Monday, April 19, 2010

White Noise and Queer Families

This is a guest post by Susan Raffo

image Susan Raffo lives in Minneapolis with her partner, Rocki, daughter, Luca, and two housemates, a dog, cat and gecko. In addition, they share some chickens with a neighbor. When not processing all of these relationships, Susan is a writer, bodyworker, and community organizer.

For the purposes of this piece, I am going to sometimes use the word "we" to refer to white parents and white children. I apologize that, in so doing, I am leaving out readers of color. I welcome readers, parents, and children of color to respond to anything in this piece. But I am intentionally writing this piece as a conversation directed towards queer white parents, particularly those with white children.

We have done the research at least twenty times over. We have published the results in the queer press and in Newsweek. CNN has sat down with our researchers and given them airtime. We know that the children of lesbians and gays (and once in awhile, we've looked at the children of bisexual and transgender parents) are just as fucked up and just as brilliant as the children of their straight counterparts.

Some of our studies have even said that "our" kids are a bit more clued in about diversity, sexual freedoms and sexual options. One recent study even said our kids have a higher change of winning the Nobel Prize. So now we know. Our kids are ok or maybe even better than ok. Maybe growing up as the children of LGBT parents has given them an advantage, a kind of leg up on the humanity ladder.

Reading this, researching this, helps us to breathe a bit easier. We haven't hurt them by coming out.

There are a range of LGBT family or parenting support organizations out there. Most focus in some way on the concept, "making the world safe for our children." As a parent, this gets me right in the gut. I want the world to be "safe" for my daughter, too. But then something else comes up right away: what does safe mean? What does it mean that our kids are ok? Which kids are we talking about - and is "ok" the same for each one of our children?

There is something my partner and I have told our daughter since her birth. On the day she was born, there were thousands of other children born at the same time. We tell her that there was nothing magical about her birth. Babies are born every day all over the world. They are only special to the people who love and know them.

We tell our daughter that she is no more or less special than any one of those other thousands born at the same time. We don't tell our daughter this to counter the messages she might get as the child of queer parents. We tell her this to counter the message she gets as a white child growing up with economic stability. We tell her this to try to counter her privilege.

There is no doubt that our daughter, Luca, occasionally struggles with having two queer parents, particularly one that is gender-nonconforming. She gets tired of explaining that she doesn't have a father.

She has dealt with some kids who have been pretty insensitive in their opinions about queerness. She has seen the stares directed towards her butch mother, the questions about the facial hair and the confusion about male versus femaleness. There are times, she admits, that she wished her family just fit in. And there are other times when she revels in the broad queerness of her community.

This is part of who she is. She gets a great deal of support around this, is building an identity around it, and as she gets older, will teach us what this means and where we need to back off. Being the child of queer parents is part of who Luca is.

And then there is more; she is also a white child. She is being raised by white parents who have the privilege of education, who own their own home and who can leave the house everyday feeling some measure of control over what happens out in the world. We don't have to protect Luca daily from violence or spend most of our time finding food. We don't have concerns about how the police are going to interact with our daughter when she is hanging out in the park across the street.

Our daughter of a queer family can move through the world largely ignored except when she wants to be seen or except when she is hanging out with that family in some place where our queerness stands out. And then she is not comfortable but she is not attacked. This is not true for all children of queer families. It is true for Luca.

My mamabelly wants to do the best for my daughter, support and nurture her creativity and her freedoms, fight against the people who cause her pain and gather safety and celebration around her. This urge is written into my genes, it feels far more instinctive than rational.

My Susanbrain knows that everything that Luca gets, all of that support and nurturance that I want to give her, exists on the backs of other children - either directly through their labour or indirectly through their lack of access. Too many of the basic aspects of our lives - the chocolate treats at holidays, the educational toys, the cheap kids clothes at Target - are themselves manufactured or harvested by children.

Then there are all of the extras on top of that, the healthy organic food we eat, the time spent unafraid or unthreatened, the time we spend resting or playing or reading books, all of this is literally creating her body, one cell at a time.

