Tolerance is the latest trend in contemporary parenting. White parents are figuring out how to teach their children about race; i.e. how to attach more positive attributes to the groups of children they deem different from themselves. It’s a noble effort-- one that puts them in the company of neo-Liberal parents who teach their children “tolerance” of queer families. “A stable home (read: two parent) is all that matters,” they quip. Read: No matter the gender of the couple, as long as they’ve borrowed money from a big bank to buy a house in our neighborhood. Some parents are even clumsily teaching their children to tolerate class differences by urging charity to those who are inexplicably “less fortunate.” Tolerance of difference without a commitment to social justice is an impotent lesson that will change prom pictures but not this country.
A sobering truth: my daughter could be the first person in a long line of Frenches who will escape childhood without being called a nigger. And while I am grateful that she will avoid the trauma, I’m worried about her missing the lesson. First contact with personal racism is a rite of passage for African Americans who later work to reveal racism as systemic. Read the childhood narratives of W.E.B. DuBois, Audre Lorde, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, bell hooks, June Jordan, etc. These experiences personalize what is an otherwise abstract notion: systemic White supremacy.
I remember my first contact. She was the least attractive blond twin and the meanest to boot. I would have rather played with her sister than her and she knew the rest of the kindergarten class agreed. I was as disappointed as she was when we were paired for playtime that day. Perhaps she could tell and that’s why she said, “My daddy said I don’t have to play with niggers.” I don’t remember how I felt in the moment, or the “race talk” that followed, but I remember her pink dress, the abandoned sand table, and her top lip curled into a snarl.
This was but my first of many lessons in American racism. Kindergarten: “My dad said I don’t have to play with niggers.” Some White people have prejudiced ideas. First grade: Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Black History Month. Some prejudiced White people were very, very bad and used guns. Second grade: I read books about Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman during story time. A long time ago, some White people owned some Black people and were very mean to them. Third grade: I read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. A short while ago, some White people stole land from some Black people and used the terror of the law to frighten them into subjection. Fourth grade: Black students were told to pick any country in Africa for the heritage project since there was “no way we could know for sure.” A long time ago, a whole country was involved in robbing other countries of people in ways that permanently break ties between a people and their homeland. Fifth grade: Teacher from hell forced me to say the Pledge of Allegiance when I refused. Some ignorant White people are blindly devoted to a country that is built on the blood of others. My lessons built like this for years until I was introduced to bell hooks’ terminology: White-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy had a face, a lip curled into a snarl that my daughter may never see.
When I think of this country’s history, I imagine a young nation full of faces like the twin’s-- insecure, White supremacists in various sites of contact with people whose worldview ill-prepares them for the evil of racism. Because of her, I know that history lives in the present. I’m grateful for growing up in a red state that is still largely segregated. Without her honest racism, I may have been lulled into the myth of Black pathology, that pervasive notion that prisons are brown because of Blacks’ cultural ineptitude to do the right thing. I think of a Congress full of snarls like hers, hidden until forced contact (say, with a Black president) pushes them to the brink. I can place her snarl on police officers, prison guards, college presidents, and even Obama as he writes his admonitions to Black boys while imaging sagging pants.
Without the snarl of the mean twin, I might believe him, walking blindly about in a system that feeds off of blind participation. So unless White parents are teaching their children to hate White supremacy, to be enemies to injustice everywhere, their children’s “tolerance” of my daughter’s skin will only complicate and delay the lessons she must learn to survive.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter