Monday, April 16, 2007

Monday Musings - Can I talk about this?


It is with great and careful thought that I hit the Publish button today. Is this a topic that a white middle-class woman should be raising on her blog? I just read a book that really made me think about race in a way that I haven't in a long time and felt compelled to talk about it. And Mimi posted a great post on class recently and I thought why not.

I am white, my husband while of Greek heritage, is white. My girls are white. In our immediate families everyone is white. We have friends though of all different races and cultures and in fact my husband's four best friends, some going back to Kindergarten are all black. Three have wives that are white and one has a wife that is black. I remember when we first started dating and I was about to meet some of these friends, he told me right before we were about to meet, "you know they are black." I can't remember if I had any expectations then, perhaps I was expecting Greek friends? I don't think so though. Hubby was according to him, "the cool white guy" in the group.

We are all dear friends, all our children are friends and what is amazing is my girls have never commented on the fact that their friends have parents, grandparents and cousins of different colours. Over the years we have spent lots of time together including outings and traveling. I must say I am always shocked at the sideways glances our group causes, the look on people's faces trying to sort us out - who is with who, who do those children belong to. I have had on occasion found myself with one of these great friends alone somewhere. It is difficult to admit, but a black man with a white woman in Toronto still causes people to stare. Is it because he is so darn handsome or I am so cute? Maybe. Or maybe it is because we look different. I have had but a mere taste of it, how do these families do this all the time? I am quite sure they have all faced more intolerance than I will ever know. In terms of our friendship and stage in life, if you closed your eyes you would be hard-pressed to separate us from one another, all of us are university educated and comfortably middle-class and all are raising young families.

It is not a topic I have ever broached with any of them, to be honest we rarely talk about race. We talk about eating, sleeping, potty fun (or lack-there-of), bad words, school, and the many other topics that having small kids and life-long friendships raises. When we do talk about race it is usually something in the media that prompts us, I remember in fact many conversations about OJ Simpson. One of Hubby's friends felt he could have been framed and all the rest of us disagreed -strongly. We all talked openly about it and it didn't cause any real friction, but I wonder now how I would have reacted if I was black. Would I have felt differently about it all?

When we get together we make quite a mosaic. Two of the guys (twins) are of Barbadian heritage, one is Trinidadian and one is Jamaican. On my side of friends we have several interracial (why is there no better word?) families as well. Papoosie Girl's class has 20 students and I would say at least 15 different nationalities represented which makes her class look a little like a child-sized UN convention - I love that. She is in a Roman Catholic school and from my involvement in the school and working on the School Council I can attest that the school is multicultural in attitude as well and embraces all cultures. Our world is made up of many different people representing many different cultures and the girls have lived this way all their lives. When I was in elementary school (before Grade 6 when we moved) my class was nearly all white, very homogeneous. Then when we moved my world exploded and my class was extremely diverse. I so enjoyed learning about other cultures and became fascinated with several, nothing made me happier than getting invited over to someones house for a peek.

I now live in a city that has one of the highest density concentrations of Indo-Canadians in Canada. The largest Hindu temple in Canada is in my city and the city represents people of Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil and Sindhi backgrounds. Nearly all of my neighbours are of Indian heritage and nearly all are first generation here in Canada. While we don't know all of our neighbours (and not many people do) there is one family we are close with and listening and learning about their struggles is eye-opening and humbling, suddenly my problems seem small.

This high concentration of Indo-Canadians does effect the make-up of the public school system in some neighbourhoods and my friend's son who is in Junior Kindergarten and is white, is the minority. His school is predominantly Indian and there are a handful of other nationalities. His school is vastly different from ours and they are less than a kilometre away. She is planning on switching him to the local Catholic school soon (they are Catholic and wanted him to go to Catholic school, but due to daycare he started in the public system) and wonders what he will think of the new environment.

Oh how I wish I knew where I wanted this discussion to go. The book I was referring to above touched on how we react to race when it hits close to home. The book is by Barbara Delinsky, Family Ties and while it is a work of fiction it hits a nerve. The story follows a white couple who give birth to a baby with distinctly black features. The husband's family is a pedigreed New England family that can trace its roots to the Mayflower, and he devotes his professional life to championing minorities, but he is blindsided by his daughter's color. He urges his wife, whose heritage is unknown, to start digging for answers. The book debates the way we define ourselves and explores the duplicity of political correctness and personal prejudice.* (*The author's own words about the book.)

