout, I thought it might be helpful to share the toolbox I heavily rely on each day to teach diversity in a diversity free zone. Reading the comment threads, I also realize that there are people who read ARP who aren’t necessarily parents (broadly defined) but who are teachers looking for ways to add diversity to their classrooms or to their curriculum. So, I hope this at least starts some helpful ideas for people looking for some ways to grow as Anti-Racist Parents:

Turn to your local college. Many colleges have offices like mine - they are called a variety of names: Multicultural Office, Student Activities, Affirmative Action office, Diversity Office, etc. These offices/organizations typically have the responsibility of hosting diversity related events, especially during heritage months like Latino Heritage Month, Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, etc. Check their websites and see if they have a list of programs (or ask if you can get an email copy of their programs). Call ahead and ask if the program is “family friendly” first, though, if you intend to bring small children. In my case, of the 30 or so programs a year that are diversity related, almost 1/2 of them are family friendly! And, I always love when I get calls from the community asking if they can bring students, children, etc. The other great bonus about tapping into your local college is that the programs are often FREE. At some colleges, specific groups are required to perform community outreach - you may find a number of sororities and fraternities or service organizations sponsoring these events. Again, please call to make sure they are family friendly!

Diversify your library at home. Intentionally buy or borrow books that have diversity represented in them. In our house, we have a great mix of children’s books that have stories around cultural diversity. If your local library does not have them, a number of online sellers will have them. If I’m looking for a particular book, I tend not to go to a mainstream online seller; rather, I find a cultural organization online to see if they have any links to recommended books. By going with cultural organizations rather than mainstream, I get a more accurate description of the book and the position of that cultural group. For example, when I was looking to purchase some children’s stories that were centralized around the Native American experience, I went online to a mainstream retailer, and a number of recommended titles came up. But, when I went to the cultural organization’s website, I found these exact recommendations under a heading “Books That Promote Stereotypes of Native Americans.”! Woah! So, I was really glad I had taken the few extra seconds to see if the books were supported by that group. I think this is incredibly important! Continue to read educational and well written blogs .. like Anti-Racist Parent of course! While you may not be surrounded by diversity, we are often surrounded by ignorant comments. So, reading blogs like ARP give you the tools and understanding to be an “Agent of Interruption.” And, if you are educated, you will pass that education on to your children (or students). I work in a predominantly white institution and am often, by default, the diversity educator. But, since finding Anti-Racist Parent, Racialicious and some of the blogs of people who write here, I have assigned reading these blogs as HOMEWORK assignments to my students! It’s helpful for them to see that there are others out there who share the same language and passion for interrupting racism.

When you can, choose to do business in diverse neighborhoods. I currently live on the town line between a upper middle class, predominantly white town and a middle/working class, predominantly people of color city. I choose to do my personal and professional business in the predominantly POC city.Even with the rising price of gas, I choose to drive a little further to the grocery store and wait a little longer for street parking because it is important for me to do business where there are people of color. I certainly can buy the same gallon of milk, the same bread, and the same box of cereal at the grocery store in the predominantly white (and closer to my house) town, but I choose to make the drive. Again, with the price of gas and proximity, can you do this all the time? Maybe not. But, is it worth doing it enough where your child(ren) see that people of color do the same thing that white people do in their same daily way? Yes. Find shows that include diversity in both positive and negative ways. I am not a fan of pre-teen television (especially now that my almost-5-year-old says she is w-a-y too old for Sesame Street!), but we do watch it. I am specifically not a fan of a certain channel that I feel stereotypes pre-teens of color. But, alas, my daughter seems to have won for now. She is only allowed to watch that channel if Jorge or I watch it with her. We try to steer her more towards the shows that have families of color, and we’ve found some success there. But, she also likes to watch a show that both Jorge and I find disturbingly racist. We do let her watch it, but we constantly ask her questions about what she just saw or heard when an issue comes up. Yes, she’s 4 years old, but I believe the lessons she’s learning about ways that people aren’t treated fairly are equally as important as shows that reflect her ethnicity. It’s never too early to start, right?

But, find MORE shows that are culturally diverse. My absolute favorite show right now is Ni Hao, Kai Lan. I’m sure I’ll find something wrong with it eventually, but for now, I love it. It’s the only Asian show that balances the Asian part with the “I’m a little girl” part. The other day, I asked my daughters if they wanted to have Chinese food for dinner. My 23-month old then said, “Oh, Mama. Chinese. Like Kai Lan!” I nearly cried. Growing up, there were no characters that reflected my ethnicity. I know Dora paved the way, and we certainly embraced her representing our Latino side. But, now, my kids have Kai Lan… representing the Asian side! Hurray! I haven’t quite done my homework on this one, but with the accessibility of YouTube and such, I hope to find more diverse cartoons from other countries out there!

Diversify your music. One of the best ways to learn about other cultures is through music. I have a very low tolerance for children’s songs. I have a responsibility to teach my kids the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “A-B-C”, but there is truly only so much I can take. And, thankfully, their taste in music has evolved, too. My kids listen to anything from classical to Chubb Rock. They can sing “Bebot” (edited version) by the Black Eyed Peas and “I am Not My Hair” by India.Arie.

