As many of you know, I have been practicing naming race reactively and proactively with my children ever since I discovered Sachi Feris’ incredible website Raising Race Conscious Children. I’ve gone from having no idea what to say when my toddler called me racist to having some tools in my tool belt to engage in age appropriate conversations with my 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. Naming race still feels somewhat unnatural but I’m here to attest that it does get easier. Even my husband is starting to use race conscious language. After describing the race of a character in a book to our son, my husband turned to me, wide-eyed with pride and gave me a thumbs up from across the room. Progress.
Two recent interactions with adults, however, made me realize that while it might be a little awkward to talk to my kids about race, it is infinitely more tenuous to name race with other adults. To be clear, I’m talking about naming race in situations where I am directly asked to describe someone. I am NOT talking about the practice of naming a person of color’s race in a conversation where mentioning race is not only unnecessary but often implies bias.
For instance, “we were at a party and this black bartender served us the strongest drinks!” I hear commentary like this all the time amongst my white peers, even though including the bartender’s race is completely irrelevant to the story. In our society, any skin color that is not white is the ‘other’. Had the bartender been white, race would most likely not be mentioned because white is the default or assumed race. If I use descriptions like red hair or blue eyes, my audience knows I’m referring to a white person without me having to name it. For the purposes of this post, I am discussing my discomfort in naming race when someone asks me what another person looks like.
The first interaction occurred as I was dropping my son off at school. I mentioned to his teacher that his nanny, a woman she had never met, would be picking him up.
“Okay! Let me write down her name. And what does she look like?” the teacher asked me.
My face went blank and I felt my blood pressure rise.
“Um…well…”, I struggled, feeling caught off guard on being asked to describe our nanny. The teacher, who is white like me, immediately sensed my discomfort and started to back track.
“That’s okay. I’ll figure it out!” She exclaimed, attempting to let me off the hook. In the mere seconds of this interaction, I recognized my avoidance and I countered back with, “she’s white, with brown hair and blue eyes.” Even though I could have left out her race due to the “white as default” reality described above, I forced myself to name her race.
The second encounter happened while I was dress shopping for an upcoming wedding at a local department store. As I was checking out, the woman at the register, who happened to be black, asked me if I had been assisted by a sales clerk. Indeed I had, but I couldn’t remember the woman’s name and panicked because I didn’t want to have to mention her race, which was also black. Yet again, I stammered, blushed (a regular occurrence that I loathe so much) and began naming any other designator I could think of until the sales clerk happened to walk by and relieved, I pointed her out.
In the first interaction, I was eventually able to name race because I have a relationship with the teacher and our nanny is white. Saying someone is white to another white person when I myself am white feels safe. With the sales clerk scenario, I did not feel safe and my courage faltered. The sales clerk, as well as the woman behind the registrar, was black and I was petrified pointing out skin color might be construed as offensive. I didn’t know how using race as a descriptor would be received, so I avoided, turned red and my obvious discomfort perhaps caused offense anyway.
I’ve read the research that says being “colorblind”, or pretending you don’t see race, is a modern-day form of racism and I buy into that theory. I don’t want to accept white as the default for how I see and describe the world around me. I have three decades worth of misinformation to unravel, however, and it’s not happening at any fast clip. I was taught to be colorblind, to never bring up race, and my discomfort in simply stating a person’s race, particularly a black person’s race, to accurately identify them is a reflection of our society.
Honestly, I’m unsure how to reconcile all of this information into action. Do I go forth and name race when appropriate? Will I offend someone if I name their race? How do I model naming race for my children outside of the safety net of a conversation between just us? I don’t have the answers to these questions and I’d love to learn from you all. Do you feel comfortable using race as a descriptor with other adults? Have you had similar interactions to the ones I describe above? How did you handle them?