While the book was a fairly light read, it did make me think and raised many scenarios in my head. How would I react to a baby who looks nothing like me or Hubby? A part of me thinks I would not be bothered at all, it is my baby and I would love it unconditionally. I also sometimes entertain the fantasy of adopting a baby. We have some distant friends who have adopted a little girl from China and it is something I must admit I think about sometimes. A baby born in your heart a friend of mine calls it. Would I love this baby the same, surely I would. My heart swells just thinking of saving a baby from a lifetime of despair and giving them a lifetime of love and security.

That said, I remember a post by Her Bad Mother a while back when WonderBaby had the chickenpox and she felt awful because she was embarrassed a bit by her daughter's blemished appearance, and she posted about how it made her feel. I am guilty as charged of the same thing. I like it when my girls are dressed well, hair tidy, and generally looking their cutest. I am not a fan of taking them out when they are less than that. I am not talking about playing outside or a trip to the park, but when we go out I take pride that they are looking good. Does that make me a bad person to want their hair to be combed? I really don't think so, but if superficial appearance matters what about skin colour?

By sheer coincidence I took out two great books out of the library for the girls, We All Sing with the Same Voice, is a vibrant picture book about race, and all kinds of families. It is so great! It is based on a song they sing on Sesame Street, but I had never heard of it. The message is, no matter what you look like, or where you live, we are all the same where it matters - at heart. I wish it was as simple as all this, really I do. The other book is The World came to my Place Today, and it is a story about a boy named George and his Grandpa and they take a trip around the world talking about how
he drinks orange juice from Spain, eats rice from China and sets sail for Africa in search of chocolate.

"Grandpa shows George and his sister how plants from all over the world affect their daily lives, from the cereal they eat for breakfast to the rubber in their bicycle tires and wood in their toys. The lively, simple text follows George’s day as he discovers the wonder of plants. Eye-catching illustrations are coupled with photographs of grasses, fruits and plants to make a highly original book, building awareness in children of the natural world."

The map of the world, globe and photographs really make this book great, the kind I want to keep. The descriptions are brief enough that I can read it to both the girls as well. Both of these books are a wonderful reminder that the world is much bigger and more diverse than our own little family, school and neighbourhood. I am smart enough to realize that while we can indulge in our interests in learning about other cultures, their are people I know still facing many obstacles solely based on the colour of their skin or the religion they practice. People I know, people in my neighbourhood.

Does anyone else think about these issues? Are you consciously making sure your children are exposed to many cultures? Is it even possible where you live? I am grateful that this generation is so much more tolerant than even when I was in school. Hopefully we are still stepping in the right direction, despite the fact that many other countries seem to operate on an agenda based on fear and intolerance. I want my girls to understand that people really are just people. We all want the same things, to learn, to be loved, to be understood, to have enough to live happy healthy lives.

I wonder sometimes about this little pocket of the blogosphere I have come to call home. We are fairly similar in terms of place in life, mostly all Mom's with small children, but are we really different culturally? Does it matter?

Lots of food for thought this Monday. Let me know what you think if you have the time, I am curious what my smart, kind, bloggy friends think about all this.


Mimi said...

What a fantastic post, Jenifer! So much to talk about here.

You like in the B near the airport, right? My sister lives there too, used to be right by Shoppers World Mall. Lots and lots of airport limos in driveways, because lots of Indian limo drivers lived in her hood. I am always amazed at the diversity of the catholic schools my nephews attend. We grew up in the far frozen north -- white in more ways than one.

Here, our friends are mostly white -- because we hang out with English professors, who are mostly native to here, England, or the US, and white. Pynchon used to work for a multicultural theatre company, and we met a more diverse group of people that way, some of whom we are still friends with. But we joke that our part of town is all white -- but if you go three or four minutes by car, it's wildly diverse. It's weird, and we're uncomfortable about the division.

I wish my group of peeps was more diverse, but I'm also uncomfortable thinking of myself as someone who self-consciously seeks out a rainbow of acquaintance, just for variety.

Sounds like you and hubby have a great group of friends.

So much to think about. I'll be back for all the comments.

