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A child's guide to dealing with racism

Explaining Donald Sterling, racism & the KKK to the author's granddaughter.

I've been taking my 9-year-old granddaughter on educational outings this spring. We've toured the Boeing plant in Everett, spelunked the Seattle Underground tour, wandered through the Miró show at the Seattle Art Museum and learned about Seattle's baseball heritage at the "Pitch Black" exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum.

My granddaughter was quite taken with the highlight reel at "Pitch Black" of Ken Griffey, Jr. She knows nothing whatsoever about baseball, but even she was entranced by the Kid's magic. She wanted to know how old he was, when he played. She was trying to put him in some kind of context. She was also intrigued by some group portraits of women on a black women's softball team from the 1930s, the Owls. She looked carefully at their faces to see who seemed happy to be there, and who not.

That scrutiny is not surprising. My granddaughter is African American, and I have been learning a lot about race in Seattle through her eyes. For a time she was in first grade at a Bainbridge Island elementary, one of the only children of color there. One day after school we found her trying to rub off her brown skin. She so wanted to be like all the other kids.

Whites are often eager to declare that we are beyond race and that racism is over, that the color of one's skin is secondary to the content of one's character, but that simply isn't the case. Barack Obama is of mixed parentage, but society picked his racial identity for him.

So too with my granddaughter, who was called the "N" word by a man on Broadway when she was still in a stroller. He was an African American man who, seeing my granddaughter and her white mother, apparently wanted to cut through any illusions. The idea that people have a choice about race is still unrealistic. Society pegs you early and often.

On another outing, my granddaughter and I went to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where we had a great time. There's a fabulous diorama there with model trains where you can look down godlike on a miniature Tacoma. My granddaughter said she wished the people in the display were real and she could be their superhero and take care of them.

We also went to see another exhibit, "Civil War Pathways," that documents the Washington Territory's life and times during the war. Washington's founders fought on both sides of that war, and the issues of slavery were hotly debated here. Last year, I participated in a crowd-sourced research project that scoured 19th-century newspapers to create a database of Civil War-era activities here. Washington Territory was geographically remote from the battles, but not the politics of slavery, secession and union.

My granddaughter asked basic questions about the displays, for example, why were uniforms blue and gray? She was very interested in the life mask of Abe Lincoln from 1860, and we talked about how and why such things were made. She was happy to learn that a slave boy in Olympia, Charles Mitchell, was rescued and escaped to Canada. At the end of the exhibit, she came upon a baffling display — a mannequin in a blue satin Ku Klux Klan robe. "What's that?" she wanted to know.

I found myself trying to explain in basic terms what the Klan was without terrifying her. I got kind of tongue-tied explaining their prejudice against African Americans, burning crosses, terrorism. I tried to say that this was mostly in the past, while acknowledging that they still exist, but are not as powerful as they once were.

Still, on the wall was a photograph of hundreds of hooded Klan members filling a Seattle ballroom in the 1920s. How do you explain all this to a girl whose main topic of conversation is her love for her pet bunny, Mr. Marshmallow?


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 7:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I always love your stories Skip, but this one particularly got to me. Thanks for this evocative depiction of trying to make sense of the nonsensical. I like your granddaughter's way with words. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 7:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Amazing insight for a 9 yr old. Come to think of it amazing insight for one of any age. I can see you're proud of your wise beyond her age grand-daughter.

It will be your joy to see where life's journey takes her. As a southerner by birth, I particularly enjoyed her KKK comment. Wish I had thought of that one.

gumbojoe

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I'll share this article with my own kids. Thanks, Knute.

tromo

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article.


If you want an interesting cultural experience, try vacationing in The South as a mixed-race couple. America isn't a racist country but there are still too many racists running around.


Yet at the same time, more and more interracial families are forming, and through procreation, slowly obliterating the concept of race as a useful measure of anything. In a millennium, or sooner, race will be a quaint tribal construct that will have no relevance in that modern world.


And here's one for the white supremacists: Recent genetic research suggests that the reason that Asians and Caucasians have light skin is because their ancestors were "slumming it" with Neanderthals. Master Race, indeed!

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

"America isn't a racist country" -- Not true at all. Racism is more than personal intent, it is also institutional. By almost any measure you can think of, from health to wealth to rates of school punishment, U.S. is demonstrably racist in that the metric is worse for most categories of people of color. In some cases extremely so.

louploup

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Be careful not to conflate race and culture. Correlation is not causation.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

http://academic.udayton.edu/race/2008electionandracism/raceandracism/racism02.htm
("Any action, intentional or unintentional, that is based on race or skin color and that subordinates an individual or group based on skin color or race is racism. Racism can be enacted individually or institutionally....")

louploup

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 1:31 p.m. Inappropriate

So, the "Institutional Racism" referred to in the linked article would be something along the lines of Affirmative Action?

dbreneman

Posted Sun, May 4, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Thx for your comment and link to Randall's article. Too often we skip right over phrases like that...if we are the privileged

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, thank you for your powerful article and for showing how our Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest exhibit became a part of your conversation with your granddaughter. Truly moving. - Washington State History Museum

historywa

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

The sound of your name, the color of your skin and your gender remain powerful American markers that no one chooses. True, we have come a long way in my lifetime starting with the Holocaust and Jackie Robinson's first game in Brooklyn. The stories of the cultural outings with your granddaughter call out how much more insidious racism, sexism and antisemitism are than when I was a child and, on the occasion of my granddaughter's birth last Sunday, how critically needed our vigilance is today. Thank you.

MJH

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