New Promises to My White Children, Part Two
This is post #2 (in series of three) detailing Adelaide Lancaster’s journey as a White parent (and co-founder of WeStories.org).
I promise to refrain from using coded language
When I was growing up we didn’t talk much about race. We were supposed to evaluate “character,” not “color.” Saying too much about race would probably get you in trouble either by offending someone or saying the wrong thing. So instead people spoke in code.
We said things like “inner city” and “ghetto” and “urban” instead of Black. Now I’m convinced that language is an important part of the social justice equation. How can we ever feel really positive and connected to something that we 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 kids who use proper terminology for their bodies parts develop a positive body image, confidence, and are at less risk of abuse or victimization. So that’s why we don’t say “pee-pee,” we say vagina. We don’t say “weiner,” we say penis. I want you to be comfortable and confident when talking about your bodies. I want you to be able to seek the help you need. I want you to value and honor all of your body as yours.
So it only makes sense to me to channel that same straightforwardness when talking about all the people in our community, country, and world. I want you to know that Black is not a bad word. I want you to feel comfortable talking about the people in your world and community. You can’t respect or dignify people that you can’t talk about or talk to comfortably. Talking is seeing. Talking is acknowledgment. You cannot be aware of that which you cannot see or acknowledge.
Skin color is just that; meaningless apart from the huge multitude of meaning—good and bad—that we as a people put on it.
So we talk about skin color and race categories:
“Sometimes skin color matters, sometimes it doesn’t.” “Skin color can’t tell us anything with certainty.” “Sometimes groupings and labels matter, sometimes they don’t. No one is the sum of his or her color, shape, label, or group but some people aren’t treated fairly because of the color of their skin and that has real consequences that aren’t ok.” “What if a doctor didn’t give you the medicine you needed because your skin was a different color?” “What if a teacher gave you a stronger punishment because your skin was a different color?”
We are learning together to honor the real lived experiences of difference while also searching, always searching, for what’s common—humanity.
I promise that I will answer your questions honestly.
Even when your questions make me feel uncomfortable. Even when there aren’t clear answers. Even when the answers are really, really bad. I will sit with the complexity and explore it with you. I will not hide behind obscured references, stories, or complacency. I will value your natural-born empathy and respect your ability to distill complicated matters down to the obvious and right thing to do.
Do not let me hide escape into adult vagueness. Do not accept “it’s just the way it is” from me. Let’s reject the “it’s just the way it is” and embrace the “BUT it doesn’t have to be”.
We shouldn’t settle for injustice. The problem is big, too big for one person. But accepting the persistent of trauma and struggle as the best we can do isn’t nearly enough. It’s never just the way it is. It is the way it is for a reason. Together lets dig for that hard truth.
I promise I will immerse you in literature, media, and play that reflect your country and the world.
Thirty years ago, it was hard to find a pretty Black doll or diverse storybook characters and toys. I only met Black characters through required reading.
And my inclination wasn’t necessarily to do any different. I didn’t give racial diversity in books and toys much thought until I started buying dolls for you, E. I wasn’t that excited to buy dolls at all but then noticed how enamored you were by a Black ballerina doll at a play space we visited. The next Christmas became the perfect opportunity to give you several dolls with a range of skin colors and representing various ethnicities. I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise, maybe I would have continued to think that they are “not for you” but you planted a small seed for change.
Seeing how much you love and value these dolls led me to reconsider our beloved book selection. As you know, I love children’s books. I love the pretty ones, the classic ones, the sentimental ones, the rhyming ones, the funny ones, the animal ones, and apparently the mostly White ones. It is astounding just how easy it is to whitewash childhood for White children.
This library I gave you is wonderful, but it’s woefully incomplete. I don’t want you to grow up only being fed what Nayyirah Waheed calls “skinny language” (a privileging of a narrow slice of English dialect and linking it with superiority) and perspectives and experiences that only reflect your own. Smart, wise, and worthy comes in many sounds and voices. “Our” stories are only a few of very many.
I’ve loved building a more diverse library with you. Through these books and tools we have started to talk about many conversations about race and equity that I didn’t previously have the skills to address. They’ve not only helped us to talk about skin color and difference but also historical and present-day discrimination and racism. And helped expand your sense of what is possible and who is a friend, hero, and role model.
Before mermaids where not only White, but red haired. Now you adore characters like Sukey, with her beautiful brown skin, Black eyes, and shimmering green hair. When you color your world, it now looks like the world, not our segregated neighborhood. Recently you lost your first tooth and drew a picture of the tooth fairy. She had brown skin. And why not?
Thanks to the shift in the media and stories we consume and the conversations they create, you’re default is no longer always White. These books have given us the opportunity to expand our conversation and exploration beyond what experiences that we regularly would allow on their own.
Let us always seek to find the voices and stories that we are missing, in our books and in our life.
Click here to read the first post in this series and stay tuned for the final post in this series!
Adelaide Lancaster is co-founder of We Stories, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that uses the power of children’s literature to help start and strengthen conversations about race in families, schools and community spaces serving children ages 0-7. 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.