Jenifer said...

"All the comments"...well Mimi it is you and I here! Lots of visitors, but not many comments.

You are bang on about where I live and it isn't really that big of a secret. We live about 5 minutes from that mall.

Hubby's family (parents and sister) moved out here from Toronto about 17-18 years ago. When we decided to buy we choose this area since we knew down the line we would need them. I did not give an ounce of thought about the cultural make-up at the time. We found a house near family we could afford.

There is a Seinfeld episode (sorry die-hard fan) where George wants a black friend to make a good impression on a co-worker I think it was...anyway I get what you are saying about seeking people out just so you can broaden your base. Not genuine at all.

To be honest most of my good friends were white before I hooked up with Hubby's friends. Not because it was a conscious decision it was a reflection of my neighbourhood and family friends.

Seeking out diversity for the sake of being seen as enlightened or tolerant is wrong, but I can see as you point out your work environment and neighbourhood are predominantly white; how can you expose Miss Baby to other cultures without actively seeking it out?
I realize that this is not a topic everyone is comfortable discussing, but if you have read the post and are reading these comments, I thank you for that. These are just my personal thoughts and by no means does anyone need to share if they don't want to.
Thanks for commenting Mimi...I seem to have silenced the crowd today.

NotSoSage said...

Jen: I chose the neighbourhood I live in in Toronto, largely because I loved the fact that it was a diverse neighbourhood and because the challenges that people living here had faced over the last ten years had built up what I saw as an incredibly strong community.

I love it here. I love that when we go to the park, there are a multitude of languages and English is certainly not foremost among them. I love that she sees families where the parents and the children have different colours or shades of skin and doesn't blink. I love that our neighbours live a variety of different lifestyles. Some grow grapes to make their own wine in the summer. Some have Tibetan prayer flags flying from their porches. This is one of the advantages of living in the big city.

But I am always challenged by what is the best way to teach and understand about ethnic, racial and cultural variation with her. I'm learning as I go, it is everyone else.

Mad Hatter said...

Living in white bread Sleepy Town here. There simply is not a lot of cultural diversity here. So much so that if Miss M does see a person of a different race on the street, she turns her head to stare. It makes me sad.

So far, though, the homogeneity here hasn't had a big impact on her b/c she is still at home all the time. When she does go to a pre-school next fall, it will be one of the 2 that are near the university and ergo will be more culturally diverse that we would find in other areas of the city.

One thing that I will struggle with in the future is whether or not to enrol Miss M in French Immersion. Ostenibly, in doing so, I will open up her world both culturally and linguistically. But here's the catch. The French Immersion programs in Sleepy Town are very, very white and very homogenous in terms of class (middle and above). It is only in the English-only schools that a more diverse cross-section of the population emerges. It is also in the English-only schools where the majority of immigrants and special needs kids end up. Do I choose immersion looking toward the long-term future or do I choose English-only looking at Miss M's formative years? I don't know the answer. It'll likely come down to her desire to learn French.

Great post, Jen.

Omaha Mama said...

Lots to think about on a Monday night. I'm online looking for answers on the tragedy in Virginia today. It's a low point in American history. My heart is heavy with so many thoughts. I have zero answers to questions posed by you, but I appreciate you making me think.

Hubby and I read an article in our paper yesterday about blacks in Omaha and how the picture here is more bleak than for those in New Orleans. That is sad.

I've got no answers. What struck me most is that I too feel I cannot discuss race, being a white woman whose life lacks a lot of diversity.

Thanks for broaching the topic.

Haley-O said...

I think about this often. Thanks for writing about this very important topic! I find it FASCINATING to watch my daughter interact with children of all shapes, sizes, races, religion. I love how she doesn't "read" them; she simply interacts. It's so beautiful to me. I think it's so important that we as parents cultivate this "innocence" and encourage our children to be inclusive and non-judgmental. TV and the media makes this increasingly difficult -- as they do with everything (i.e., eating issues). I love taking the monkey out in public play areas particularly for this reason -- to expose her to all kinds of children, personalities, shapes, races, etc.. :)

Alpha DogMa said...

So I've been mulling this over since Monday. Sorry to be late to the party.

We live a very homogenous town. The lack of exposure to 'otherness' is my biggest concern in living up here.