I want to stop and separate something here - this is not a conversation of supportive versus unsupportive parenting. This is not a conversation about choice. This is not a comparative conversation about the complexity of growing up as white children versus children of color because I don't know anything about what growing up is like for children of color. Not deeply enough to compare anything.

This is a conversation about being and raising a white child; about the metaphorical and the literal air that child is growing up breathing. It's a conversation about the privilege of white children. This is also a conversation about class, about ability, and about language.

For the purposes of this article, though, this conversation is focused on whiteness - on our white children. This is something we white folks, queer and otherwise, are often afraid to talk about. Our children are supposed to be innocent, somehow untouched by the painful complexities of the world. Our white racist children.

Whiteness

I love my daughter. I love to watch her naked - the way her body shifts and moves, the muscles playing out beneath her skin, the crazy exploding vitality of this skin, hair, nails that is constantly becoming as she grows and grows. It's a beautiful thing to watch.

Did you know that in utero, the same cells that eventually become the brain and the nervous system also become the skin? Some folks call skin our "outside brain." In the ways in which skin receives information about the world around us which is then interpreted through our nervous system, the whole thing is our brain. And we have defined this outside brain by race. And my beautiful daughter's skin is white. And that can never be neutral.

So in loving this child with white skin, my partner and I decided we wanted to pay attention to how our daughter becomes the race of white. What does it mean for her to slowly grow in to the racism and white privilege that is part of the story of that skin that surrounds her?

Paying attention to how our child becomes white is about a lot of things: and we already know that we don't know half of them. Sometimes it means paying attention to all of the ways in which being white gives her a kind of "get out of jail free" card, a kind of free pass into an adult life of better jobs, more income, and less stress and struggle. It means recognizing her access to having something like an "innocent" childhood, to unchallenged attendance at parks, dance classes, and a lineage of belonging. It means watching and learning from what happens when she pops out of me, all instinct for survival and connection to mama, and starts to grow a personality and set of understandings about herself and the world.

So, since this is true, we decided to get help.

Laying the Groundwork

We gathered together a group of white parents and decided to form a group. We call the group "White Noise" as a way of describing the everyday annoying privileged distraction from thinking and paying attention that's akin to living with white privilege. Our children are all young - the oldest is Luca and she's only just turned eight.

Right now, we call what we do "laying the groundwork." Meaning, since we have young children, we figure we're just trying to help their bodies get clear about whiteness, to pass through each developmental stage with a growing consciousness about their whiteness, their privilege, and ways to resist it. At the end of the day, there is no single right way for how to do this. Raising white children is really about just plain raising our children to pay attention to all of who they are.

We can't protect them from anything including the truth of their own privilege. That's why we call the work we are doing with our young children, "laying the groundwork." Our intent is to support them to experience themselves and the world around them in a way that will feed their ability to not only do anti-racist work but also be anti-racist "from the ground up." We do this work through talking together, through reading things, through leading workshops or talking in public about the fact that we have white children and that we are seeking to be conscious of their whiteness.

Through the first three years of this work, we realized that we had come up with some things to share. Again, these are offered not as the "right answer," but as part of an active intent to work against white privilege in the service of ending racism. Here is some of what we are thinking about:

Making Whiteness Visible

Somewhere around four years old, we started to notice Luca, when describing her friends, only "raced" her friends of color. Meaning, when she was describing people to us who she knew, she described her friends of color as "Black" or "Native" but her white friends as "with red hair" or "tall." Already, at four years old, and living in a multiracial community, white had become normal for Luca. Normal in a way that means invisible. So, one of the first steps is to just plain make whiteness visible. This means making sure that all of us, when we are describing people, talk as much about white friends as we do our Black or Asian friends. But making whiteness visible is more than that.

The minute we are born, we are surrounded by information. Some of it is directly pointed out for us by the adults in our lives. Most of it goes completely unnoticed by all of us, children and adults alike. Making whiteness visible means seeking to notice the presence of whiteness in every aspect of our lives. How do we do this? We practice everyday.

What does that mean? One example is when we walk into a store or into a restaurant or down a neighbourhood street, we ask: "Who is here?" and then we notice. Once we notice who is here, we began to intentionally wonder about why they are here. And then to notice who isn't here. And to wonder the same thing.

