Listening with love, Part 2: Listening to our kids about racism
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Two local high school students gave me great parenting advice in a context where white-supremacy is real: listen to my kids, and talk with other parents. I’m going to try.
We're lucky that spending time in our family culture includes time at the beach in Costa Rica.
I can say that I want for nothing. In fact, I have too much. Our family is economically comfortable. We are not descended from slaves, we are not Central American refugees fleeing violence or corruption or hunger. We are not physical victims of white supremacy in the way that so many in our country are. When white supremacy leads to personal bullying and emotional trauma, it’s painful. When it leads to illness, poverty, and death, it’s downright evil.
And yet my mother’s heart also wants to know how to best support my children, who are bilingual, brown-skinned, sons of Central America. I suspect that learning how to do this parenting for them will also help me to better deal with white supremacy, and might help others.
We have been trying to figure out where to send our son to school. Our conversations have caused us to consider many factors, including his age (should he be young for his grade, or old?). We’d love to have him speak Spanish at school, as this is the main recommendation of bilingual parenting experts (speaking the minority language at school). We are fortunate that there are some bilingual schools in our area, both public and private options, and both Dual Language (50/50 English/Spanish) and full immersion (100% Spanish) programs. One other factor we have talked about is where his cultural background and skin color will be most accepted, and where he will receive the most positive messages about himself and people who look like him.
As we have been considering where to send our son to kindergarten (and middle school and high school), we have been discussing all of these issues. I came to realize that I want to protect my son from racism, or from experiencing in any way that his full identity is not something to be proud of. Key word protect. But my husband pointed out that I can’t protect him: he will, at some point, experience racism/white supremacy, because it’s so prevalent in our world.
Even if we left the US and lived in Costa Rica, he would experience it there, just as my husband did, as a “darker”-skinned son of a Nicaraguan father.
Part of my processing of this issue has led me to participate in a local group here in Valparaiso called Allies Against Racism. We are working with the Valparaiso Community Schools to try to address racism in the curriculum, the teacher and staff hiring process, and the student-life side of things. As a part of that work, I have been able to meet some pretty amazing high school students, Jared Starns and Noor Arfeen, who are local representatives for an organization called Diversify Our Narrative (DON). These two are smart, eloquent, thoughtful, and caring. They have a lot of wisdom to share, and they go about it in a strategic and practical way.
Jared Starns and Noor Arfeen, juniors in high school in Valparaiso, and members of the group Diversify Our Narrative. They inspire me, and give great advice.
Jared has lived in Valpo his whole life, and is a junior in high school this year. He shared his stories of racism at a recent Human Relations Council meeting in Valparaiso, and he collects stories from local middle- and high-school students as a part of his leadership of the local chapter of DON. Noor is 16 and a junior at Valparaiso High School; her family is from Pakistan, and she could relate to my concerns about my kids growing up with two cultures, two countries. They both told me a little bit about what it is like to grow up as a minority (meaning a black or brown person in a white town, a white country).
“[The racism from peers in school] is kind of hidden. You may take it as bullying or just feel inferior. It takes a toll on your mental health because it distracts you from school, from a lot of things. Racism destroys what you think you can do in the future. When you barely have representation from your culture in your textbooks or in America, you don’t see yourself doing anything. In middle school – I’m pretty lucky – I was able to meet successful people who are black. To see what they did, hear their stories, talk with them. A lot of people don’t have that advantage. If I didn’t have that advantage in middle school I wouldn’t be here talking with you now.
“In elementary school you feel like it’s your fault. It’s never brought up as racism. If you mention racism you’re pulling the race/black card.” - Jared.
My first son was born in Costa Rica, and lived there until he was 7 months old. I was his only English-speaking exposure, and I was excited (and nervous) about raising a Costa Rican child. Then we were somewhat unexpectedly sent off to the United States for my husband’s job. Now, here in Indiana, my husband is my son’s only solely Spanish-speaking exposure, and I am trying with all my might to raise a child (well, now two children) who feels Costa Rican.
I mean, I myself feel somewhat Costa Rican. I lived there for almost 9 full years: I had my first “real” job there, where I got to learn and grow for nearly 8 years; I earned 2 master’s degrees while living in Costa Rica, one of which was done entirely in Spanish; I fell in love and got married to a Costa Rican; we bought our first home (which we still own, and which still houses all the things we dropped at a moment’s notice to move here, like our baby’s crib!); and I had a baby. I really became an adult in Costa Rica, and we lived closer to family there (very close!) than we do here in the US. So, my heart is pretty “tico,” actually.
Because I studied sustainable and rural development in Costa Rica, it's fun that on this last trip my sons learned how to identify sugarcane, bamboo, and coffee plants (and beans).
Because of all of this, it can be weird for me to be here in the US, sometimes, where all of those important things I learned and the Costa Rican ways of doing things that I came to understand, just don’t exist. Being far from family (both sides of it) is difficult a lot of the time. I feel embarrassed sometimes that I really try to emphasize at my son’s preschool that he is Costa Rican – they ask for a family photo but I provide three: one of our nuclear family, one of his grandparents in South Dakota, and one of his grandparents in Costa Rica. We have given our children two last names, Costa Rican-(Latin American-)style, and then we have to explain to everyone how that works.
