white children, race, and the Emperor Zurg

Over the last day or so, there has been a discussion in my favorite mom group about a racist action by a 4 year old against her mom’s roommate. It has me thinking a lot about the ways that I do or do not talk about race with my (white) son, and the ways we do or do not talk about race with young white children in general. Here’s the scenario:

Mom has a new roommate who is a black man. Her 4 year old daughter wanders in to talk to him, and says she wants to make him a cake. Specifically she wants to make him a black cake. Why? he asks her. Because he is black, the little girl responds, so she will make him a black cake. Roommate later texts mom about this, and says that baby racism can hurt just as much as grown-up racism. Mom apologizes to roommate, and asks the mom group for some advice about handling race issues with her 4 year old (white) daughter.

The immediate response from the vast majority of the moms in the group was that the little girl was not racist, and it was not appropriate for the roommate to characterize her as such.  He must not have much experience with kids, because she was just trying to do something nice (make him a cake) and little kids make associations like that all the time. Probably she meant a chocolate cake! And maybe that’s her favorite cake, so she was actually being nice! And because she is innocent, we should protect her from his accusation of racism (I am paraphrasing here). He shouldn’t be playing the race card with a little kid (I am not paraphrasing here).

So the conversation goes on, and a few chime in to say actually, it doesn’t matter what her intention is, she is racist because she is a white little girl raised in a world that perpetuates racist systems, etc. One woman answers the mom’s actual question, and posts links to several resources. In my opinion, whether the daughter is intentionally racist is a red herring, because the important point is that roommate has used the comment as an opportunity to ask mom to address issues of race with her child, which she was trying to do.

Later, mom updates and says that she had a group of friends over, the night before, and that she also asked the friends this question. Like the mom group, the friends debated whether or not the daughter was racist (mostly deciding that she was not), avoiding the question at hand which is how to address race with a young white child. The roommate came home, and mom’s friends surprised her by ambushing roommate and asking him why he thought the little girl was racist.  He responded that he adores the little girl, and is not attributing negative intent to her, but his whole life people make comments about his skin being like chocolate, about his hair, and it was just too early in the morning for a microaggression, even from a little kid. It’s the cumulative effect of his lived experience.

And the mom group falls relatively silent, except one mom who chimes in to say of course we, as moms, will defend the little girl’s innocence, and she thinks it was a good thing that the friends confronted the roommate because now everyone has left a little better educated, including all the moms in the mom group. /end scene

Of course, if you look at it from the white peoples’ perspective, she’s right. Good thing we all had the opportunity to get educated by this black man.  But if you look at it from his perspective, it’s hard to find what’s good about a group of (presumably white) women ambushing you when you walk in the door after a long day, and asking you to defend your account of the racism you experienced.  For white people, it’s never about race. That is the luxury of white privilege right there, it gets to not be about race.

Many of the moms, in their defense of the little girl (who by the way, needed no defending. Mom didn’t say “how can I punish the little girl for saying this,” she instead said that she thought this presented a learning opportunity for her little girl) pointed to the tendency our children have to characterize things by color.  I have on a red shirt, so I should use the red cup. Red, and red. Matching. Applied to roommate, black skin means he should have a black cake. Black, and black. Matching. No harm.

Here’s the problem: If I am wearing a red shirt, it implies that I like red. Therefore I would probably appreciate someone offering me the red cup. But having black skin does not imply roommate’s likes or dislikes, and someone needs to tell the little girl that. She needs to have a conversation with a trusted adult about how skin color does not dictate innate attributes, or likes and dislikes, or any other such thing.  Take it further, right?  I get to be Buzz Lightyear, because I’m white, and roommate is Emperor Zurg, because he’s black. Matching. Oh look, I also get to be Luke Skywalker, while he’s Darth Vader.  And I get to be Sleeping Beauty, while he’s Maleficent.  I am the heroine of the movie while he is…. oh actually there’s not a black character in this movie, so never mind.

So probably I have had all these conversations with Bumby right? Especially since he has a black babysitter, and white moms. And we live in a predominantly white neighborhood, that borders not one, but three predominantly black neighborhoods.  Well, no. Not exactly. I was telling myself that he’s too young to understand race. He doesn’t really even notice it yet! Except that in itself is a benefit of white privilege, isn’t it? Deciding that our kids are too young to experience race.

My little blond boy is not too young to talk about race.  I will start this conversation today.  So here are a few of the resources helpfully posted in the mom group today, for my further reading and yours:

Raising race conscious children

Why it’s important to talk about race at a young age 

Colorblindness 1 and 2

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

And last, but not least, why it doesn’t really matter if her favorite cake is chocolate.

White mamas, we’ve got some work to do.