I wonder about the whiteness of our town and the long term effect of the kids. They get diversity in small snatches when we go to the city and through TV or movies. Doesn't Sesame Street do an amazing job at teaching these lessons?

I assuage my fears of them being narrowminded or fearful by remembering that the Omega Man grew up in a smaller, more honky town (with parents of a very narrow mindset) and he is the most liberal tolerant person I've ever met.

Family Ties was a pretty good book, if you could get past the notion that the heroine didn't leave her husband when he first alluded to her sleeping with the neighbour. Cos I'd have been out the door in a flash.

I too wish we had more diversity in our social group, but don't want to develop friendships with token minority like George on Seinfeld.

Alpha DogMa said...

Oh, and about OJ Simpson: am I the only person who thinks it is less of an injustice when a guilty person (because OJ is certainly guilty) goes free versus when an innocent person goes to jail for a crime we all no they did not commit? Maybe it is just me but Hurricane Carter's case is more infuriating then OJ's. Or am I over thinking this?

Jenifer said...

ADM-Thanks for the comments. I agree about the book, that minor plot line of him wondering/accusing her of an affair was the only part in the book that really put me off.

The OJ vs. Hurricane Carter situation. Whew. I am not sure I could pick a side on this, I feel so strongly about both injustices. I guess really that innocent people being accused is worse in some ways- they haven't done the case of the real accusers they have already done it and are paying for it (you hope) somehow.

Thanks for coming back. Besides Seseame Street I am sure your library has lots of stories that include all kinds of children. That is a great, easy way for the boys to travel the world in their imaginations.

cinnamon gurl said...

I think there is value in speaking openly about race, no matter what our individual race is.

I was refreshed by the openness of discussion about race in South Africa, although sometimes I noticed racism; even though it's a place where race may have even more impact on your life than just about anywhere else. But I think here in North America we try at best to ignore it or at worst to deny it. (Of course I remember the odd moment when I got a bit sick of all the race stuff... sometimes it really doesn't matter what colour of skin your server has, but mostly it was a relief...)

I have written about race on my blog, somewhere in the South Africa category I think, and I too felt uncomfortable. But I find that that discomfort can signal something worth exploring further.

I grew up in a small town, almost totally white. My huz grew up in Joburg under apartheid. It struck me as soon as we met that he was a lot more comfortable and multicultural than I was, likely the result of living in a big city and being cared for by a black nanny.

We went to SA a few months ago and I was pleased that Swee'pea never looked askance at all the people with darker skin who lavished attention on him. I enjoyed being in the minority but I didn't even really notice it consciously.

I am pleased to see our town here is becoming more diverse, but it's a slow process...

Raji said...

I have been an on and off visitor to your blog over the past few months and a not sure now how I came about it. I enjoy reading your musings being a first time Mom and ready to look for any of kind of insight which will help!
My daughter will turn two next month and we adopted her last year when she was about 8 months old - she is a precious little girl who has completely filled up our lives and hearts.

What made me pause and comment (besides the actual topic itself !)is your thoughts on how you like that your daughters are well dressed when they are out.
I used to wonder whether I was the only one.....and worse was it because she was adopted? would I have done this with my biological child? These questions seem insane to me at times considering I can't possible think of how I could love anyone more than I do her....but at other times they come back to haunt me..
It was so nice to see that I'm not the only one!

About the diversity issue - I am an Indian and live in India, so I have very few meetings with people from other races. I have a very good friend whom I met on the net and I met her when she made a work trip to India and I have lots of other friends too from the US and Canada whom I met on the net and am quite close to. But in our day to day lives, we have a LOT of diversity which stems from the fact that there are so many diverse cultures in India. 35 official languages and more than a 100 dialects.
I was born on the West Coast and came to the South East coast 10 yrs back after marriage - to now move to the Capital in the North. I am pleased that my girl will get exposed to so many more cultures there and even learn a new language. Though my parents are from the South9Tamil), having been born and brought up in a very cosmopolitan city outside of the South, I can see the difference it makes in terms of attitudes and tolerance.
I would love that she could have that too.
I also agree that it doesn't make sense to search out friends based on their diversity, rather when one looks at learning more and trying to find the other point of view, you just might bump into people who will be able to help, and who might be from another race or culture and automatically strike up a friendship...