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So I’m late coming to the party on writing about this film, but since I finally got a chance to see it on my Christmas vacation (thanks to some free grandparent babysitting), I’m hoping my tardiness will be excused. Watching the previews for the movie made me almost cringe. It seemed to contain both cliches and sappiness, and I try to avoid both when I invest precious box office dollars and two hours of my life to movie-going. Add that hesitation to the numerous devoted praises for the film I heard coming from middle-aged white women, and it took me a few weeks to actually work up the will to go.

In case you’re on a media fast or have just been tuned out to anything non-holiday related, The Blind Side is based on a true story of the transracial adoption of a football-star-in-the-making by a wealthy, white Christian family.  As with any film that tries to capture the history of a family, there are inevitable short cuts that reduce the members of that family to simpler characters.  But when artfully done, characters, even those based on real people, can be numerous and still retain a dynamism that makes them believable. The Blind Side did not accomplish that, despite a decent representation of seasoned players (Sandra Bullock, and even Kathy Bates) in the cast.

The unfortunate part of the film’s failure on that count is that the most truncated character is, wait for it, the black kid. My husband summed up Michael Oher as “that big guy who walked around sad for most of the movie. Every time you see him, he’s sad-walking. Walking sad in the ghetto. Walking sad at the new school. Walking sad into the laundromat.” We’re told by Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, that Michael has changed her life, that having him around has made her happy. But we have no idea why.  When they go shopping, he picks out horizontally-striped rugby shirts to the bemusement of the family.  This little footnote is, sadly, given to us as one of the dimensions of his character.

We are told who Michael is entirely by other [white] characters.  There is only one scene in the film where he demonstrates anything other than utter gratitude and love for his new family, and the scene is short-lived as the conflict is all-too-quickly resolved in such a slick manner that I wonder why they even included it in the movie. Michael, in many ways, is portrayed as a phlegmatic, gentle giant, a defender of the Tuohy family without much else to think about or do through the course of the film.  Some commentators have expressed the concern that the use of such a trope might invite the stereotype of the magical negro or even the eunuch, whose only purpose is to aide the white characters in their development.

Michael’s challenges are often oversimplified and understated.  He has a hard time in school, but thanks to an observant science teacher and an at-home tutor, he finds his way past his reading impediments.  Deeper problems are treated likewise.  While the film doesn’t shy away from having a drug dealer use sexually graphic language to threaten Michael’s white sister, in describing the sexual activity Michael was exposed to as a child, the script has Michael describe his experience at home as “mom did drugs or other bad stuff.”  While Leigh Anne is portrayed as imperiled when she drives through the ghetto (even though she’s armed, or so she tells the drug dealer who threatens her: she’s a member of the NRA, she pats her purse), Michael is depicted as invulnerable.  In one scene he is surrounded by gun-wielding criminals and as they pull their weapons on him, he sweeps them away with almost supernatural (say, magical?) physicality, warding off an attack with his bare hands.

The story takes place in the South, a setting that creates its own implied social and racial dynamics, and I expected the challenges of transracial adoption to be amplified by that fact.  The  film does try, showing Leigh Anne behaving as a white ally at different points identifying as Michael’s even when it costs her relationships with her rich, white “friends.” She also takes the initiative to seek out Michael’s absentee mother for her blessing before arranging for his official adoption, even though the state wouldn’t extend her the same courtesy or dignity.  Time and again, she travels into Michael’s old neighborhood, braving whatever discomfort or insecurity she might feel in that setting.

But the film deals exclusively in those extremes: glorious white wealth versus desperate black poverty.  One moment in particular for me served as a metaphor for what was missing in the movie.  Michael and the family are out for a fancy dinner.  As the family leaves the restaurant, he returns because he recognizes one of the waiters.  He says nothing, but goes back inside.  “Where’s Michael?”  The family turn and sees through a window that Michael is embracing a waiter.  They stand outside watching Michael hug the man and when he comes outside, we learn the man is his brother that he hasn’t seen since they were separated by social services as children.

