Solange Knowles has never been shy about standing up for what she believes in and her latest interview is no exception. As the cover star of BUST‘s latest issue, the A Seat at the Table singer opened up in her interview about what feminism means to her in this day and age. “I am a…
By Jennifer Harvey
DES MOINES — Last year at this time, my 7-year-old was running around singing the praises of George Washington. I was happy to see her so engaged with what she’d learned at school. But I was dismayed that the peace- and diversity-centered curriculum she gets at her public school had left her with such a one-dimensional view of history.
I struggled with how best to respond. Then one morning, she overheard the news on our kitchen radio about a politician charged with ethics violations. “What’s that about?” she asked. I told her someone in the government had done something wrong, and she asked how an adult who was a leader could possibly do something bad.
“Unfortunately,” I responded, “a lot of our country’s leaders have done bad things.” When her eyes grew big and she said, “Like who and what did they do?” I knew I had my opportunity.
“Well,” I said, “you know how you’ve been running around here celebrating George Washington? We always talk about George Washington fighting for freedom. But George Washington also owned black people as slaves.” Her intrigue turned to horror.
Fast forward, one year. For those of us raising children, the future couldn’t be more on our minds. With the news full of reports about vandalized Jewish cemeteries and mosques on fire, police officers who terrorize and endanger black and Latino children, and engineers from India being shot while enjoying a meal after work, it’s tempting to shut off the radio, turn off the TV and cancel those news alerts on our cellphones. But it’s more critical than ever that we talk about difficult and morally complex issues with our children.
Of the many dangers this presidency poses, one of the greatest is deep damage to our children’s perceptions of race, gender and other kinds of difference. We know the youngest children internalize racist perceptions of themselves and others. As early as age 5, children recognize differential treatment and understand something about the social status of different racial groups, their own group and others. These effects are powerful in normal times. In this political climate, they’re on steroids.
Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren’t effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it’s even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like “we’re all equal” or “we’re all the same underneath our skin” in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let’s be frank, it’s parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies.
The consequences are serious. When we don’t talk honestly with white children about racism, they become more likely to disbelieve or discount their peers when they report experiencing racism. “But we’re all equal” becomes a rote response that actually blocks white children from recognizing or taking seriously racism when they see it or hear about it. This is at best.
At worst, the consequences are akin to what happens when you breathe in polluted air. Not realizing the pollution is there doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short.
We have better models. Parents of black and Latino children have long made thoughtful choices about when and how to engage in difficult and nuanced discussions about difference. Studies show that such parents are two to five times more likely than whites to teach their children explicitly about race from very young ages to counter negative social messages and build a strong sense of identity.
These parents have responded to the racial epithet overheard at recess in age-appropriate ways. They’ve figured out when to have “the talk,” explaining how their children must conduct themselves around police officers. They’ve had complex discussions about equality: “We should all be equal, we all have equal worth, but we don’t all experience equality yet.” Parents of children who are not white have long contemplated how to make their kids aware of painful racial realities in the United States, while simultaneously nurturing resilience and a healthy sense of self.
Those of us who are not immigrants or Muslim and who are raising white children stand to learn much from parents like these, even as we apply the teachings differently for our particular families.
For example, I’ve tried to go beyond the abstract “be kind to everyone” to encourage my children to recognize racial meanness and understand that white kids have a particular responsibility to challenge racism. These are necessary skills when the racism emboldened by this administration shows up in the world.
One-dimensional, generic teachings are tempting. They feel easier and safer. That’s the only reason my daughter’s school would settle for partial truths about George Washington. But raising children who are resilient for justice and able to do their part to create an inclusive society takes more, especially now. And it’s not as hard as it might seem.
After I told my daughter the whole story, she asked, “If Washington held slaves, why do we celebrate him as if he was such a great man?”
What a good question — one that allowed us to engage in moral reasoning together. I asked her what she thought the reason was. In turn, I speculated that sometimes it’s hard to admit our white predecessors did bad things because it makes us feel bad. Then we talked about how we don’t have to just feel bad about the past, but instead should find ways to challenge injustice today. We talked about the importance of telling the whole truth, even when it’s hard.
It’s always risky to tell other people how to raise their children, and I don’t want to imply that I’m some kind of perfect parent. On top of that, our children and families are all different and there are many distinct ways to have conversations about race with our children. But however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever.
“Everything caters to the male gaze and I just, I’m not interested in that as a writer, and so, I want to write stories where women are centered, even if their stories exist, in part, because of something that has happened with a man.”
I have a deep, abiding love and respect for Roxane Gay. I would follow her to Reno without hesitation, asking only one (wholly important) question, “lipstick or boots?”
I see her. And I know that she sees me.
