What They See. What We Say, and Don't.

I chose to raise my kids in a very segregated town in one of the most segregated regions in the country.

I made this choice for us without "thinking about race", which is to say that I didn’t think I was thinking about race. I was thinking about comfort, safety, reputation and where I felt like we would fit in. But in truth all these things are very much about race.

I was still a relatively new parent when I moved to Missouri but I was an experienced white person. And I made my decision like many other white people do. I looked for “good schools” and a “safe neighborhood” and was more focused on upgrading parallel parking for a driveway and garage (and all the junk that goes into a garage) than I was about what my choice would tell my children (then 20 months and 8 weeks) about what was “normal.”

Supposed for a moment that my family stayed within the confines of our town for the full length of time that we live in Missouri. The “normal” my children would see would contain NO black neighbors, one black teacher, no black administrators or town leaders, few black classmates, and few black friends. They would see that (in a town that only provides busing for Voluntary Transfer students from the city) only black children get on the school bus after school. Not all the black children but only black children. Most of the rest of the black children live in the northern part of our town, with parks that aren’t as new and sparse commercial space. My children wouldn’t be familiar with this part of town. If our school is like most schools they would see fewer black students in the gifted program and the advanced classes. If our school is like most schools they might see these student punished more frequently and more harshly than their white peers. They might experience even fewer black children at after-school activities and extra-curriculars, like ballet. There is lots of Irish Dancing in my town, but not many black ballerinas. (We drive 20 minutes each way to attend a ballet class that’s more diverse, and pass about 6 other studios along the way.)

Suppose then that we spent most of our time town but occasionally ventured into the city or to institutions that draw a more diverse audience. My children would probably see that we only see a larger number of black folks or children when we go to certain neighborhoods and places. Maybe places where we co-mingle but never really interact. Would they ever see me connect with black folks the same way I do with white folks? Would there be banter and laughing or generosity or warmth? Or anxious silence and terse exchanges? What would they take from this? Maybe they would observe other disparate patterns as well. For example, when I was a child I would notice that browner people were the ones riding public transit in the suburbs and standing by bus stops on the side of the road.

The picture I’m painting isn’t an extreme. It more or less describes the norm for white families who live in predominantly white towns. I have experienced this as a child and as an adult. It is what my reality will be if I do nothing different.

But imagine if these disparate patterns were all my children knew. Imagine that we never talked about skin color or why the patterns are the way they are…how things came to be. Imagine that I shut down this conversation either with an explicit message “it’s not polite to talk about skin color” or with icy silence. What would they conclude?

Because as astounding as this reality or norm is, what is truly astounding is that we expect white kids to live in this reality and not draw biased conclusions from it. How can we expect them not to notice the very real patterns that exist? How can we live such a segregated life but still expect our kids to see all people as equal and containing the same amount of worth and potential? What do conclusions do we expect them to draw from these observations? What are we telling them if we are unwilling to talk to about these patterns?

After all these patterns do have real meaning. There are reasons why this and that. Some are longer and more complicated; some aren’t. Either way, it's not happenstance. It's unfair to expect that kids don't see that. And it's unreasonable in the absence of any alternate explanation for us to expect them to not fill in the blanks with the coded racism they observe all around them.

This isn’t about all white people uprooting themselves, making completely different choices, and building what they think is an urban uptopia in a predominately or historically black city neighborhood. In my mind there aren’t right or wrong choices. The system we live is fractured and broken beyond one person’s ability to effect massive change. Nor do I believe that there is one solution that’s right for every person. For some white families living in a diverse and urban environment is the answer. That doesn’t leave the rest of us off the hook. There is work to be done, consideration to be given, and patterns to shift for every person in every place, especially in predominately white spaces.

No matter where you live, consider: what are the stories you tell about our city and its people? Where do you go, what do you celebrate? Who are your friends? How strong is your practice of followership for leaders of color? How strong is your practice of leadership when talking with other white folks? Who are you considering when voting? In local politics? Regional politics? National politics? In your child’s eye who can be a ballerina? Or a t-ball player? Or performer? Or leader? Or friend? What is the story your children are getting and what is the story you're trying to tell?