Anti-Racist Parenting

It’s amazing to me the way that information travels around the internet. I seem to be continually amazed at the power of social networking and blogs to change lives forever – whether for good or for bad. Here’s one such example:

Buckle your seat belts, because here goes nothin’.

1. Jackie Morgan MacDougall posted a story on momlogic about a time when her sons visited her at the office and:

my older boy shocked a room full of Moms when he asked me loud and clearly “Mommy, why is her face brown?” upon meeting one of my co-workers.

The question itself was not the problem. MacDougall’s embarrassment and white privilege combine for a major fail in her next actions:

I asked my co-worker to field the question because I was interested in hearing how she’d like it answered.

She concludes the blog post by stating:

What I learned from my preschooler that day is that recognizing differences in each other is not harmful, racist, or prejudice–it’s natural. It’s when you judge or treat someone differently because of those differences that’s hurtful. And that was the furthest thing from his sweet three-year-old mind.

Which is to say she completely missed the boat when she failed to recognize that asking her co-worker to answer her son’s question was covered in the section in Anti-Racism 101 in the section about not asking individuals to be spokespeople for their entire group, amongst other things.

Just to complicate this story more, it is important to note that MacDougall is white (judging by the pictures on her blog), an adoptee, and has two biological sons and a daughter adopted from Taiwan. In my book, this means you better be doing some pretty deep thinking (and acting) about race and racism, not to mention colonialism and white privilege.

2. People responded to her post with a variety of comments, some sympathetic, some inflammatory, some understanding, and some damning. People wonder whether her son has ever encountered a person of color before (MacDougall lives in LA and she would be hard pressed even in the richest, whitest of areas to accomplish this nigh impossible feat). People also offer advice on how she could have appropriately answered her son’s question herself and the myriad of reasons she should not have handed the question off to her coworker to deal with.

3. The story then gets picked up by Anti-Racist Parent, one of my favorite parenting blogs. Finally, the focus turns towards how important it is for parents to proactively talk about race with their children before, during, and after such unexpected comments like these. MacDougall’s actions belie the attitude of many white American parents – I’ll deal with it when it happens. Which sets you up for unexpected and difficult situations like these where you have the propensity to make a really stupid (and in this case racist) decision.

4. You know the story has hit the big time when it gets picked up by the New York Times. The New York Times! The author of the article, Lisa Belkin, gives a nice summary of the issue and lets MacDougall off the hook a little regarding her son’s question (but not MacDougall’s actions):

It has happened to every parent. A young child notices someone who is different than they are, or different from anyone else they have seen, or maybe is just like people they see all the time but this is the first they’ve wondered why, or maybe isn’t all that different at all but the youngster is trying out a child’s need to categorize.

One of my nieces, I recall, became fascinated by the idea of “ugly” — probably after reading about Cinderella’s stepsisters. Toddlers have no volume button and she would loudly ask my sister, “Is that lady ugly?” randomly and in very public places.

5. MacDougall later makes an apology and gives an explanation on her blog and requests to have it published on Anti-Racist Parent.

Ok, is your head spinning yet? Let’s do a quick recap in 5 easy steps:

(1) MacDougall posts on her blog and (2) momlogic about her own failings as a parent. (3)This gets picked up by Anti-Racist Parent and eventually the (4) New York Times. (5) MacDougall explains/apologizes and perhaps that is that.

Whew! It still blows my mind that this one woman’s choice to blog about what is really a commonplace occurrence (Should it be such a frequent event? Absolutely not. Is it? You bet it is.) gets her bad behavior written about in the New York Times for an incredibly large audience to read about. It also baffles me that this is what it takes for someone to (sort of) take accountability for her actions. MacDougall’s apology does not absolve her of her privilege and racism, but hopefully it illuminates an easily made mistake both for MacDougall in her future race discussions with her children and with the thousands of readers who see themselves in MacDougall and her mistake.

For your reading pleasure, I’ll leave you with a gem from the comments section from Belkin’s article in the NYT. Anothermom writes:

I come from India, and I was carpooling my 5 year old with his friend (even at 5 they consider the parent-driver absent – lovely). The white friend asked him why he was brown (in a simple, curious tone) and my son answered ‘there is lot of sun in India, so brown skin protects you from sun” (which is the answer he might have gotten from us) and then added “and there are a lot of forests in India, so brown skin lets you blend in trees to save yourselves from tigers”. This was hilarious, and it made his friend quite jeolous and he moped “I want to be brown too”.

UPDATE: MacDougall’s co-worker responds on Anti-Racist Parent here. It just keeps getting deeper and messier. One commenter speaks a poignant truism about this ever more involved story:

Thank you for publishing the other half of the story. As a grad. school prof. once told us in class, there are at least 17 sides to every story.

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