Monday, April 15, 2013

Teaching bigotry

Growing up in the South, I was exposed to a lot of bigotry. It was both overt and covert in terms, but my mother always taught me that human beings are not to be judged by the color of their skin. Instead, it is what is in their hearts one should look to in order to find the real essence of their beings.

That being said, the man I called my stepfather was a by the textbook stereotypical southern male who had grown up pre and post Jim Crow laws in Nashville. I grew up hearing the hated "n-word" in my home, along with other slurs against humanity. From that, I could have been taught to be a bigot. However, I knew it was wrong. My mom still instilled in me to make my own decisions about my friends and I did. I kept, and keep, a very diverse group of friends and tend to look at the world through the view that everyone - no matter their skin color, race, religion, or neurology - is equal and good, deserving of the same rights as every other person. Bigotry is taught.

Raising children in the 21st century South can be tricky, from what I can tell. Both of my kids have been taught by my husband and I from birth on that all people are created equal. However, when you send your children out into the world, even if it's onto your front doorstep, you don't know if those ideals will hold. What is said at the dinner table and agreed upon might just disappear when playing with friends who look just like them.

We live outside of New Orleans, a very culturally diverse area. Our neighbors are white, black, Creole, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Mexican, Indian, Native American (Houma Indians, to be exact in most cases), and so forth. We moved here from the mountains of Appalachia, where there is culture, but not so much diversity. My kids had probably only ever remembered seeing a handful of people whose skin colors were different from theirs in real life before moving here. Morgan, upon getting into the car after his first day of school here, told me he had met "the most beautiful girl in the world!" I asked what was she like, meaning personality, looks, etc. He told me she, "is smart, pretty, laughs a lot... and she's brown, Mama." I about drove off of the road, because I've never thought to describe someone by a Crayola color.

However, to my literal thinker, this was a legitimate way of describing someone. I was worried because I didn't want him to be punished or wronged in some way for his way of describing someone. I had to sit my son down and explain to him the different ways of categorizing people. To do so felt... bigoted. Up until then, I had been raising my kids to be well, color blind, I'd thought. I've raised them, I thought, to see beyond color or any sort of differences between themselves and others and just see people. To only see good and bad. 

Was I doing something wrong?

I spoke with my neighbor, a preacher with two biracial kids, who told me that from what he could tell, I was doing the correct thing. However, I might need to actually explain how we all got here, to this point, to my kids. But how, I wondered to him, do I explain sensitive things such as slavery, Jim Crow, and desegregation to Morgan? I don't want my son to only have what he takes from school as the only watered down context. He pointed out to me that I don't have hate in my heart and I'm fighting a type of desegregation fight with special needs inclusion. So, I went on.

I might be going about all of this in the wrong way, but I teach my children that each of us are of equal worth. It does not matter what race one is... or if you speak English or speak at all. It shouldn't matter if you live in a nice suburb or in a ghetto in New Orleans (which, I will readily admit, I lock my doors going through- we were lost going through there last Saturday... right down the road from where a little girl had been shot a week before. It was scary, okay?).  Both of the kids know to not be afraid of wheelchairs or braces- those are orthopedic jewelry. They don't look down on people for being poor because they, to the best of our knowledge, don't know what that is... for now.

I've also let them know, in true Southern mama fashion, that I'll snatch 'em bald headed if I ever catch a slur on their tongues because that's not right. You are graced with however you are made. You make the best of it. It is your choice to either wallow in circumstances, work with them, or rise above. Of course, we have been dealt a luckier hand than most. I realize this. That is also why I teach my children that it is always important to give back- I'm still working that one out.

Bigotry is taught. Hatred is taught. We hate what we do not understand or what we fear. 

I am afraid of quite a bit. I cannot say that I personally hate anything other than fear and bigotry.  


  1. Stumbled onto your blog from a comment thread on Lexi's 'Mostly True Stuff', and I have to say, I love this post! The brother of a friend of mine described me once the way your boy described his beautiful girl: 'brown girl, black hair'. He didn't know my name, just how I looked and there was no judgment in it. I agree with your neighbour: I think you're teaching your kids the right way.