Wednesday, April 15, 2015


An Honest Question

I know that questions like these often bring out the very worst in internet trolling, but I’ve been consistently impressed at the judgment of my wise and worldly readers, so I’ll take a chance here, because I’m really struggling with this one.

How do you explain structural racism to a thirteen year old?

The Boy is thirteen and The Girl is ten.  They’re great kids -- good-hearted, smart, considerate.  They’re uncommonly courteous for their respective ages.  

I don’t want them to only get the approved public school version of American race relations.  It’s well-meaning, in its way, but so reductionist that it tends to lead to some serious misunderstandings.  

Racism is usually presented as a character flaw.  It can be that, of course, but if that’s your only understanding of it, then it’s easy to take discussions of structural racism as some sort of personal attack, and to respond either in kind or dismissively.  I’ve seen it too many times.

That said, though, something like “social structure” is a tough concept for an eighth grader, even a bright one.  And while I want to convey a sense of reality as I see it, I want to leave enough room for their own interpretations to develop.  I’d like to convey a sense that there’s something beyond individual attitudes, but to be open-ended enough that they don’t just hear it as dogma.  

So far, the best approach I’ve been able to come up with has been to discuss context around certain news stories, like police shootings.  That way it doesn’t seem forced or contrived.  But those stories can also fit under the “character flaw” narrative, and they necessarily focus only on a narrow slice of life.

I’m asking because as they get older, I want the kids to be able to apply their sense of decency to larger issues, and not to commit some of the sins of obliviousness (and defensiveness when called on it).  

Age-appropriate sociology is tough enough.  Focus on race and it’s that much tougher.  But I don’t think that ignoring it, or defaulting to the “character flaw” narrative, solves the problem.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your help.  What’s an age-appropriate way to introduce the idea of structural racism to a thirteen-year-old?

This is a really good question. I think it is a hard one to answer -- "racist" is such a caustic label that it's hard to have a reasoned conversation about what it should apply to (outside of isolated villains, as you point out) with anyone, at any age.

I've learned the most about racism in the US by listening to what people who have suffered under it have to say. I like to follow Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog in recent years, and (because of that blog) I recently read and loved James Baldwin's collected essays -- I especially liked the earlier ones, from the collections "Notes of a Native Son" and "The Fire Next Time". When I was 15 I read Richard Wright's "Native Son" and that really stuck with me (but I haven't read it again since).

I also really liked the movies "Do The Right Thing" and "Malcolm X" by Spike Lee, and I think they hold up very well -- I watched both again recently. The latter requires a bit more patience than the former. Actually, if I were to recommend one idea above all others, I would say watch "Do The Right Thing" together.

It's heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, and I think he will probably only absorb it gradually. Good luck!
One of the things I make sure to point out to my 13 - year - old is that those cops are representatives of our government, and that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. As for the "approved public school version," participate in his assignments, especially when they involve resesrch. We did quite the critical analysis of George Rogers Clark, when what was expected was an innocuous send - up of one of our state's (almost folkloric) heroes.

But we don't confine our conversations to race relations, rather all forms of social injustice. And don't leave out those working against it: Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Anonymous, the Occupy Movement, the people of Ferguson, etc. Let your kids see you pull over to help the guy pulling his groceries home from the supermarket in a red Wagon tied to his wheelchair. Then, just answer their questions. Move to a neighborhood where YOU'RE the minority.

My son has no qualms about telling me when he doesn't feel safe in various parts of town. Then we have a conversation about what constitutes real danger, and when it's important to push against discomfort.
First Anonymous has it right. It's best to learn from those who have lived it.

"Nigger: An Autobiography" by Dick Gregory. I read it in 10th grade and was never the same.

Tell your son it's "too salty" to be assigned reading for school. His curiosity will take care of the rest.

This episode of "This American Life"
might be worth listening too - "Three Miles".

It's about kids not that much older than TB and how these kids respond to the injustice in their schooling.

I wonder if John Scalzi's metaphor of a video game might be a good introduction? Have you seen it?
I learned a lot from this "playable post" about how you can still get segregated outcomes from well-meaning individual choices.
GREAT DISCUSSION!! As you may, or may not, remember, I also have a 13 year old and a 10 year old (almost 11), both boys so I will be coming back to read more responses as they come in.

