Black is not a bad word: Why I don’t talk in code with my children
by guest blogger Adelaide Lancaster
I’m a St. Louis mom, a New York entrepreneur, and mom to three children (ages 4, 3, and 1). I spend much of my time trying to raise these children to be big-hearted, just, and courageous. Until recently those attempts embraced diversity but skirted the issue of race directly. The unrest and conflict in my newly adopted city over this last year forced me to see just how tongue-tied I have become about race (a conversation that used to feel fluid), especially in my new community, and especially with my children. I’ve been sharing my thoughts at Parenting While White.
I was an adult before I felt comfortable saying (in a regular tone of voice) the word Black to describe a person. That means I whispered it for nearly two decades. And it’s not surprising. Why would I feel comfortable saying a word that was either regarded as taboo or so often associated with bad and undesirable circumstances? It felt like an insult.
I was theoretically raised to be colorblind.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Black, White, or green,” I was told. “We are all the same. What matters is who you are on the inside.”
But despite the sentimental statements, reality was plain as day for anyone with eyes. To me, Black people were different and rare in my environments. White people were the norm. Black people were more often poor and (reportedly) involved with crime. They made up the majority of the homeless people I saw in Philadelphia, and the majority of the people on the city buses that I did not ride.
It was commonplace for me to hear, “Lock ‘em up” (meaning the doors) when driving through a predominantly Black area of the city. What I saw and heard didn’t match was I was told.
Beyond this discrepancy however, potential conversation was further eroded by a conflicting concern for and distain of political correctness. No one wanted to be called out as a racist. Yet no one knew the “right” thing to say. So we all stayed conveniently tongue-tied and resorted to speaking in code saying things like “inner-city” and “urban” and “ghetto.” They all meant Black, but seemed somehow less offensive.
Now that I have children, I’ve given a lot of thought to the messages I want to impart about race and social justice. I’m convinced that language is an important part of the equation. How can you ever feel really positive and connected to something that you don’t have direct, comfortable, confident language to describe?
This point seems really straightforward in other contexts. When it comes to body parts, for example. We are a medical family. I’ve read the research that says that children who use proper terminology for their bodies parts develop a positive body image, confidence, and are at less risk of abuse or victimization. So, we don’t say “pee-pee,” we say vagina. We don’t say “weiner,” we say penis. While it’s not the most comfortable experience if my children inappropriately (or appropriately) use these terms in public, I don’t get panicky about it. Someone might be embarrassed (likely me) but someone probably won’t be personally offended.
I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted my children to be empowered with appropriate, respectful, and direct language to talk about race. But that hasn’t made it easy or comfortable. I’ve felt many moments of hesitation.
I’ll ask myself, “Do I really want to get into all that now?” as an opportunity slips through my fingers. Like most White parents, I’ve had many concerns about the potential negative impacts of introducing the topic of race. I’ve also read the research stating the opposite.
I find myself repeating my “talking about race” mantra to myself often:
“I need to talk about race early, often, and directly.”
This self-talk give me courage and direction, especially since I live in a community of people who also aren’t talking about race. I can’t count on friends and playmates to intervene with the type of common, communal mama language we’ve almost all adopted…“use your words, not your hands.”
Race is a barrier not often breeched. And despite my own trepidation at times, I’m clear that the onus is mostly on me, which leads to a lot of second-guessing and internal pep talks.
Luckily for me and my family, my children go to a diverse school, especially by suburban St. Louis standards. Talking about different shades of skin tone is a regular occurrence at school and different shades of skin tone are easily observed. There are two teachers with the same name who teach at her school. My daughter comfortably differentiates between
“…the Sra. Ana with the curlier hair and darker skin and the Sra. Ana with the straight hair and the lighter skin.”
No big deal. Seeing how fluid her conversations were about appearance and ethnicity has made it easier to begin scratching at the surface of the realities of race in America. Allowing me to take baby steps alongside of her, with her sometimes even leading the way.
Together, we’ve worked our way past skin tones to labels.
“Usually people call people who look like us ‘White,’ even though our skin isn’t actually White. Usually people call other people with very dark skin ‘Black,’ even though their skin isn’t actually Black.”
We talk about hues, and shades, and the infinite continuum of appearance. And that foundation has so far proven to be very helpful. As we’ve begun talking about the realities of discrimination and racism, it has really helped to have common, simple, and confident shared language. I’m not conditioning or coding what I say. It seems to be at face value. It feels good to have the opportunity to not pass down my negative baggage about the word ‘Black.’ It feels good to, instead, have the opportunity to literally help redefine Black for my White children.
This weekend my children and I are making a Black Lives Matters lemonade stand of sorts in an effort to get more homes in our 90% White St. Louis suburb to display a Black Lives Matters sign. I am, of course, motivated by the mission of the Black Lives Matters Yard Sign Project, but I’m also seeing this as a restorative opportunity for me, and my White children to reclaim the word Black as something positive, valuable, and worth fighting for. From the start.
Adelaide Lancaster is founder of In Good Company, a community and workspace for women entrepreneurs in Manhattan and the author of The Big Enough Company. She holds a M.Ed. in Psychological Counseling and M.A. in Organizational Psychology both from Teachers College at Columbia University, and a B.A in Educational Studies and Sociology and Anthropology from Colgate University.