Be sure to have an inclusive curriculum. If you are a teacher, take a close look at what you are teaching and what you are not teaching. Does your lesson plan only include a white perspective? Are you including the very rich and diverse history of our country or just one perspective? Are you talking about contributions and inventions from people of color or just from white people? As a former teacher, I can attest that more often than not, textbooks tell a very one-sided story. As a parent, is your child coming home from school with only one-sided history? While you may not be able to change the textbooks at school (though, it’s worth the fight!), are you supplementing the school lessons with a diverse inclusion lesson at home.

No diversity organizations? Start your own! There are very few professionals of color where I work, and yet I felt the need to start a support group for us. Unfortunately, a professionals of color group would have been too small, so I opened up the invitation to anyone who wanted to join a Diversity Discussion Group. After my first announcement, about 50 people expressed interest. That dwindled down to 30, then 20, and now we have about 15 who regularly attend the discussion group. There are a few people of color, but the rest of the group is white. When asked “Why did you join this group?”, the answer from both parties was “to meet people who wanted to talk about diversity.” So, from there, we talked about books, issues, media, language, foods, our own heritage, etc. I don’t think we are a diverse group, but we are a group who wants to grow as individuals. Maybe start up a group with parents from your child’s school or play group. Get together and hire someone to watch the kids 1x a month. No time for a book club? Focus on movies from other countries and have a movie discussion group, rotating locations each time.

None of the above will end racism. I know that. But, I do think it’s a helpful start for those who are living, learning and working in diversity-free zones. I know there are others out there with tools in your tool box. Comment? Share? What has worked for others out there?

NOTE: You’ll notice that I don’t recommend simply going to places like soup kitchens or homeless shelters or community outreach organizations to expose oneself to diversity. Believe me, they are important. When it’s linked to diversity, though, I believe this can go horribly wrong as a diversity lesson. Too often (depending on the demographics of your town/city and shelters) people of color are seen as “needing help” or “down and out”. And, this “savior experience” when white people go and save people of color by serving them some food is incredibly problematic. Again, I’m not at all saying that community service is bad. What I am saying is that performing community service as an easy way to expose people to diversity MAY NOT be positive. Largely because community service (at least as defined in the college setting) does not always equal quality contact, discussion and learning. If you are going to link community service with diversity, I ask (beg?) that you also approach it by addressing power and privilege in our society.

Critical Mass or Culturally Inclusive

Critical Mass or Culturally Inclusive Working at a predominantly white institution (PWI), the conversation of how to increase diversity is at the center of our planning. But, I'm often asked, "What do we do?" In my opinion, there are 2 camps: those who believe that we must do all we can to obtain a critical mass, or a 'magic number' where students of color no longer are marginalized due to their numbers; and there are those who believe we must first create an environment that is welcoming and ready for the group of students (in our case, students of color).

I belong to the second camp... and often advocate for the need to change and transform our current community.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think Stonehill shares characteristics that many colleges our size, location, identity, etc., share. We are not unique. Unfortunately, not at all. We are one of many, many colleges that struggle to diversify the student body, administration and faculty.

I'm often asked to find ways to increase the number of students of color at Stonehill. I do it. But, I do it with hesitation. While I'd love to see more faculty, staff and students of color here, I know what they will face. I know what they're up against.

For the most part, the community is interested in diversity. They welcome the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people. They realize that we are not getting a rich and dynamic conversation without diversity. Diversity is a top priority in our strategic plan, in our office's mission, in the mission inherent in our Catholic identity. While we welcome the opportunity, do we welcome the students?

The "critical mass" camp asserts that we must have more people of color here in order to begin the conversations that will transform our community. That, without a critical mass, students will always feel like "tokens". Without a critical mass, students will always be singled out to speak for the entire community.

As you can tell, I believe that if we bring a critical mass to an environment that isn't culturally inclusive, we're asking for trouble. We can expect even more stereotypes. We can expect even more culturally insensitive comments in classrooms.

I equate this example to the rickety porch at my dad's house - it was built years ago, has been greatly weathered, and lacks sturdy posts. Some of the floor boards have nails sticking out. Back when it was built, that porch was the best spot in the house. We ate on a big picnic table on the porch, hung out with our friends on that porch, and had some of the best conversations out on that porch. Sometime, about 5-7 years ago, we all just stopped going out onto the porch. It began to feel weak. It began to feel unsafe. And, now, no ones goes near it. We are afraid that, if someone steps on it, it will collapse. We are often afraid that it will crumble underneath us. And, while the porch could certainly hold about 2-3 people, we would never even think about putting more than that on there.

The rickety porch, to me, represents a culturally insensitive environment. The group of people is my critical mass. Before I invite a critical mass, or guests to my dad's house, over, I would want to reinforce the community -- reinforce that porch.

Ring in. What are your thoughts? Culturally sensitive environment .... critical mass...?