Recently, I was reminded just how important it is that we live our values out loud, especially when it comes to what we decide to say (or not say) about race.
On the mornings when I take my kids to school on the train, I’ve taken to telling them stories about when I was growing up. My four-year-old has really come to relish these stories and asks for them. “Tell a story about when you and Uncle John were growing up,” she says from her perch on the back of the stroller.
Telling “my story” to my kids has also become more than just a way to fill time and mark our walk to school. As I tell and re-tell these stories, they evolve into the “story of us” – stories of joy and sorrow, stories of struggle and resilience. As it turns out, cultivating a family narrative – with its ups and downs – not only helps adults make new meaning of my past but it also has surprisingly durable effects on how children see themselves.
A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to tell a story about school. My two-year-old had just aged into a new class at daycare and she had clearly been nervous about it, finding ways to avoid going in the classroom and clinging to my legs the closer we got. One of the first stories I thought to tell was about my brother’s second grade teacher and how she helped him to become a storyteller.
Her name was Mrs. White, and in a practice that I’m sure was not unique to her but which feels practically non-existent today she made fiction-writing a central part of her curriculum. According to my brother, every couple of weeks Mrs. White would write a title on the board and then have her students write a corresponding story. (My parents saved dozens of these stories, four-to-five pages each on yellow-lined paper, complete with gripping dialogue and accompanying illustrations. One of my favorites is called, “Saturn: A Great Vacation Spot!”)
And so, my story was – in my mind – about a teacher who assiduously cultivated my brother’s imagination and helped him refine his ability to tell stories. Notably, he still writes stories to this day. (He was even nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Fiction a few years ago. Mrs. White would have been so proud.)
With about a block left before we got to school and lost in the memory, I started to tell my kids about a memorable teacher of my own: Mr. Hobson, my fourth grade teacher. One of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Hobson was nurturing and funny and kind. Part of what made him such a gift to me, I think, was that he was my teacher during a particularly difficult time in my life and his class was, in a very real way, a refuge and safe harbor.
As I pondered just what else to say, my four year-old interrupted. “Daddy,” she said from the back of the stroller, “what did Mr. Hobson look like?”
I thought a moment and then tried to paint her a picture: brown hair, brushed to one side; glasses; clean-shaven; big, warm smile. Usually he wore collared shirts with knit ties, sleeves rolled partway up his arms. I tried to think of what else.
And then my four year-old said, “No, what color skin did Mr. Hobson have?”
Even though she may have just been asking this question to help her visualize the story, the fact that it was even a question was striking. As a child myself, I never would have thought to ask this question. Almost without exception, the characters in the stories I read and in the stories I was told were white. But maybe in part because that was true for both of us, my wife and I have worked consciously not to be color-blind, especially in front of our children.
One way we try to do this is to name whiteness and notice race, both in the world and in the stories we read. When all of the characters in a story are white, we try to say so. We also tell our kids how we like stories about people who have different colors of skin. My daughter’s interruption was a way to figure out if my story was one of the those or not.
It was not. So I said, “Mr. Hobson had white skin.”
And then she said, “And what color skin did Mrs. White have?”
And I said, “Mrs. White also had white skin.”
Crossing the street, another block closer to school, I decided to state the obvious. “Most of the people I went to school with – the teachers and the students – had white skin. But that’s not the way the world looks.” She was quiet, listening, nodding almost imperceptibly. “I didn’t really know people with different colored skin until I was grown up,” I said. “I feel sad about that. But you go to school with friends and teachers who have all kinds of skin. I’m glad about. That’s why we live where we live.”
“Yes,” she said.
Most of the time, my four year-old is wild with imagination, leaping and twirling and running across our living room with a heavy gait and yelling out her stories with an unrestrained joy. Most of the time, she is preoccupied with her toys and her dresses and what episode of Daniel Tiger she’s going to watch later. Most of the time, she is hugging her dolls or her sister or falling over backwards off the couch in a fit of laughter. She is four.
But though she four, she is not colorblind.
Decisions about where to live and where to send kids to school, what to notice and what questions we ask, they are truly consequential. They become part of the unfolding story of us. And my daughter's questions helped me see that she is also writing this story.
This is not to say that I have it all figured out. To be sure, I am a very imperfect parent and make a lot of mistakes. These include my sometimes feeble attempts to talk about race and racism with my kids. But the decision to talk about race and racism at all – instead of saying nothing – feels like one thing we’re doing right.