A story for explanation: We are out running errands and we all get hungry. We stop by a coffee shop. Right away, Luca notices, "There are only white people in here." Raquel and I both look around and see that she is right. So then we ask, "Why might there be only white people in here?"

We notice that the coffee shop is in a predominantly white upper-middle-class neighbourhood. So we assume that drop-in traffic is going to be mostly local. We wonder if people of color might not come by this coffee shop or this neighbourhood because it might not be comfortable or because they wouldn't feel welcome or reflected back by the staff or other customers.

We next wonder if there are people of color who would even be interested in this coffee shop - maybe the culture of this coffee shop is one that mostly white people are attracted to and so some folks of color are choosing to not come here, or to instead go somewhere that will better reflect their experiences. Then we talk about what it is like for us to be in this coffee shop - noticing that when we are white and we fit in with the other white people, we barely even notice that we are white.

We talk about how there are different kinds of white people, but even though there are different kinds, we don't really need to think about race when we are among all white people. This is important. We notice that we don't need to think about or even notice race when we are around other white people.

Making whiteness visible means noticing the books we read, the movies or television shows we watch, the people in our families and neighbourhoods, and the rhythm of everyday life. It's a practice for white people, just like meditation or parenting is a practice. If we don't do it constantly, we don't notice.

Learn Together

Don't assume you have to already know everything before you start trying to teach your children. You know the syndrome: the perfect parent syndrome. Our kids look up to us. They ask us questions about the world around them and wait for us to share what we know. When they're young, we are all-knowing in their eyes. It can be scary to have to admit to your child that you are clueless about some aspect of the world around you.

Figuring out how to be white is something we do together with our children. We can tell them what we have experienced, our ideas and struggles and understandings, but living in the world with consciousness as a white person is not about getting it right once and then being done forever. It's about making mistakes and learning and then making more mistakes and then learning more and inch by precious inch, feeling the world open up around us.

Learning with our children is about being in process, in struggle, in family with the most important people in our lives. It is about sharing the fact that this is life-long work, that we are all learning together, and that your child has some valuable things to teach you even as you have things to share with them. That last piece is really important.

The minute our kids are born, they are learning -both directly and indirectly - how to be white, which includes how to be a racist. Thandeka in her book, Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America, states that the first act of child abuse directed towards all white children is that the minute they come out of the womb, they are being taught to be racist. So the game has already started, whether or not we ever directly address race and whiteness in our family.

Kids, however, have something we don't have. Even though they have already started learning their whiteness, it hasn't embedded itself over decades of experience. Their brains and nervous systems are still literally creating their bodies, their identities, their sense of self in the world. Much has already been established no matter when we start, but much is also open for shifting and changing.

Some of what is confusing to adults is likely to make gentle sense to children. Some of the places where we adults make this thick and complex is likely to be simple and poetic to our children. In listening to the questions they ask, the reflections they make, we can learn a whole bunch about how whiteness grows.

It is never too late to start. If your child is 10, 15, 21 you can still begin, together, to learn about the white privilege you share. Admit that you are frightened and confused and not sure where to begin, but you want to begin. Practice creating a whole new kind of family values; one grounded on telling the truth about our privileges.

Know Your Own Shit

Oh lovely shit, oh layered deep old stuff which gets triggered by the innocent voices of our children. The shame of it. The guilt. The embarrassment. What do I do if my child says something racist? What will others think of me? Will they look over at me, knowing what a horrible mother I am, because my son just came out with something funky about that woman's hair, her skin, the way she talks? What will people say?

This is a big one. A really big one. As soon as we encourage our children to reflect on the world around them, to say what they are thinking and feeling and to invite conversation, well, they start to talk. And they will say things just about everywhere. And in front of just about everyone. And they will ask questions.

Why is your hair like that? Did you notice that your skin is really dark? Wow, look, my mom's arm is really white next to your arm! How come all the Black kids play basketball? Did you know that your grandfather was probably a slave?