As they drive away, Leigh Anne says she’d like to meet him sometime.  While Leigh Anne can go out of her way to sit next to Michael’s mother on her couch in the projects, for some reason, she cannot bring herself to go inside the restaurant to talk to a man who is clearly important to Michael and say, “Hey Michael, who’s your friend?”  Here she’s introduced to a character who doesn’t appear to need rescuing, and so she stands looking in from the outside, uncharacteristically reluctant to intrude on the scene.

While I am troubled by elements of the film, I am not prepared to classify it as a “white savior” story.  There are kids that need loving homes.  For some kids, adoption, even transracial adoption, is a form of rescue.  And that is not a bad thing.  It sounds like that was the situation for the real-life Michael.  But even if those are the circumstances that create a family in the beginning, building a family is a lifelong process and the challenges and conflicts that are part of that process shouldn’t be glossed over for the sake of making movie-goers feel good at the holidays. I have no doubt that what goes on in the real-life Tuohy family is much deeper than what I saw onscreen.  It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t even get a microcosm of that up there.

The Blind Side fails because it tries to prove the humanity and dignity of a kid from the ghetto by focusing entirely on the family that took him in and reducing him to a flat, uninteresting character that Sandra Bullock brought home from school one day.  With a few football drills and a couple suburban road humps along the way, we’re all fine and post-racial at the end.  Race. Family. Faith.  Community. It’s just not that easy.

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This week Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary.  I think the appropriate gift for 40 years is rubies, but since wisdom is better, I thought I’d share a little Street smarts:

If you have a favorite memory or clip from the show, feel free to post it in the comments.

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Many people are familiar with the story of the “flesh” colored crayon.  Part of Crayola’s second wave of color creation and from 1949-1962, the “flesh” crayon was a peachy-pink indicative of the white supremacist culture of the day.  There is no way of knowing how many children of color told their stories with colors deemed less-than-flesh:  goldenrod, sepia, raw sienna, raw umber.  Many of us even remember the “indian red” crayon that was only recently renamed in 1999 for obvious reasons.

Flesh-colored crayons

Crayola’s chronology website is open about its shady past, and while this particular staple of American childhood has grown up, many of the tools parents trust in their attempts to raise well-rounded, confident kids remain problematic.

Since the inception of Irene’s Daughters a few months ago, Nikki, Kate and I have all been talking about “bookshelf diversity.”  In case you are just getting to know us, I highly recommend our Reading List tab where you can find great resources for a beginning or veteran anti-racist that might serve to balance your bookshelves.

Tilted Bookshelf
Over the last week or so, we’ve been having an off-blog e-mail discussion about kids’ books.  Kate has a young niece and Nikki and I both have children, so the topic is important to each of us.  As a parent, I am always on the lookout for books that feature situations, themes, and topics that will help my kids learn about their world and themselves.  These books can vary from those that teach about colors, to those that teach about family, to those that teach about feelings and friends, and some that teach about all of that.

While we three could all spend countless hours crawling the internet for helpful articles, bookstores or websites, we decided that we’d let our readers in on the fun and create a new tab just for Children’s Books.  We will continue to add to the current list, but we wanted to open the floor to you folks and see what books you recommend.

We are also trying to provide information about the books, such as:

  • Reading Level: what age group is this book intended for? (these numbers indicate reading skill level, not necessarily age-appropriateness; many of these books could be read aloud to younger children)
  • Time Setting: is the story contemporary, historical (e.g. historical: 19th century; historical: Civil Rights movement), or myth/folktale/fantasy?
  • Place Setting: what country (e.g. United States) or region (e.g. New England, Southwest) is the book set in? is the setting urban/suburban/small town/rural/ambiguous?
  • Characters: are the main characters multiracial/multiethnic or predominantly one race/ethnicity?
  • Theme: is race or racism a theme?
  • Author(s)/Illustrator(s): what race or ethnicity are they?