I also try to start the conversation by talking about the news (such as Michael Brown's killing) -- since my sons are not exposed to the news in any way, i know, I should change that, I just don't know how exactly to go about it -- any advice?

Their reaction to the Ferguson story was a clear sense that it was outrageous and wrong. I have been telling them in no uncertain terms that some people in this country are racist and that their African American classmates will have to deal with that all their lives.

I am also thinking of getting them to read certain books. I used to teach a class at UMass called Spiritual Autobiography and we read and taught many autobiographies that dealt with race, not just regarding African Americans, but also Asians (particularly Japanese Internment) e the Holocaust. I think that Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy is better than his novels and is very memorable and not "too salty" as far as I can remember, using another commenter's expression.

Now, I think the second commenter raised a GREAT point -- that of also talking about social injustice. I think that's an issue that is not too hard for my sons to understand because of how privileged they are of being able to travel so often to Brazil and see another reality and a more socially unjust society (although they've been sheltered while there too).

Well, can't wait to see more responses & will try to think of other thoughts to contribute.
Implicit bias might be a good way in. Talk about the role implicit bias can have on split-second decisions, and how it might influence minor things like 'do I give a ticket or a warning?'

You might also talk about very human the tendency to self-segregate, and the effect that can have on hiring, particularly in fields that depend on internships and apprenticeships.
To me, this is more a conversation about privilege than anything else. Some people have it because of race, gender, (fill in the blank)and recognizing that advantage is more important than labeling what's happening. Labeling comes with blame and anger but recognition (to me) is more neutral. If your son ends up an engineer, the structural gender bias in his workplace will likely be enormous - much more than in the average workplace. I would hope he would be the kind of person who would try to break that down.

This is the best "teaching about privilege" activity that I know of:

I would encourage your kids to always ask themselves, how can we make sure everyone is sitting in the front row? In what ways are the organization of my group/workplace/life impacting access to the front row? When talking about an incident you can ask questions about what might have happened in a different place with different people. beat the front row as metaphor to death. I think in some ways just learning to ask the right questions is the point.

I would also seek out activities for your kids where they are with other kids from different ethnic, socioeconomic, religious backgrounds. That is the best way to broaden and challenge your perspective that I know of - reading books is great but you feel for your friends and the people you know in a way that is different from what you read in books.

As a general exploration of the "phases" of responding to white privilege, I love this:

Points to you for doing your very best to do the right thing. Even if your execution isn't perfect, the effort says a lot about what you value. That's important.

Some good suggestions on readings. I had a similar experience with Native Son (author born and raised in the deep South) and parts of the Autobiography of Malcolm X (author born and raised in the midwest and north). I would add "Black Like Me", which totally blew my mind when I read it in junior high. Remarkable story of a white man passing as black and discovering that it quickly ceased to be an experiment with himself as the observer.

My opinion, and it is just that, an opinion, is that racism must have its origins in some genetic tendency to identify "the other" in some way as distinct from "your group" that must have had some survival advantage at some time that makes it easy to learn those kinds of attitudes. Look at how Americans reacted to the arrival of Italians or Eastern Europeans or ... it is a very long list spanning centuries.

A run in with some hooligan (a word defined by reference to a particular Irish person, real or fictional, of ill repute) has been known to trigger a, shall we say, over generalization that associates a certain property with everyone who looks like that person. Is it a coincidence that my mother, who never even saw a black person until she was 16, doesn't have a racist bone in her body but has been known to disparage an ethnic group she grew up around?

But it also is not destiny. I would tell him that I have some relatives who were raised by a person whose calm "reasoned" racism and anti-semitism knew no bounds, attended segregated schools in a segregated world, but two generations later they (well, most of them) celebrate a marriage with a black woman. It doesn't hurt to have a bit of education and some self awareness. Hence my mention of "Black Like Me" up above.

I'm convinced that gang colors play the same role as ethnic dress, military uniforms, or college team colors as a way of enabling a feeling of oneness with your group in solidarity against the others. Humans may have always been like that. Better to do it about football than about jobs and housing, although you might think twice about raising a Yale flag in a Harvard neighborhood.

The point made above about privilege as being the central issue is, in my view, a sound one.

I would also emphasize the point that socially enforced -- and unearned -- privilege does not have to be based on something as obvious as race. Italians and Irish Catholics were once thought to be as likely to destroy the US by living off of honest working people as some now say about Mexicans.