92Y | Roxane Gay | Difficult Women
A few days ago, The Atlantic posted a video showing an audience of two-hundred or so reacting fervently, some with Nazi salutes, when Richard Spencer came on stage and proclaimed, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Spencer is a leading figure in a movement with white-nationalist elements, which he successfully branded as the “alt-right.” This […]
NOW IS THE TIME TO TALK ABOUT WHAT WE ARE ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, DECEMBER 2, 2016 The New Yorker
America has always been aspirational to me. Even when I chafed at its hypocrisies, it somehow always seemed sure, a nation that knew what it was doing, refreshingly free of that anything-can-happen existential uncertainty so familiar to developing nations. But no longer. The election of Donald Trump has flattened the poetry in America’s founding philosophy: the country born from an idea of freedom is to be governed by an unstable, stubbornly uninformed, authoritarian demagogue. And in response to this there are people living in visceral fear, people anxiously trying to discern policy from bluster, and people kowtowing as though to a new king. Things that were recently pushed to the corners of America’s political space—overt racism, glaring misogyny, anti-intellectualism—are once again creeping to the center.
Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity. America loves winners, but victory does not absolve. Victory, especially a slender one decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of states, does not guarantee respect. Nobody automatically deserves deference on ascending to the leadership of any country. American journalists know this only too well when reporting on foreign leaders—their default mode with Africans, for instance, is nearly always barely concealed disdain. President Obama endured disrespect from all quarters. By far the most egregious insult directed toward him, the racist movement tamely termed “birtherism,” was championed by Trump.
Yet, a day after the election, I heard a journalist on the radio speak of the vitriol between Obama and Trump. No, the vitriol was Trump’s. Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one.
Now is the time to refuse the blurring of memory. Each mention of “gridlock” under Obama must be wrought in truth: that “gridlock” was a deliberate and systematic refusal of the Republican Congress to work with him. Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it. Now is the time to forge new words. “Alt-right” is benign. “White-supremacist right” is more accurate.
Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about. “Climate contrarian” obfuscates. “Climate-change denier” does not. And because climate change is scientific fact, not opinion, this matters.
Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction. The election is not a “simple racism story,” because no racism story is ever a “simple” racism story, in which grinning evil people wearing white burn crosses in yards. A racism story is complicated, but it is still a racism story, and it is worth parsing. Now is not the time to tiptoe around historical references. Recalling Nazism is not extreme; it is the astute response of those who know that history gives both context and warning.
Now is the time to recalibrate the default assumptions of American political discourse. Identity politics is not the sole preserve of minority voters. This election is a reminder that identity politics in America is a white invention: it was the basis of segregation. The denial of civil rights to black Americans had at its core the idea that a black American should not be allowed to vote because that black American was not white. The endless questioning, before the election of Obama, about America’s “readiness” for a black President was a reaction to white identity politics. Yet “identity politics” has come to be associated with minorities, and often with a patronizing undercurrent, as though to refer to nonwhite people motivated by an irrational herd instinct. White Americans have practiced identity politics since the inception of America, but it is now laid bare, impossible to evade.
Now is the time for the media, on the left and right, to educate and inform. To be nimble and alert, clear-eyed and skeptical, active rather than reactive. To make clear choices about what truly matters.
Now is the time to put the idea of the “liberal bubble” to rest. The reality of American tribalism is that different groups all live in bubbles. Now is the time to acknowledge the ways in which Democrats have condescended to the white working class—and to acknowledge that Trump condescends to it by selling it fantasies. Now is the time to remember that there are working-class Americans who are not white and who have suffered the same deprivations and are equally worthy of news profiles. Now is the time to remember that “women” does not equal white women. “Women” must mean all women. Now is the time to elevate the art of questioning. Is the only valid resentment in America that of white males? If we are to be sympathetic to the idea that economic anxieties lead to questionable decisions, does this apply to all groups? Who exactly are the élite?
Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. is the time to frame the questions differently. If everything remained the same, and Hillary Clinton were a man, would she still engender an overheated, outsized hostility? Would a woman who behaved exactly like Trump be elected? Now is the time to stop suggesting that sexism was absent in the election because white women did not overwhelmingly vote for Clinton. Misogyny is not the sole preserve of men.
The case for women is not that they are inherently better or more moral. It is that they are half of humanity and should have the same opportunities—and be judged according to the same standards—as the other half. Clinton was expected to be perfect, according to contradictory standards, in an election that became a referendum on her likability.
Now is the time to ask why America is far behind many other countries (see: Rwanda) in its representation of women in politics. Now is the time to explore mainstream attitudes toward women’s ambition, to ponder to what extent the ordinary political calculations that all politicians make translate as moral failures when we see them in women. Clinton’s careful calibration was read as deviousness. But would a male politician who is carefully calibrated—Mitt Romney, for example—merely read as carefully calibrated?
Now is the time to be precise about the meanings of words. Trump saying “They let you do it” about assaulting women does not imply consent, because consent is what happens before an act.
Now is the time to remember that, in a wave of dark populism sweeping the West, there are alternative forms. Bernie Sanders’s message did not scapegoat the vulnerable. Obama rode a populist wave before his first election, one marked by a remarkable inclusiveness. Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published three novels, including “Americanah,” which is being made into a ﬁlm.