At this point, we haven’t grouped the books by any sort of category.  We’re still debating the best way to organize it, but our main goal is to present works that promote bookshelf diversity.  We are looking for authors of color, characters of color or multiracial storytelling, contemporary and historic depictions of anti-racism, and anything that almost fits or fits all of the above criteria. We’re going for quality here, though quantity is also welcome.

We may also periodically offer our own reading lists and reviews in the form of blog posts, just as we do from time to time about reading material for grown-ups.  As we’ve discussed before, the world of publishing is tricky to navigate when it comes to these issues.  Many books about African Americans are set during the time of slavery.  Many books about Asians are set in foreign countries or ancient times.  Books about Native Americans often focus on folklore only.

We will undoubtedly talk about all of these subjects at various points, but know that we are not going into this endeavor “colorblind” to the tendency of the publishing world to stereotype or ignore authors and characters of color, and cater to certain “desirable” market demographics in discussions about race and prejudice.

We hope you’ll join us.  As we’ve said before and as we will continue to say, we’re all learning here.  Feel free to pick up a crayon (or more helpful, put your hands on the keyboard) and share a story or two with us.

Cave Bookshelf

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This video was featured last week on one of our favorite race blogs, Racialicious (as captured from Sociological Images as seen on and at Sesame Street.  And I know this parenthetical reference is starting to sound like the old woman who swallowed a fly, but I wanted to give credit to everyone in the lineage).

I love Jesse Jackson.  He’s great with these kids.  But what can you expect from a man who so artfully reads Green Eggs and Ham (and with good humor).  He leads these kids in a defiant chorus that publicly denounces many of the lies the forces of this world will aim at them.  Knowing the prejudicial power of the overwhelming undercurrents in our culture, I wonder how many of those children grew up believing the truths they shouted down Sesame Street.

I hope mine will believe it.  I hope that if you have kids, yours will, too.  And I hope that us grown ups will continue to shout about it until they do.

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This post originally appeared on Moms in the Lobby.  Reposted here with permission.

Newsweek recently featured a web exclusive on How the Media Treat Murder. The article’s focus is on the underreported story of a possible serial killer in the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Ten women have been found slain or have been declared missing in Rocky Mount, N.C., in recent years. But the rest of the country hasn’t heard about a possible serial killer stalking the young women in this Southern town of 60,000. The latest victim, Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, was identified on Oct. 12. Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?

“When you think about the famous missing-person cases over the last few years it’s Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Laci Peterson,” notes Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. All these women had a few things in common—they were white, educated, and came from middle-class families. The victims in Rocky Mount—which residents describe as a “typical Southern town,” and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black—were different. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.

Unfortunately, this level of blindness is an all-too-common characteristic of the media when it comes to crimes against people of color. The article goes on to suggest that national media may be the worst about selecting for race when reporting on crime:

‘Nancy Grace called and wanted to have some of us on her show, but before it aired there was a white woman from Georgia that went missing. The Nancy Grace show was canceled,’ [city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter, Andre] Knight says. HLN network, which broadcasts Nancy Grace, confirmed that Knight was booked for the show, which was ultimately canceled to profile the disappearance of Kristi Cornwell, a white woman from Blairsville, Ga., who went missing during an evening walk. Representatives from Nancy Grace told NEWSWEEK, ‘The booking was changed due to news that was breaking that day,’ and emphasized the change had nothing to do with the race of the victim. On Aug. 12, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees covered the story.

I’m no fan of Nancy Grace and this story is partly why. Despite her best attempts to portray what she does as an important service for the social good, her tactics and her focus on certain sensationalized cases suggest she’s mostly out for attention (and perhaps media martyrdom, swoon).

Many times I’ve wondered where are all the missing black kids? or Latino kids? or Asian kids (up until and perhaps beyond the case of Annie Le)? A trip to the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows racially-proportional and accurate alerts to the abductions and disappearances of our nation’s children. According to studies done by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice, non-white children make up 42% of the total number of missing children, while they only comprise 36% of the U.S. population. Yet we rarely see these kids’ cases on the national news.

