I’m going to make myself uncomfortable today. I’m going to talk about race.
I need to learn to do this. There’s a good chance my kids will be a different race than I am. And even if they’re not, it’s important to me that my children grow up as unprejudiced as I can help them be. I’m reading a book about debunking common parenting myths called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Chapter 3, which I just finished, is titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” Being white myself, until I faced the notion of having non-white children, I hadn’t figured I’d discuss race with my kids, either. Why would I have to? Doesn’t talking about race bring attention to it? Aren’t children naturally color blind? Won’t they view the (not particularly) diverse society I live in and come to the right conclusions naturally?
According to this book and the studies it cites... no. They won’t. Apparently study after study shows that children not only notice race but show a bias in favor of their own race unless they are consciously and explicitly taught not to. Simply living in a diverse environment doesn’t help. In fact, the more diverse a school is, the more statistically likely children are to not have friends of other races. By kindergarten, children self-segregate by race and self-report in studies to have neutral to negative attitudes towards people of other races and positive attitudes toward people of their own… and this discrepancy has no correlation with the attitudes of their parents. In fact, in families where parents didn’t talk about race for the same reasons I stated above, children often assumed their parents had a negative opinion about people of other races. The absence of discussion translated in their minds to an assumption of bias, not an assumption of indifference. According to the article linked to above:
We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they’re plainly visible. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own…believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn’t like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him.
Well, this totally floored me. It’s called essentialism, the belief that people who look like you on the outside are also like you on the inside. Essentialist thinking starts as early as six months old and without explicit conversations about race, by third grade (8 years) it has started to lock in in ways that must be intellectually overcome with great effort. Their conclusion? Start talking to your children about race as soon as they can talk. Don’t just say vague things like, “we’re all equal.” Point race out. Tell children that black people and white people and brown and whatever all love their families and want success and smile when they’re happy because skin color doesn’t tell us anything about who a person is inside.
Diving in: a race related issue I have consciously avoided on this blog…
Heathenry has already forced me to think about race in ways I never had before. After Christianity we’re the second religion of choice for members of the white supremacist street gang the Aryan Brotherhood. (They often call the faith Wotanism after Odin’s Germanic name, Wodan. Apparently one of their leaders said it also stands for “Will of the Aryan Nation.” *headesk*) This causes a lot of angst among Heathens because the rest of us really really hate this. It’s also meant that many people (including some law enforcement – sorry, I have no link on this at the moment, but anybody who can provide me one will be greatly appreciated) think of common Heathen symbols, such as the Valknut, Tyr’s rune, and the rune Othala as gang signs.
Plus, much of Nazi symbolism is pulled from Teutonic history, like the sign for the SS troops is two sol runes, and the swastika itself is an ancient symbol of the Teutonic people (that’s also used in many other faiths). Hitler did a bang up job of taking a symbol that has graced temples all over the world for thousands of years (literally; the first swastika was found in the Ukraine carved into ivory dating from 10,000 BC) and turning it into a symbol that is only associated with racist violence and hatred.
Because of these things, Heathens tend to be very conscious of racism and try to separate ourselves from the taint these groups have caused our cultural symbols.
On a more personal note…
Heathenry has caused me to think more about race because it’s a tribal faith. Many practitioners, like myself, came to it because it was the religion of our ancestors.
Now, I would happily worship alongside people of any ancestry; I don’t think race is a requirement to be a member of my faith or that people of Nordic blood make better Heathens or whatever. But before Christianity, religion and tribe (or racial subset) were tied together all over the world. We still call mythologies by their ethnic identity – the Greek myths, Chinese myths, Polynesian myths, etc. Christianity’s (and now also Islam’s) idea there is one faith for all people was radical when it originated. As I’ve pointed out before it was a culturally shattering way of looking at things. Instead of dividing the world up by ethnic culture (which tended to coincide with geographic boundaries), it divided us by religious affiliation – those who are Christian and those who are pagan (lower case intentional). Or those who are Muslim and those who are infidels.
I’m not going to claim that one way is better than the other; they both have their strengths and weaknesses. I will, however, claim that we human beings have an inherent tendency to create categories for ourselves and to stick with and stick up for those we decide through some arbitrary sorting process are grouped with us. As much as I love the idea of “We Are the World,” I’m not sure we as a species are psychologically capable of that level of solidarity (until aliens invade the planet, giving us a new way of sorting: humans and THEM).
Getting back to religion and race…
My religion is tribal and I chose it for ancestral reasons. It took me awhile to get here because at first I didn’t like the idea of integrating religion and ethnic identity in any way. I thought this made me ethnocentric or something. But I have since realized that by getting in touch with my own cultural roots, I have developed a deeper appreciation for other people’s cultural history and lost a lot of my need for people to be the same.
If my children are not the same race I am, it will be important to me to help them research their own cultural ancestry, to build their own ancestor altar, and, if they so choose, create their own sacred space for their own ancestral deities. Not that I would deny them the right to worship alongside me; as I mentioned last week a Naming Ceremony connects them to Scott’s and my ancestral lines. But they have a right to both. And I’ll get to learn about Anansi or Quetzalcoatl or whomever, and that sounds fascinating to me.
The lesson from my tribal faith combined with the studies in Nurture Shock has led me to the conclusion that it is, in fact, important to talk about race. It’s impossible not to notice it, so ignoring it only creates problems. We should, instead, find reasons to actively discuss it. To question preconceived ideas out loud, to celebrate our ethnic identities with each other… and to be willing to make asses of ourselves when we accidentally stick our feet in our mouths. (Which I think is the real reason why white people do not, in fact, talk about race.)
I will conclude with an embarrassing story about myself. I told my mother about the book and how studies showed that children may not be born biased, but we typically have become so completely of our own volition by kindergarten. She snorted a laugh and told me that was a relief to hear. Apparently when I was three I refused to watch a certain TV show because it had, according to me, “those chocolate people in it.” Mom was, of course, horrified, and desperately tried to figure out where I got that awful idea. Well, apparently I got it from my observation coupled with my inherent need to categorize everything I encountered. My adopted children will come to me the same way, and maybe they’ll be biased against me because I’m a marshmallow person. It’ll be my job as a parent to help my children break down those barriers while still celebrating the unique cultural heritage of who we are as individuals and as a family. It’s a nerve-wracking task. But I will try to be up to it.
What do you think Realm? There’s a lot of big issues here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
+ Featured Image: Quentin Roosevelt and his playmate Rosewell Flower Pinckney 1902, Public Domain