I'm sure race and racism made slavery easier to defend, but there were white countries that had white slaves. Russia freed its serfs in 1861, just a few years before we freed the slaves in this country. The caste system in India is another example of a variant of racism where one group oppresses another for its economic advantage.
Great suggestions. You might also play with Peggy McIntosh's "invisible backpack", and have the kids think about what they carry in theirs, and what other kids carry. That can extend beyond race to other sources of privilege, as well as to values.
I think the fundamental issue is that the system/structure as it exists is designed systematically affords some people's participation and constrains others'; I find the analogue of bikes on roads designed for cars to be helpful.
I'd think 13 is old enough to take an implicit bias test. Or watch you take one. And discuss.

Quite honestly, I suspect you're aware enough of this, but for other readers- 13 or even 10 is far too late to *start* having conversations about race. Kids have measurable biases against certain races by preschool. It may, however, be an ideal time to introduce a bit less Sesame-street diversity celebration (as nice as that is) and a bit more "here is how power is distributed in our society" sort of thing.

I read "A People's History of the United States" about 13, and I would recommend that one. I also read Black Like Me about that age.
I think the best way to approach this is from the POV of structural inequality. By which I mean facially neutral rules (laws, policies, etc.) which end up having a disparate impact on particular groups.

I.e., the law prohibits the both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges.

It's hard to talk about structural equality and race relations (specifically) without going down the road of intentional discrimination because much of the easy-to-identify structural equality was created with that in mind, or at least with that as being a significant benefit.

But you could talk about literacy tests for voting, for example. As the child of educated parents, he may be sympathetic to the idea that: (1) voting is very important; and (2) it is therefore important that voters be able to understand complex issues.

Therefore, some states instituted literacy tests for voting.

You can then talk about the disparate impact that a test like this would have, and how being illiterate doesn't mean that you don't understand important issues.

(As a history lesson and as an example of neutral sounding laws can be subverted by people wanting a particular outcome, you can look at some actual literacy tests from, say, Louisiana. And of course you can look at the "grandfather clause" and various other exceptions to the law. But it's also worth pointing out that people weren't above disenfranchising some number of poor whites as long as they were able to disenfranchise a much larger number of blacks).

I think the fundamental issue is that the system/structure as it exists is designed systematically affords some people's participation and constrains others'; I find the analogue of bikes on roads designed for cars to be helpful.

Not a bad analogy, especially as our collective memory has rewritten the history of roads to imply that they were built for cars, when the first push for better roads was actually from cyclists.

I'd recommend Roads Were Not Built For Cars by Carleton Reid. It's a very good overview of the early history of cycling and motoring (and how the second depended a lot on the first).
Why not try this:

For most of the past two millennia, the answer to your question, the answer that made the most sense to both the wise man and the fool, was that we were all sinners, all corrupt, all depraved, all (nearly) beyond redemption.
Reading through the later comments reminded of one experience from my youth that captures the nature of systematic institutionalized racism in the US:

Major oil company (my experience was with Standard Oil) gas stations had 2 bathrooms up north and 3 bathrooms in the Jim Crow South. They looked the same from the roadside, and you weren't supposed to notice if you happened to be white and from the north.
Instructive conversation, although it's possible to over-think it. The simple point I think Dean Dad would like to make to his kids is that identifying good people for Lego League or the orchestra is about identifying good people, not ruling some out a priori because of prejudices. As I dip into the sources, I fear that invocations of "privilege" are misleading, "unearned privilege" unnecessarily malicious, and "structural," while not inaccurate, poses challenges. Structures can be emergent, or they can be consciously designed, or they might be a mix. So it might be with the road analogy. Perhaps bicyclists had reason to seek better surfaces than those a team and wagon could use, but those better surfaces also made the way easier for motor vehicles, and motor vehicles proved to be more productive than bicycles for many tasks. Thus "motor vehicle privilege" emerges ... although transportation engineers of the mid-twentieth century might be called to account for some of their recommendations in much the same way that social scientists of the turn of the twentieth century built the structure of discrimination and exclusion that's in disfavor now.

Where the kids are likely to ask tough questions, though, will be along lines of "why do the police assume the worst about ...?"
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