Your kids will say things that are beyond what you could possibly imagine. And they should say those things. Because this is how they learn. But they are only going to learn if you are open to hearing them. Which means knowing your own shit. Here is what we mean by that:

  • What is going on for you when you hear your kids say something that triggers your "that's racist" button?
  • What emotions come up?
  • What are you concerned about?
  • What do you do when those emotions come up?

We have all seen parents, when reacting to something their child has said, looking quickly around and saying, "Shhhh, that's not a nice thing to say," or "Stop that! Don't be rude!!" or any number of other things. We know the feeling in our bellies when we are walking through the world, thinking about our grocery list or the drive back home, when junior says something that immediately makes us feel exposed and visible. As white people. As potentially bad parents. Raising our children to be white is about knowing our reactions and finding ways to not shut our children down when they ask those kinds of questions.

Of course, this is also complicated. It's a different thing to have a three year old making a comment about a stranger in a store, it's another thing for a thirteen year old to say it. Embedded in supporting our children to ask questions and be open to learning about the world around them, is also teaching them about respect. Teaching them that people are not objects but individuals with feelings and complex lives.

The reality is that while our children are reflecting on the world around them, the people of color they are reflecting about are real people who just might not be in the mood to hear yet another person talk about their hair - even if it is a gap-toothed five year old. Everything about this work includes supporting our children to act as respectful members of communities, every single day and in every single context.

Another part of knowing your own shit is knowing your own story, all of it. Did you grow up in a city, a suburb, the countryside? What celebrations and rituals did you grow up with? What kind of food? Do you have a word for it? What did you learn about work? About taking care of your own family or other people? Who felt "like you" and who felt different?

The other piece of knowing our own shit is knowing our own understandings of race and whiteness. What did you learn about race and whiteness when you were a child? Really, spend time here. Think about the kinds of things you were directly taught and the things you witnessed. Notice what you have passed on to your child, intentionally or not. Notice what, if anything, you have told your children about race.

Most studies tell us that by the time most children of color are 4 or 5, they already know that something called "race" exists and they know who or what they "are" within a conversation about race. At the same age, most white children have no idea. Or if they do, race is still about "them," about children of color. Notice how you are passing that on, the privilege and power of this.

Notice what your life looks like, who the people are who surround you, your sense of why different people are different form you. Think about what it means for you to be white, to be an anti-racist. Find people you trust to talk to about these things. There is a whole bunch you can talk to your children about, and there's a whole bunch you need to learn with other adults. Don't stop thinking about yourself, noticing your beliefs, your reactions, your concerns. Stay with your own work. This is a daily practice. This is for the rest of our lives.

Don't Immediately Go Big: Stay Specific

Remember those reflections our children make in public places - or sometimes private? The ones that make our insides flare up as we struggle to make sure our own shit doesn't get in the way of our children learning? This is about those times.

Example: when Luca was walking by the basketball court in our neighbourhood park, she suddenly asked why only Black people play basketball. In my belly flared up things like: oh shit, that's so racist. It isn't only Black people that play basketball, and oh god, I have to help her understand the complexity, and on and on.

But here's the funky thing about young children: she was only describing what she saw and asking about it. It is true that when Luca walks by this playground, most of the time the people she sees are Black men. And so she wants to know why. And while the answer is complex and many-layered, there is an answer. Or there are answers that will unravel over the time of her growing up.

It's a legitimate question based on an observation. Stay specific, listen to what your child is saying or watch what they are doing. Are they in distress? Are they worried or having any kind of emotion? Is it just a question? Before making any assumptions about what your child's question might mean, ask them about it. Refer to knowing your own shit and learning together. Keep the channels of conversation and learning open.

Here's another example from a white friend of mine: she picked up her white grandson from his preschool. His first comment to her was: "I don't like Black people. I don't think I want them to be my friends". My friend freaked out, her emotions rose up to the sky, and she jumped in immediately, asking with an anxious voice what he meant but also saying that of course he doesn't know all Black people, and a whole bunch of other things that she doesn't remember because her emotions were so high. And as she was talking, she saw him retreat into himself, getting quiet and logging away the information that this wasn't something he should talk about.