Much of this has to do with the media’s desire to present a compelling narrative, rather than an accurate report of crime incidents in the community. One MSNBC reporter, Alex Johnson, writing on the subject calls this “Catnip for TV types.” Johnson cites Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., talking about the way journalists choose a story:

‘The example of a bad murder would be the murder of an African-American person from a poor neighborhood,’ he said. ‘The definition of a good murder is a socialite killed by her jealous husband, the debutante murdered by her angry boyfriend.’When it comes to police stories, Clark said, there is ‘this perverted, racist view of the world. White is good; black is bad. Blonde is good; dark is bad. Young is good; old is bad. And I think we can find versions of this story going back to the tabloid wars of more than a hundred years ago.’

Even more frightening is what advocates on the ground experience trying to get media attention for the sake of finding victims or delivering justice for their families:

‘We can’t get a young girl who may be suffering substance abuse and may be prostituting on the national news because they feel she’s not worth the time,’ said Kym Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults in Phoenix. ‘But these individuals are no less important to their families, and their families are entitled to the same help’ in getting their cases before the public. ‘We have found that it’s far easier for our agency to obtain national coverage on an individual who society, I think, identifies with,’ she said.

While all of this is alarming and deeply disturbing, it isn’t all that unexpected. When one considers that our justice system has its own virulent strains of prejudice and inherent inconsistencies, it’s not terribly off-base that elements of the media covering crime would more than mirror, even magnify, the problem. Most executions (80%) are carried out against defendants with white victims, even though half of all homicide victims are black. Juries, studies show, are more likely to exact the ultimate penalty against a defendant whose victim is white.

These crimes, particularly the crimes against children, are terrifying realities for any mom. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother denied justice not only by the actual justice system, but again by members of the media who are more intent on selling a story to white America than on reporting the important details about a crime to all of us in this country.

It’s tragic enough when our children are lost. That tragedy is only compounded when our compassion and our attention is likewise missing.

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Late last week, one of our favorite race blogs, Racialicious, featured a story about a justice of the peace in Louisiana who refused to marry an interracial couple because he was worried about “the offspring” such a marriage would produce.  The JP, Keith Bardwell, claims he’s not a racist in this video from the AP:

Since the story broke, several prominent political figures in Louisiana, including Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Mary Landrieu, have publicly rebuked the JP’s actions and called for his resignation.  Bardwell refuses to resign, but says he had previously decided after 34 years in elected office not to run again when his term ends in 2014.

Last week I picked up a book on the subject of interracial marriage and parenting called Just Don’t Marry One by George and Sherelyn Yancey (themselves an interracial couple).  Strangely enough, the Racialicious post I mentioned above featured the cover art of this book.  The title fits the story perfectly.  It’s the very objection every “non-racist” white person makes when their kids ask about befriending or even dating a person of color.  I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed carrying this book around with me for a week thinking that the title, which is clearly ironic, might make me look like some kind of supremacist.

The book is a collection of essays by evangelical Christians from various ethnic backgrounds (Latino, Black, White, Native American, Asian, to name a few) on the subjects of interracial dating, marriage and parenting.  As one who often criticizes the church (or at least my wing of it) for being AWOL on race issues, I was very surprised to see such a dedicated group of people who were not only educated on these subjects, but actively educating others about them.

While each writer had their own take on things, and almost all of them had their own personal experiences to influence their opinions and counsel, each seemed earnestly working toward justice and ultimately reconciliation within the body of Christ.  Several of them sharply scolded their own faith communities for a lack of congregational educational resources.  As A. Charles Ware puts it in his essay on pastoral counseling of multiracial families:

Interracial families are not the only ones needing accurate information.  The entire church must be educated. (p. 36)

Several of them were more frank than I expected.  Sherelyn Yancey, a white woman married to a black man and the co-editor of the book, writes:

In many families and churches, the prejudice of racial superiority manifests itself when it comes to interracial dating and marriage.  We repreat our sinful history when we pass on unwritten rule: ‘Yes, you can play together and go to school together.  You can even be friends.  But…just don’t marry one.'” (p. 87)

Many of us remember the fracas raised when Senator John McCain referred to then-Senator Barak Obama in a debate as “that one.”  Despite white Christians’ protest that they “aren’t racists,” often the prospect of being related to a person of color or having multiracial grandchildren brings out their true colors.

