I once said in an earlier blog post, and have said many times to friends and family, that one of the things I’m thankful for regarding Finn’s blindness, is that he can’t see skin color and thus, won’t judge people based on color or other appearance-based information. I now know that this was both naïve and wrong of me to believe.
Following George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of research, reading, self-examination and listening. One thing, among many, that has really been a lesson for me is that “not seeing color”, something I’ve more than once been proud to claim, is not the goal in achieving racial equality. Rather, the Black community and other racial minority groups want so badly to be seen. The key is, they want to be seen, they want their differences and struggles to be known, AND they want to be treated fairly and equally. I now recognize that ignoring one’s race is only perpetuating systemic racial prejudices, as well as the idea that being white means being normal.
This has been a real shift in perspective for me. And this shift in perspective has taught me that I need to adjust some of my parenting tactics as well. With Finn, I work to teach him colors by saying “grass is green” or “the sky is blue” so he can begin to understand that objects in the world have distinct differences beyond texture, taste or sound. What he imagines green or blue to be in his mind is known only to him, but I want him to know that the world is full of different colors and that diversity is a wonderful, beautiful thing. What I’ve failed to do is point out to him that people come in different colors too. I’ve never once mentioned his skin color or anyone else’s to him, and this was purposeful. I thought I was doing the right thing — that I was allowing him to view all people (or characters in the books we read) on an even playing field and to make his own judgments about them based on only their words, actions, or his interactions with them. I no longer ascribe to the belief that being “color blind” is doing him, or those who may be treated unfairly due to the color of their skin, a service. The reality is we don’t reside on an even playing field and my child, blind or not, is going to figure that out.
A friend of mine told me a story recently of her 10-year-old daughter asking, if she ever wanted to marry someone of a different skin color than her own one day, would my friend approve? My friend replied something along the lines of, “Of course! As long as he/she treats you well, then you marry whomever you want!” My friend is one of the most kind, non-racist people I know, and yet her daughter still felt the need to ask. Why? Because my friend has remained mostly silent on the topic of race with her child, just as I have with mine, in an effort to not draw attention to it or make it “an issue.” Despite this, her daughter has still deduced somewhere along the way that an interracial relationship might not be acceptable. She didn’t automatically know that her mother would approve. This is the difference in being non-racist and anti-racist. We have to talk to our children about racism and we have to tell them that we are against it in every way, and what our role is in not perpetuating it. Luckily, my friend’s daughter asked the question and didn’t make her own assumptions. But many children won’t ever ask. In the absence of direct conversation, our children are left to make their own assumptions or gather information from other sources that may not be aligned with the values we hope to instill in them. We have to tell them.
My blind son may not see differences with his eyes, but he will see them. He will learn them just like he learns everything else. In fact, in part of my research recently I discovered a study from 2015 that found that although it may take blind people longer to categorize people by race, they often still develop racial stereotypes. As he grows up, Finn is going to be out in the world more, encountering new people and places other than those in the small circle he lives in now. He’s going to learn about the world from many sources other than us, or the things we present to him, and I never want him to mistake my silence on the topic for underlying prejudice.
We can’t protect our children from the prejudices that they will encounter, whether it be through classmates they meet, books they read, music they listen to or television they watch, but we can talk openly with them, make our beliefs known and control the narrative as much as possible. It’s on us as parents to make our children know from the start that there are differences of all kinds, that we see those differences, that we celebrate those differences, and that we do not support racism, sexism, ableism or any other “isms” of any kind. Ignoring these topics does not make them go away, does not make them a non-issue, and does not serve those on the receiving end. We have to tell them.
So how do we start? For us, it’s starting with direct dialogue and representation in our home. Recently we started explaining to Finn what his skin is, that it has a color, that everyone has skin, but not everyone has the same skin color. We talk about the people and other children in our lives who have different skin color than us and how these differences make the world a better place. We also took stock of Finn and Sloane’s book collection and unsurprisingly realized that it is overwhelmingly representative of us and people like us. Immediately we ordered a collection of children’s books reflecting races, histories, cultures and skin colors other than our own to read to Finn and his sister.
My son has his own physical differences and I want people to see him for exactly who he is – a sensitive, sweet, blind boy while also treating him the same as they would a sensitive, sweet, sighted boy. I’ve never wanted his blindness to be ignored, unseen, or not talked about. In fact, I’ve often hoped that there are parents out there reading books to their sighted children that include representation of little boys and girls holding a cane or reading Braille. And I hope they are telling their children to be kind, fair and to listen to kids they encounter in the real world like Finn. Why didn’t I realize sooner that the Black community would want the same?
Finn is not yet even 3 and Sloane not yet 1 so we know there is a limit to what they can understand right now, but this is only the beginning. We plan to teach our children about not only color differences, but the different lived experiences (good and bad) that often come with them, just as we will teach Finn about his own. We will teach our children to not just be non-racists, but to be anti-racists. We will teach them that the word ally is a verb – with it, there must come action and that silence is inaction. We will teach them to stand up and say something when they encounter injustices in the world. We will teach them that events like the murder of George Floyd are not just single events where “one bad person did a bad thing” – but, that there are institutional and systemic prejudices, alongside inequality of resources, at the root. There’s much more work to be done, definitely including my own, but this is a starting point for how we hope to move the needle with our children and make sure they don’t go into the world color blind.
Below is a link to several books for young children to help start the discussion about race. I’ve also linked an article about how to choose the right anti-racist media for your children. Finally, I’ve linked an episode from a new series on Instagram called Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man that briefly addresses the issue of color blindness.