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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Identity Talk

We were driving up Germantown Avenue when Luke asked if Halloween was a long way away because he was hoping his hair would be long enough to have a thin pony tail in back like the jedis in training because next Halloween Luke wants to be a spy/jedi (a combination Luke says no one has ever been for Halloween before). Luke’s hair is already pretty shaggy, so I said if he lets me cut most of it for summer, he can keep a thin pony tail in back.

It’s not that often that Megan sweetly offers to help her younger brother, so there was something touching about it when she said, “Luke, if you’re ever going out and don’t want people to see your pony tail you could borrow my bobby pins and pin it up.” However genuine her intentions, Megan’s offer included the implication that there was something embarrassing about a boy with a pony tail, a point that Luke picked up on and decided to challenge. Soon they were embroiled in a backseat argument over whether boys should have long hair.

Luke (who is now seven) held his ground. He named men who had long hair. He argued that no one should have the right to tell him he couldn’t have long hair. He pointed out that there were some things that mostly boys liked, but that didn’t mean that girls couldn’t like them too, just as there were things that mostly girls liked, but that didn’t mean boys couldn’t like them too. This was probably the most articulate argument Luke had ever made, so when Megan was unconvinced, I decided to weigh in.

“You know, Megan,” I said. “A long time ago girls weren’t allowed to wear pants. I bet you wouldn’t have liked it if you were told you couldn’t wear pants.”

“That is exactly what this is like,” said Luke, obviously feeling vindicated.

I’m enjoying this new phase of childhood when they can really say what they think, even if I don’t always agree with them. When Megan saw that I was reading the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? she said confidently, “Well, that’s not true in my school.” Even on the days when children didn’t have to follow the teacher-assigned seating, Megan pointed out, everyone sat together. “Except for the boys and girls,” she added with a giggle. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this book says the real racial segregation typically starts in adolescence.

I am finding Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book to be very thought provoking and well written (as opposed to some of the academic literature I’ve been reading lately). Some of my favorite parts so far are when she answers her son’s questions. For example, once when he was four and had asked a question about race in the supermarket, Tatum, who is African American, gave a response that led to the great kingdoms of Africa. Her son interrupted, “If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?” Tatum hadn’t planned to explain slavery in the supermarket, but her response was truthful, simple, and expressed the dignity of all those who resisted slavery along with the unfairness. I wish my supermarket answers were as well put as hers.

Tonight at dinner Megan mentioned that two of her classmates did a presentation on slavery, which led my children to speculate on how nice they would have been to their slaves had they ever had any. When I explained that their was no such thing as owning someone nicely, they switched to the word “servant” and assured me that if they ever had servants they would pay them really well and let them have lots of time off. (Luke added that he would like to have a butler, but when he gave the job description it sounded suspiciously like what I already do for free.) What struck me, and what I pointed out to them, was that they were both assuming that they would be the owners/employers, not the slaves/servants. When I asked them to imagine being a slave and then to imagine hearing someone say, “I’ll be really nice to you and let you have some time off,” they immediately saw the other side of it.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” is mostly about identity development. Thinking about our family’s recent conversations it’s clear that at seven and nine, my children already have internalized many messages about their roles in the world, both in terms of gender and race. I take some encouragement from Tatum:
Our children’s questions may make us uncomfortable, and we may not have a ready response. But even a missed opportunity can be revisited at another time. It is never too late to say, “I’ve been thinking about that question you asked me the other day…” We have the responsibility, and the resources available, to educate ourselves if necessary so that we will not repeat the cycle of oppression with our children.


Blogger Libby said...

I read a chunk of Tatum's book earlier this year--thanks for reminding me that I want to finish it. It's interesting, isn't it, how the kids are not (truly) fazed by the boy/girl segregation but would be by racial divisions. I think my kids are/were the same way.

11:12 AM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

Thanks for reminding me of the book too, Eileen. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where Beverly Daniel Tatum teaches. (Or did at the time she wrote the book, anyway. I don't know for sure if she's still there.) I've always meant to read it, but never got around to it. Now that I've got a daughter who is approaching the hard-question-asking stage, I think it's time!


10:15 AM  

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