I was listening to a piece on NPR regarding a new blog project, Code Switch. It is going to be discussing race and how we talk about it, among other things. As usual, my mind started drifting and crunching what I was listening to, and I started thinking about the ways I think and speak about race, and how I have thought and spoken in the past. I was born in the 70s, and grew up in the 80s, in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.
And I am white.
I mean, White. I have never been Caucasian, except on government forms. I have never been Anglo. Unlike my parents, I was never really a Gringo, even when we lived in South America, because I was too busy being “bebé”. I can’t pass for anything but White, as I wear my grandmother’s Irish parentage pretty clearly with translucent pale skin, an abundance of freckles, and hair that started strawberry blonde and ended, as my husband once told me, as raspberry brown.
And for me, that is where the race discussion has always ended. If you grew up as a White girl in the South, but the DEEP South, in the 80s; then that is where the conversation ended. “I am White.” We were told that everyone was the same, so we shouldn’t point out differences. It’s not nice. It’s not polite. It’s not true. What was communicated to me, on a much deeper level, was that we still had to pay for the sins of our forebears who we never met. For slavery, for the ludicrousness that was “separate, but equal”, for the invention of a thousand ways to say “you’re not White, so you’re not good enough”. Pointing out that someone was not White was equated with being a racist in my mind. The weight of hundreds of years of racial inequality was pushed onto the shoulders of an elementary school child.
And it still paralyzes my speech.
And I know that by now, you are wondering – “What the heck does this have to do with Girl Scouts? I mean, nice story and all, but seriously what does this have to do with my Troop?” Because today’s kids are different. They are so amazingly, unbelievably different.
My troop is teaching me how to talk about race.
They don’t realize it, and they wouldn’t believe it if I told them. My daughter has the advantage of going to a school far more balanced than any of the schools I went to, and of having a Girl Scout Troop that has girls whose parents are from India and Pakistan, girls whose parents are African American and Hispanic, girls who are blonde and blue eyed, and girls who belong to almost every major religion on the planet – not just the mega church down the street.
It has always seemed like the kids who weren’t White were allowed to talk about race beyond a single word. In the 80s, the conversation in the African American community over the relative darkness of a person’s skin was such an intense discussion that it even became a huge part of movies. But now the girls in my Troop who would have been called Black in my day, say that that is a negative word and would like to be called African American, and the South Asian girls freely use the adjective “brown” to describe themselves, and my daughter is not scowled at when she joins in the conversation and uses the same words.
As I would have been. Or at least, I felt I would have been.
We have to talk about diversity in our group – HAVE to. We have girls who are Christian, who are Muslim, who are Hindu, who are still searching. We have girls who are athletes and girls accepted into the Gifted and Talented Academy. We have cheerleaders and hikers and video game nuts and artists and girls who are just really really good at being a friend. So we have to talk about diversity when we discuss camping meals, and when we talk about when we are going to do activities (Sunday mornings are out, but so are Friday nights for similar reason).
I have to talk about race to the parents, as well. My childhood taught me that I don’t get to decide what race another person is. Only that person gets to decide that (or their parents, in the case of my Troop).
When my Troop was Daisies, we got a new girl whose parents were from India and Pakistan, the first in our Troop. I had to ask her mom how to classify her (we are partnered with our local United Way, which means we are required to keep track of racial diversity), because on the forms I only get the choice of White, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic. Her mother told me that they often have this problem of classification. They prefer to be known as South Asian when you have to have a non-religious, semi-geographical, group name. But the forms don’t have this option. So they choose either White or Asian, neither of which is right.
I have to have discussions with the girls who are mixed race, and find out which of the races their parents would like me to mark, because I can only mark one. And it is a hard conversation to have with a mom who wants her daughter to identify with both of the rich cultures represented in her as fully as possible, to figure out some way to be both African American AND White, or African American AND Hispanic. And that mom, who decided to marry the man she wanted to marry regardless of the taboo and who is constantly having that internal monologue of “how to I raise my children to be both”, has to understand that I love her daughter for who she is, for both sides of her, and for all the sides of her that are not related to her race. But I have to reduce her to a number to be counted. A number which defines her and insults her.
It was easier when I was a kid. Everything – and everyone – was black and white. But I think my girls are never going to get the same paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing and coming across as a racist that I have. And I think that maybe, by the time I am proudly giving them their Gold Awards, neither will I.