Two summers ago, I was sitting outside watching my blonde-haired, blue-eyed toddler studying a beetle and thinking about how he is starting to absorb things in the world around him. I was half-way through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and had briefly paused to reflect on the author’s words. Surely, I can’t be the only stay-at-home mother in my suburban neighborhood reading this remarkable book? I thought to myself. There are other white, middle-class, middle-aged women taking the time to read this remarkable piece of literature, right?
Talking about race matters. The Civil Rights Era may be behind us, however many tragic events are still occurring to remind us that we have a long way to go before our days of racism are truly behind us. Look at what just happened in the capitol of Mississippi as the senate runoff election was nearing, wherein a white Republican woman was running against a black Democratic man–seven nooses found hanging. While this infuriates me, I can’t help but feel sad as I wonder how events like this shape our children’s minds–in an unfortunate, negative way. As a former history teacher, I felt it was necessary to teach my students–most of whom were white, middle-class adolescents–about the true history of racism in our nation. And am not so sure that sugar-coating or omitting much of the facts is helpful when it comes to the reality of racial relations then and now.
Children of all ages, especially Middle and high school-aged students gain great insight from approaching topics that allow them to utilize their critical-thinking skills. These events were atrocious and almost always policies put on paper by our government: the intentional, governmental policies of the 1800s wherein indigenous people were forced West and subjected to cruelty, discrimination, and subjugation; Chinese-Americans who were targeted and whose homes and businesses were destroyed, such as the Tacoma Riot; the tragic internment of Japanese-Americans; the policy of separating Central American migrant parents from their children that occurred over the past year.
Like many others raised in Central New York, as well as other parts of rural America, I grew up in a mostly-white, heteronormative community. I’ve seen a black lawn jockey displayed on a lawn in front of a house owned and inhabited by white folk right here in North Syracuse. And I’ve met a few self-proclaimed “country boys” with confederate flag tattoos despite neither having left Central New York nor been south of the Mason Dixon Line. Unlike the homes of many of my childhood friends, the home in which I was raised offered me many lessons on diversity.
My mother traveled to West Africa as a teen—probably viewed by many back home as “just another overprivileged, white girl” at the boarding school where she both lived and learned for a few years.
As a child, I remember repeatedly pleading with my mother to show me her big album full of photos from Africa. I loved to look at the faded, square pictures featuring her and her sister; some taken in the jungle showing her jumping off cliffs seventy-feet above deep pools of water and others taken in the village depicting her lying beside a friend in a grass-woven hut…a big smile plastered on her youthful face. Africa was part of our home—art on the walls and knick-knacks from the Upper Volta region—and it had a big impact on my mother’s perspective on life, as well as on mine as a result of her influence. I was shaped by my parents’ appreciation for others’ cultures.
I never really met anyone of color for most of my childhood and adolescence. Growing up in a region where de facto segregation seemed to me to be the norm, and communities around me appeared mostly white, left me completely unfamiliar with a world in which people of color existed. I can actually count on one hand the instances wherein I interacted with people who were other-than-white and, looking back, that’s disturbing. In my elementary school, I remember there being two people of color, but I never really got to know them. I never had an asian classmate, however I did have an elderly teacher when I was in seventh grade who made sure we all knew that her brother was a U.S. sailor who died during the Attack on Pearl Harbor and that “all Japs are bad and cannot be trusted.” I did get to know one of our school’s foreign exchange students one year, who was a teen from Brazil. Come my junior year of high school, I had the privilege of working with an extremely friendly, young man from Africa at my part-time job and, in my junior year of college, I became friends with a classmate from Kenya. In my 20s, I was fortunate to have traveled a bit and met all kinds of people; I once lived near Houston and New York City, and visited Chicago. I’ll never forget touring The Dusable Museum of African American History. I didn’t think twice about the color of my own skin, but instead found myself captivated by a history of a people different than mine, which was both unfortunate and remarkable at the same time. I wonder if the fact that I was deprived of experiences with people different than me as a youth was the main reason I was drawn to them as an adult.
Regardless of demographics, my parents had always made me aware of the struggles of people of color when I was growing up. Lessons on the tragic history of the Amerindian people and talk of the Civil Rights Era occurred pretty often in our home. The news was usually on nightly and I remember reports on the Reverend Jesse Jackson preaching and politicking. I was probably about seven years old when I asked my mother—with a serious tone—what the struggle was about? I had no clue. Ten years after that, I witnessed racism first-hand for the first-time, when I discovered messages printed on stickers by our local branch of the Ku Klux Klan placed on mirrors of the restrooms at my workplace in the Mohawk Valley. The stickers were identical and read “You have been visited by the KKK and we don’t like what we see. Don’t make the next visit personal.” Clearly the Kenyan college student who I worked with had been targeted, which left me sad because he was such a wonderful human being. That was a moment that has yet to fade from my memory.
I would like to say that there is great diversity for those of us living in Central New York, but sadly most of the opportunities for connecting with, and learning hands-on about, people of different races and ethnicities are typically limited to our few urban centers. And even then, diversity is dependent upon where one resides, for there are many microcosms within all cities. I certainly celebrate the fact that both Syracuse and Utica harbor refugees from around the world, for it works in favor of diversity. However, admit that I am quite stunned by our city’s problems that plague it’s residents. It bothers me that the likelihood that my children are going to have frequent opportunities to interact with children of different races and colors in my present suburban neighborhood is slim. And this is far from happenstance, as you can see when data is properly examined such as in this document. So, we frequently visit the city’s downtown library and many parks and playgrounds on the Southside,where our chances of exposing our children to diversity is more likely to happen. I also participated in a photo walk this past summer that was endorsed by The Stand newspaper, which is a community paper for residents in the Southside. When I got home, edited, and printed my photos, I shared them with my children and talked to them about each moment. In a few years, I will be taking them with me when I take my camera to do street photography, so they can experience it, too.
Our family also hosts a Fresh Air Fund kiddo every summer, which is just a great opportunity all the way around. We plan to continue to do this for many years to come. There is such value in appreciating diversity and value the differences that exist in all of our communities. If you want to start the conversation in your home, read to your kids—books about other cultures and stories that feature people of color.
And talk about issues that impact all different spheres of our society. If you are not sure how, check out this resource. Bring them to the various ethnic festivals that run throughout the year in and around our city and encourage them to try new foods. Every September is Syracuse’s Westcott Street Cultural Fair, where one can find Mexican, Korean, Japanese, and Greek cuisines. Take advantage of the many Amerindian festivals in Central New York that showcase traditional dance, art, and native cuisine.
Poet Audre Lorde put it best: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”