Thursday, April 8, 2010

For the children

The other day my massage therapist made a comment that got me thinking: "Every thought you have is lodging in the cells of your body."

That idea connected with something an artist, Joel Rivers, commented on my February 25 post on white privilege (it's worth reading his entire comment here): "You have to do a lot of soul-searching, and view your conditioning dispassionately in order to confront any prejudices that hide in there. As an artist, they WILL come out, and people WILL notice."

This all relates in my mind to why the exploration of what you've internalized about race is so important if you're working with children - as a parent, a children's book creator, a teacher, a librarian, a child care provider, in any other capacity. No matter how unaware we are or how we try to compensate, children pick up on what's in our minds, often without our even knowing it.

In February I had a conversation with Rupert Brown, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex, who has been conducting studies in prejudice, stereotypes and changing intergroup attitudes for thirty years. He reported that studies of families had shown that children express explicitly the implicit views of their mothers (interestingly, the fathers' views didn't have as much influence). In other words, no matter what the mother said, her children ended up absorbing the unconscious messages she was communicating, and holding these views consciously.

Yikes! What an argument for getting to know the inside of your own mind.

If we're uncomfortable about race, the children we live and work with will pick this up, no matter how we try to hide it. It will leak out of our cells, through our odd voice tones, our panicked eyes, our stiff and practiced smiles, our earnestness, our effortful and careful sentence structure, our trying too hard. They will take in our tension, our brittleness, our tiptoeing about the subject, our silences - in our bodies or our books.

And they will internalize the lessons: Race is difficult, dangerous, to be avoided. Or even: People of other races are difficult, dangerous, to be avoided. Instead of creating the world we all long for, we will have passed on the toxic patterns of the one we have.

Children need us to give them water, nourishing, life-affirming. Yet so often around the subject of race, we are like ice. We need to let go of our resistance, to melt. If we can't figure out a way to do this work for ourselves, let us do it for the children.


Mama C said...

The other day at the park I noticed that tightening in myself when a family that was "different" from ours in language, dress, skin color, etc etc started playing with my son's soccer ball. I had this "go get ball" instinct. Instead Sam (5) went over and joined in the game. Then Marcel (2.5) and I joined in too. In minutes with no common language two families were playing soccer. Reading your post allows me to own that instinctive pull away feeling. And, how uncomfortable I still get passing through that feeling. What am I worried will happen? SO wild.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

I'm trying to be a witness to my inner mind, not a judge. So that when I discover one of these less-than-desirable responses in myself, I gather it like a clue to a puzzle I'm chasing, rather than a damning piece of evidence of something shameful.

It makes me uncomfortable, too, but the brain researchers are telling us this stuff is universal - simply how human brains work. White people have to grapple with the power piece, from being socialized as the dominant group. But simply having the brain register otherness is a universal human response, not something to blame ourselves for.

As you're example shows, the more we register the involuntary reaction and the tightening, the more we can choose to soften, extend ourselves, and go join in the game.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Typo - I mean, as YOUR example shows.