As I say these things, I understand that they are really superficial sounding issues. Really, our live is so privileged. While my husband and my son are immigrants from Central America, we were never threatened with separation at the border, like happened to families who came from places as far from Costa Rica as Indianapolis is from Chicago, or Sioux Falls from the Twin Cities. But that’s partly the point – the same system that causes black and brown children to not see role models that look like them, or who feel inferior in their own schools, also detains children in cold holding cells and murders unarmed minorities at disproportionate rates, where black and brown people have health disparities and black Americans have shorter lifespans.
These health and life and death statistics also disproportionately affect poor people of all races, and, as I have mentioned, my family does not fall into this group, which probably why our experiences of white supremacy in the United States will be limited to the personal and the emotional. But this is no small thing, either, particularly for kids as they grow, learn, and develop their identities and self-confidence.
I have already been asked how old my son was when I adopted him. Even though when I look at him all I see is this little being that came from my own womb, his skin color (the first thing people see), doesn’t look like mine. We have gotten comments at the park sometimes, and there was that time at the pool when someone was looking around for that little boy’s mom, when I was standing right there.
The night he fell in love. <3 I am hoping he can grow up valuing his Costa Rican identity.
Here are some things I hear from my son, which give me pause:
“Daddy is not from this world.” For my son, countries are “worlds.” It seems apparent to my son that his Costa Rican dad, either because of how he looks or because he speaks Spanish, “doesn’t belong here.” I realize that he is at the age where he is categorizing things, the way that he is now pointing out who is a “he” and who is a “she,” but I suspect that not a lot of other kids at his school think that one of their parents “is not from this world.”
“Mommy, Daddy speaks Spanish, and you and I speak English.” My son doesn’t see Spanish as something that he particularly wants to speak. I know from my study of raising bilingual children that this is probably due to the fact that he doesn’t play with other kids who speak Spanish. That will change, I hope, when he goes to a bilingual kindergarten, but that is still 1.5 years away. What hurts flows from the above concern, which is that a huge portion of his (and our whole family’s) identity is something that he is not interested in at this point, or that he doesn’t see appreciated in our social context.
And I wonder sometimes how all of this will play out with my sons, particularly if we continue to live here in the US as they go through school. I want them to feel Costa Rican, to speak Spanish, and spend plenty of time in Costa Rica when we can. I also want them to fit in here, and to feel confident and proud of their whole identity. I wonder what will happen when my son looks in the mirror someday and sees his brown skin and says something to himself in Spanish, if he will ever think, “I am not from this world.” Or I wonder if anyone will ever say that to him.
I have lived in Valparaiso and Northwest Indiana before, and I am familiar with the history of the presence of the KKK in this area. I also witnessed as white people with automatic weapons stood on the path as Black Lives Matter demonstrators walked by in Crown Point, down the road from Valpo. I know a number of black people who have either turned down jobs at Valparaiso University, or left after a few years because they didn’t feel comfortable living in Valpo. So my concerns have some historic (and present) reason for being.
It doesn’t actually matter where we live; I’m not blaming Valparaiso, necessarily. It’s not like institutional racism and white supremacy are limited to certain areas of the country, or even of the world. It is widespread. Even in Costa Rica (and throughout Latin America), people tend to rank their feelings about the attractiveness of other people (and themselves) based on the shade of their skin (the whiter, the more attractive). My own husband, whose father is from Nicaragua, was teased in school in Costa Rica due to the darker shade of his skin.
On our Zoom call, Noor described her experience, and the experience of other people that she knows, as they went through school:
“Racism begins in 4-5th grade, and it gets really bad in middle school. People get identity problems. BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) people say middle school was a racial hell for people, when they get deep-rooted identity problems. It’s hard being part of two worlds. I don’t see people like me here. This is true at a national level – brown girls have a warped perception of what is beautiful, playing with white Barbies, etc. There is a lot of alienation in [the immigrant] community. We’re not brown enough because we’re from America/Valpo. It’s a weird struggle. All BIPOC people go through it. You have to somehow find your racial niche.”
It sounds a little like what I heard from Ben Harper on a Fresh Air podcast the other day. His mother is white and his father is black, and he’s a folk musician: “Well, Terry [Gross], once you get into junior high and high school, you are no longer at liberty to decide where you want to be because you are placed by class, culture, creed and race the minute you walk on campus. The rich whites here. The poor whites there. Latin Americans here. Mexicans here. Blacks here. It's just waiting for you. You just walk into the machine. There's one part natural selection, one part institutional racism that you just walk straight into, and it spits you out the other side.”
Here is the advice, fellow parents, straight from two high school students
What is a mother to do? I pointed out that my husband and I are coming around to the idea that rather than protect our boys from white supremacy, we should prepare them. But here is the advice, fellow parents, straight from two young people who are living the time of life that I wonder what will be like for my own kids:
“We have sexual assault or sexual health training in schools. We should do that about racism.”
“We should talk about racism more with kids who are younger; I never talked with my parents about that until recently. You have to talk with your kids about this. You HAVE to. Start up a parent group. You have to have parents be aware and talk with their kids about this. It doesn’t matter how old.”