Skin Again (and bell hooks)

Maybe you’ve seen this story circulating on Facebook and from pretty much every major daytime news network for almost the entirety of 2017, and with renewed passion in the wake of the atrocities of Charlottesville:

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People feel really good about it, and it’s easy to see why: five-year-olds are particularly adorable when they’re hugging/wearing sweaters and particularly hilarious when they are failing miserably at being sneaky; and, perhaps above all, the implication that younger generations are less racist than the old, that undoing racism is just a matter of white people letting their five-year-olds be friends with black kids offers hope. As each new day seems to bring new lows in explicit demonstrations of racism and toxic masculinity, who wouldn’t welcome the relief of seeing these incredibly cute little boys be nice to each other?

So it’s not without understanding and love that I ask a few pointed questions.

What lesson are these boys likely to take away from a situation in which both of their faces have been plastered all over the news for a year so that the white one can be praised for simply treating the black one as a friend?

The white kid’s mother is very proud of herself and her son, according to The Today Show,

She sees Jax’s inability to see a difference between himself and his friend as a parenting win.

“I just taught him to love everyone the same,” she said.

and hers are indeed laudable parenting goals. But…

where is the praise for little Reddy? Jax’s mom says, “Obviously, they see they are different colors, they just don’t care”—-but what about the fact that “not caring” is likely a lot harder and higher-stakes for Reddy than it is for Jax? We don’t actually know how Reddy feels about this little haircut scheme, since the story is literally not about him in any way except as an accessory to the little white boy’s heroism. But it’s likely that Reddy either knows people or has himself been called the n-word in a hateful manner, even by first grade—–and that if they stay friends, Jax will eventually ask him why he’s not allowed to say it, and Reddy will have to try to explain. Reddy’s family is far more likely to have been harassed by the police. And yet he still has a heart open enough to be able to trust a white boy to be his friend.

And that’s before we’ve gotten to an even more basic question. Considering that our first teaching tools for our children involve helping them notice differences among things in relationship to each other—-“this is red, and this is blue,” “this is up, this is down”—-you have to wonder: why do we encourage our children get to know their world through its differences, and then in this one instance, demand that they ignore the fact that skin comes in different colors, lest they force adults to explain things they’d rather not explain?

White friends, the above story is well-meaning, but it is not an all-inclusive model for handling race with our children. It is not even close to good enough to pretend to our white children that race doesn’t matter—-and it’s worth considering that doing so actually perpetuates racism, not eradicates it. By bringing up your white child to believe that race doesn’t exist, you are only protecting your own child from racism, not their black and brown friends, who still have to live with its effects every day, and who might actually prefer a friend who recognizes that and gives a shit about it over one whose eyes and ears are closed to it.

But these are really hard conversations to have. Parents of nonwhite children sadly often have natural openings to discuss the hard things about race (e.g., when something racist happens to them or their child). For white parents, such natural openings are more rare—-and while I’ve said before that it’s great to get to introduce a human to great things like rainbows, who on earth wants to introduce the ugly concept of racism to any child, anywhere?

I have a book that might help.

Skin Again, by bell hooks and Chris Raschka (illust.). Hyperion, 2004. 51q4whmag2l

Dr. V.’s take:

Though she is not a purely uncontroversial figure in feminist, anti-racist activist circles, in the history of such movements, bell hooks is a Big Deal. In the mid-aughts, hooks wrote a handful of children’s books in her signature irreverent cadence, beautifully illustrated in Chris Raschka’s bold, precisely crude style.

Her third effort, Skin Again, is affirming, optimistic, and gently pedagogical—-the kind of book that’s good for the soul of both the child being read to and the adult reading aloud.

Because Skin Again outlines the parameters in which race matters—-which isn’t measured in terms of how much but in what ways. It boils this layered, complex topic and its thousands of years of history down to twelve simple but not simplistic sentences.

(Note: I recommend reading this one silently to yourself before reading out loud, both because it’s worth sitting with yourself and also because trying to read it aloud the first time you open it is likely to result in some inelegant stumbling over the rhythm. )

The goal of Skin Again is not to erase racial difference or cast aside the meaning of identity in favor of a homogenized neutral, but rather to “become real” to one another. Because our skin is part of who we are, but “we are all inside made up of real history, real dreams, and the stuff of all we hope for when we can be all real”—-and as you’re getting to know someone, take your cues from them about it, okay?

It asks readers to “imagine” a “place” where “skin again” can be something, but not everything—–a difference, but not an impasse. It doesn’t suggest that this place already exists, but rather tells the reader: you, and me, and everybody together have the power to make this place. I think more white parents talking to their kids about race like Skin Again is much more likely to take us to that place than asking our kids to ignore their skin (again).

 

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