This justice of the peace in Louisiana is a good example of this very situation.  Concerns about interracial relationships are often masked in false concern over the fate of biracial or multiracial children.  In his essay in Just Don’t…, David Tatlock takes this issue on first by quoting author Lee Chanult:

‘What white people are saying with that statement is that they think racial prejudice is awful, especially when it affects children, and they sure are glad their kids are white!’  The only reason biracial children suffer is because they live in a racist society… (p.116)

Tatlock further explores this derailment tactic as it relates to white Christians:

Yes, biracial children will go through a process of discovering who they are, like everyone else.  A child with godly self-worth can endure societal torment and taunts.  Besides, the Bible teaches that my children will have to endure tremendous hatred and be considered social outcasts–just for being Christian!  I have never heard a believer aska Christian couple through tear-soaked eyes, “Have you thought about the implications of having godly offspring?  It says in the Bible that if you have children who follow Christ, they will be hated.  What about the children?’ (p.117)

I got into a heated argument a couple years back with a close relative about the prospect that one day our white kids might come to us with a desire to marry a person of color.  My relative said that she would have a conversation with her child about whether or not they were prepared to handle the social barriers that one might face with an interracial marriage.

While on its face, this is not a bad question, coming from someone who up until that moment in the life of their child had probably preached “colorblindness” and an implicit (though unintentional) sense of white superiority, the question is more meant to discourage the union than to encourage the kids to guard their hearts against the prejudices of others.   Most likely the time an interracial couple has reached the point of marriage, they have already endured some degree if not a great degree of societal scorn during their courtship.  Just like the “think of the children” comment, this so-called concern is often an indicator of familial disapproval.

The book touches on many of these issues, and I really believe much of it to be a good primer for the church, particularly for white folks.  While it doesn’t contain much new material for a seasoned anti-racist, it would be helpful for Christians exploring these subjects for the first time.  Many of the problems addressed (yea, even the title itself) explicitly confront white attitudes about interracial marriage and family.  The books is often prescriptive, giving white people a place to begin a life of anti-racism and inclusion.  In her essay on the history of interracial sexual relations in America, Sherelyn Yancey writes:

When it comes to race relations, we white Christians seem to have historical amnesia over past interracial sexual relations and resulting multiracial children…Many of us might complain, ‘I wasn’t there.  I can’t help it if my family owned slaves or killed Indians.’ No, we are not responsible for others’ behavior, but we are accountable for how we use our social and economic inheritance. (p. 86, emphasis mine)

Unfortunately, while we white people are learning and growing and messing up and begging forgiveness, Christian people of color have their own burden in the reconciliation process.  Randy Woodley, a minister and member of the Cherokee nation, writes in the book about the church’s role in the subjugation of indigenous people.  Woodly talks about a piercing experience in forgiveness that he had during an organized walk along the Cherokee’s path during the Trail of Tears.

His story, like many who are working on anti-racist education and justice, remains somewhat unresolved.  Woodley is clearly determined to forge past his own difficulties in forgiving others, but does so knowing that the task is not an easy one, nor is he always going to immediately cooperate with the process:

Though I may not always welcome [reconciliation], I am a mixed blood and based on my understanding of Scripture, I am a bridge. (p. 149)

As frustrating as it can be for me, a white woman, to bear with my white brothers and sisters who are wrong on the issue of interracial marriage, I have to do just that.  I will not go quietly, and they will not go uncorrected (at least not if I am in the room), but ultimately, it is the truth and kindness that leads to repentance.  Change is a messy process and in an effort to make progress, there will undoubtedly be offenses on the part of all (but mostly us) that require forgiveness and patience.  Like Randy Woodley, I am a bridge.  If necessary, tread on me.

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As any one of our readers could see from my comment on Kate’s most recent post, I just took an Implicit Association Test.  The test is designed to reveal any hidden or subconscious racial (or in other tests, gender, ability, etc.) preferences one might have.  I expected I would probably end up with results that indicated a preference for light skin.  I did.  But, following the common adage, “everyone prefers their own” I was surprised when the test revealed the overall results for everyone who has taken the test.  I won’t share the specifics, but you can see the breakdown for yourself if you go and take the test.  But I can tell you that out of all the respondents, and there were many who were people of color, most of the respondents in some measure preferred light skin to dark.

This means that people of color often share white folks’ preferences when it comes to skin color.  I learned about this in courses I took on sociology and literature in high school and college.  And I’ve known for a long time that, for a variety of reasons, many people of color have adopted the prejudices of white society as their own.

We often talk a lot about the idea of “reverse racism” on this blog, and most of the time, we’re debunking white folks’ claims that people of color have some measure of power and authority to discriminate against whites in our society.  But today I started thinking, hey, maybe there is such a thing as “reverse racism.”  It’s still not a situation where racism gets flipped back onto us white people. But maybe it applies to a situation where white racism gets internalized and applied to people of color by people of color.

To me, this is one of the most heartbreaking effects of living in a racialized, white privilege-based society.  There is a psychological phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome where hostages become loyal to their captors even to the point of risking their own lives.  This kind of scarring can be seen in abuse victims who, despite endangerment, refuse to leave the side of an abuser who physically or emotionally injures them on a regular basis.  Could it be that the scars so long inflicted by racism are manifesting themselves in the prejudices shared by both white people and people of color?  I think these tests prove it.

Even more devastating are the results of the doll tests conducted over the last few decades.  To see a child looking into the face of a doll that is supposed to be (however inadequately) representative of herself, and declaring that doll “bad” or “ugly” should be an embarrassment to our society.  Children are learning these things from us, and they carry them into adulthood in their implicit and explicit associations.  And one of those people is typing on the subject this very minute!

Now I’m prone to hyperbole when I get worked up about something, but I am honestly about two seconds from going out into my street in sackcloth and ashes and weeping over what is happening to us as a society.  I know we have a bucket of ashes in our basement and a 40% off coupon at Michael’s. They carry sackcloth, right?  Maybe burlap will do.  Don’t tempt me, people!

How are we going to change this?  How am I, as a parent, going to raise my kids differently when I clearly harbor some of these negative associations?  Shouldn’t we all be concerned to the point of grief over this system of injustice?

My pal Kate shared with me an episode of This American Life‘s episode 347, “Matchmakers,” Act 3:

Babies Buying Babies.

Elna Baker reads her story about the time she worked at the giant toy store, FAO Schwartz. Her job was to sell these lifelike “newborns” which were displayed in a “nursery” inside the store. When the toys become the hot new present, they begin to fly off the shelves. When the white babies sell out, white parents are faced with a choice: will they go for an Asian, Latino, or African-American baby instead? What happens is so disturbing that Elna has a hard time even telling it. (16 minutes)

You can listen to the entire episode online, for free, at This American Life‘s site. (Give the player some time to buffer, then skip to minute 40 for Act 3.)

If you listen to that story, and I hope you do, I want you to think about how the parents reacted.  It’s not enough for us to say, “well I never would have done that.”  We might not have.  “We” might be like “me,” a person who could look at my implicit association test results and say, “I only exhibit a slight preference for light skin.  Aren’t I enlightened?”  But that’s not good enough.  In fact, it’s downright bad.  Ignoring things or suggesting that “because we’ve come a long way, we have already come all the way” is complacent and sinful.

We all need to examine our own hearts as well as the choices we are making that might set us at any point on that “I prefer white people” scale.  And then we need to get about the business of reversing those effects of racism in our society, even if we weren’t part of the crew that originally set this mess into motion.

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