And my friend kicked herself from here to the preschool and back, knowing that she had goofed but feeling overwhelmed. As she later asked more questions, she learned that her grandson's school had just done a chapter on the civil rights. During this chapter, there was a lot of conversation about Black folks as a people or as a community. Her grandson knew Black folks but he knew them as individuals. He had never thought of anyone as a "people."

While he knew Black folks out in the world, there was only one Black child in his preschool class: a boy who, for whatever reason, teased him a lot. So my friend's grandson put things together in a pattern in his head: "This kid is a Black kid and he is mean to me. Black kids are part of a Black people. I don't like playing with this Black kid and I don't want to be his friend. Therefore, I don't want to be friends with Black people." If you take away the sting and the legacy of racism, you've got to admit there's a logic to this.

As we talked about it, my friend wished that she had just hit the pause button after her grandson spoke. She wished she had started right away with asking questions, not putting any kind of value on his words until she understood what he was actually talking about. Because now she has to undo something, one of the somethings that white supremacy depends on. She has to undo this idea that some things are not "polite" to talk about, that there is something uncomfortably emotional about talking about Black people, that grandma freaks out when you bring it up so don't bring this kind of stuff up.

And every single one of us is going to have to undo moments like this. Because we will all make mistakes. Because we are learning as we go. We make mistakes and we will continue to make them. The important thing is to keep coming back, being honest with our kids about our own struggle, and asking for their help in figuring this out.

How Are We Parenting Our Children?

As we enter our third year of White Noise, the group focus is shifting. We now share a groundwork among ourselves as adults, and we share some thoughts about how to start laying the groundwork with our children. In our meetings, we laugh a lot, we freak out, we forget to bring up important things, we spend too much time talking about the easy stuff and sometimes we dip into the hard and scary things that move us all forward.

We feel fiercely about seeking ways to bring this conversation into white spaces, which is why we are writing this article and then rewriting it in different versions for different audiences. What we know, as white parents, is that it doesn't occur to most of us to even think about how we are raising our white children to be racist. We know that in writing this article, we are probably missing far more than we are "getting." We know that none of this is about getting "it" right. Instead, it's about trying every single day to lean a little deeper into a world that deserves the beauty of each of those thousands of children born within an hour of Luca's birth.

There is nothing about this work that does not reek of privilege. The choice to do the work, the choice to put the work out there, the choice to stand back and think about how we are parenting our children, the attention we get because of this work; all of this is privilege. Some of this is about our children's - and our - whiteness but it also includes their class, the fact that they are growing up in the US with uncontested citizenship, their current able-bodiedness, and more things than we can name here.

As our children get older and enter different developmental stages with different relationships with friends, community and self, we will need to figure out new things. There will be other conversations and other learnings. None of this will end our children's white privilege in their lifetime. None of this will make it ok that we are white people who, generation after generation, are inheriting the "benefits" of slavery, of attempted genocide, of the strategic usage of people's bodies and cultures for profit and gain.

As I write this, the majority of LGBT family organizations are led by white parents. Their membership is made of predominantly white parents. Some of those parents have white children. Some of them have children of color. All of those white parents, like me, benefit from white supremacy. Our parenting is not separate from that. We pass it on to our children, white and of color. The impact is not the same for all of those children, white and of color. There is always impact.

By laying the groundwork differently, our hope is that we support our children to live in the whole world, with wide-open hearts and a sense of accountability and celebration. And that in living in the whole world, they might be part of shifting the pattern so that there are more children with each successive generation who also truly have access to the whole world. What we have realized in doing this work together is that we can't take our children's privilege away.

But one breath at a time, one child at a time, one parenting moment at a time, maybe we can move away from focusing only on "our" children to instead focusing on all children. That's a queer families movement that I can get behind. One focused on family liberation, recognizing that full liberation also depends on my family's ability to work against the power that we didn't earn but which is always there, helping us along and making the road easier for us while making it harder for so many others.

A version of this essay was printed on Love Is Not Enough.

With special love and gratitude to Rocki.

Acknowledgements: Raquel, Susan, Nicola, Lisa, Kristy, Dave and all past members of White Noise, Vikki, Kris, Kristen, Kristin, Jen, Laura, Amy and Karn.

Editors Note: This post originally appeared at The Bilerico Project