My wife went to the library last week and checked out a ton of books about Martin Luther King, Jr. in preparation for Martin Luther King Day. This past weekend I read one of these stories each evening to my kids. It was such a profound experience for me to watch them absorb the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was profound and kinda heartbreaking, especially watching my two girls (both are five). When I got to the part where Martin (as the story lovingly refers to him) gets shot, all eyes and mouths at the table were open and full of shock. I felt like this was the first time that my girls connected with how deeply hatred for a person’s skin color can run.
If you didn’t know, my daughters are both African American. And I’m just a white dude.
I used to work for a foster agency where I trained incoming foster families. In that training there was a self reflection exercise I would take everyone through. I gave each person a bowl of various colored beads and wrote on a pad what each color represented (white for Caucasian, black for African American, green for Asia/Pacific, red for American Indian, etc.). Then I would ask a series of questions and for each answer the participants would pick a bead that best represented their answer. The questions went like this:
1. What race are you?
2. What is the race of your family?
3. My coworkers where I work are mostly ______?
4. My closest friend is _______?
5. The actors in movies I prefer are mostly______.
It goes on for quite a while. If you want to do this Bead Racial Awareness Exercise, I would encourage it. Almost everyone I took through the exercise were surprised by the results. When I took it the first time I was pretty floored. In all the times I hosted this exercise one thing stood out: everyone’s cup was overwhelmingly filled with beads of their own race. It didn’t matter which race the person was. Their cup looked like them.
The thing is, my classes weren’t full of racist people. The majority of them were even open to lovingly take care of a child of any race. They wanted to be racially diverse. They thought they were racially diverse. But their cups told them a different story, a story that made them uncomfortable.
The sad thing for me is that if I were to take this test today, the results would not be much different from the first time I took it. My cup is still painfully homogenous.
Race has been an ongoing discussion in our home, but especially in this past year. Partly because our girls are getting older, partly because there have been so many stories around the globe concerning race this past year. We have had discussions with all of our kids about discrimination, trying to prepare them so that when they see it (or experience it) they will be brave and proud and compassionate and not let the hate of others define who they see themselves as. But it’s not easy to convey the culture of a race that I’m not a part of myself.
I know I can’t keep racism from the lives of my kids (although I do have this dream of moving to Europe where the climate for race seems to be different, not perfect but different). My goal isn’t to shield them from the bad things of this world. But I want them to be surrounded by opportunities to see themselves in the people around them so that they can dream about their own lives with confidence. By seeing people you identify with doing things you think are incredible you begin to feel that you can be incredible too. I want that for them so badly.
As the father of a transracial family I can’t afford to be complacent about this, I can’t have a homogenous cup. My dream is that my little girls would grow up in a place where they can find heroes in our everyday life who look like them. Let me be clear, I am not saying that they should only look up to people that look like them, but I’m saying I want heroes who look like them to be available – and that’s not going to happen if I don’t make a life for them that is full of diversity.
My cup of beads that has so many white beads doesn’t mean I’m racist, but it does mean I lack diversity. Also, the fact that there is so little change in that cup over the past few years may also mean this: I’m a bit lazy when it comes to pursuing racial diversity. Maybe even uncomfortable. But regardless of the inner hurtle that is within me, I have to make the jump. I’m responsible for these little lives and I can’t let them down.
This morning I’ve been thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It’s made me ask, ‘What is my dream?’ My dream is that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream become real. I dream that my kids would grow up to be people who dare to dream and feel that their dream is possible and work to make it happen.
Photo by Anne.