What I am learning from my white grandchildren — truths about race | Anthony Peterson | TEDxAntioch

What I am learning from my white grandchildren — truths about race | Anthony Peterson | TEDxAntioch

November 17, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Priscilla R. A.
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Damon was five years old
when he asked his Aunt Lily the question: “Lily … am I black or am I white?” I don’t know if his Aunt Lily
was surprised by the question. She said, “Well, your mum is white
and your dad is white, so you’re white.” I’m pretty sure
that was not the right answer, because Damon said, “Well,
when I grow up, I’m going to be black.” (Laughter) Damon was not confused
by his basic colors. So, why would a five-year-old
ask such a strange question? He already knew that it mattered. And at five years old,
he’d already attached value to race. And he wanted answers to questions
that we don’t want to answer. But we have to start answering
race questions, and we have to start answering
with the truth. We tell children that race is real
but that race doesn’t matter, and the opposite is actually true. Race is not real, but race does matter. If that sounds crazy to you,
think about the evidence. I was in sixth grade, living in Hawaii, when I decided I was going
to be an anthropologist; I wanted to study human cultures. To support my decision, my parents bought me the book
“The Color of Man,” by Robert Cohen. And I learned from that book
that our skin color is determined by the amount of pigment in our skin,
especially the pigment “melanin.” Dark skin people have a lot of melanin,
lighter-skin people have less. So while the differences
in our skin color are very real, anthropologists long ago rejected the idea
of races connected to skin color. There is no culture in color. There are no muscular or mental abilities
connected to melanin. There are no character traits, no virtues, no vices, no values
connected to skin color. Yet from a very early age, when our children
are just learning their colors, they pick up that skin color is different
from all other kinds of color, and we don’t tell them why. Elliot loves the human body, and it’s not that normal kind of
four-year-old obsession with body parts. There is Elliot, (Laughter) and his love of the human body. He was instructing me
in anatomy a couple months ago. He told me all
about the respiratory system, the part that the lungs
and the diaphragm play, and he told me all
about the digestive system, what the esophagus and the stomach
and the large and small intestines do, and he told me that the brain
is the control center for the entire body. (Laughter) (Applause) If you were with him, or if he were here, he would instruct you as well, and he might even draw you a picture. (Cheering) Well, I was getting
a little bored with the lecture, so I stopped him. I said, “Elliot, what color is my skin?” Without even looking at me,
he said, “It’s black.” Then I said, “What color is your skin?” There was a long pause. And then he said, “Grey?” Grey? If we pay attention, we can catch
our children in mid-indoctrination. Elliot had figured out
that my brown skin is called “black,” but he had not yet been schooled
in what to call the color of his own skin. And he had not been told why we call this brown “black,”
and that pinkish color “white.” Of course, our notions of race
go beyond skin color to other physical traits and abilities. I learned the word anthropology
from my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Wey. My best friend Ted and I – “TED” – (Laughter) used to stay after school
with Mr. Wey and pick his brain. And one of those days, Mr. Wey told us
about a U.S. senator who believed that black people were not very bright,
but they could run fast and jump high. And as the three of us talked about it and thought about the students
in our multicultural classroom, we had to laugh because the intellectual
and academic stereotypes did not fit the people in our class. And the athletic stereotypes
faired even worse. (Laughter) We also believe that race
is somehow connected to bloodlines. And we believe that bloodlines
trace back to three or five pure races. But again, the science
does not back that up. There are no pure races. I apologize for giving you all old news. This is old news. This is not something
of the domain of these elite experts, and we’ve known it for a long time, but most of us don’t know it. Because in our lived realities, we follow
a stubbornly ingrained false narrative. So, if race is not real,
why talk about it? We certainly have a number
of reasons to avoid race talk. We believe that any mention of race means that there is going
to be heroes and villains, angels and demons, winners and losers. We believe that someone
is going to be called a racist. We might believe that someone
should be called a racist. We don’t agree on what racism is;
we don’t even agree on what race is. We believe that race is the domain
of some people and not other people. And we believe that any mention of race
only exaggerates our differences, minimises our similarities
and exacerbates our problems. But we must talk about it anyway. In her TED Talk –
Color blind or color brave? – Mellody Hobson lays out
the case for pursuing racial diversity in all of our encounters,
beginning with businesses and boardrooms. And she gives us that charge
for the sake of the children. Well, recent studies have told us
where children get their racial ideas. Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli describe what they found
in a study of white parents and their white adolescent children. They interviewed the parents
and the children both separately and together, and they found that the parents
reported teaching their children: do not be racist, do not talk about race, do not use the word black, and do not notice racial differences. They wanted to teach their children
that everyone is the same, and that racism is bad. And they defined racism as: overt, violent, and, for the most part, obsolete. But the messages the children reported were conflicting and incomplete. The children reported learning: everyone is the same, race is superfluous, and hard-work determines
where you get in life. They also reported some views they had learned
about certain racial groups, including the belief
that black people are poor, black people are lazy, black neighborhoods are dangerous, and black people are physically
stronger than white people. Those views are not far
from those of the U.S. Senator when I was in sixth grade. Now, I don’t suspect
that this kind of racial teaching is exclusive to white families. The racial mixed messages we give transcend our own family racial histories. And when it comes to race,
to ethnicity, to color, we do talk about it, but not in mixed company
and not in polite company. It comes up when there’s some event
in our national culture. O. J. Simpson, English only, Trayvon and Zimmerman, border control, 9/11, President Barack Obama. Something happens in our culture, and we hear the responses from the media. And we express our own opinions to people who we believe,
we hope, are like-minded with us. And we hear the views
of everyone around us. And sometimes we hear views
of people, our closest friends, that we never knew they held, and we realize that race does matter. These incidents happen and our children who have been taught
to be color-blind are left blindsided. But these incidents give us the opportunity
to tell the truth to children. And there are incidents
in our personal lives. Chelsea was six, she was sitting with me, looking up images from
the Disney animated movie “Frozen.” She stumbled upon a picture of Elsa,
her favorite character. This Elsa had dark brown skin. And Chelsea was not having it. “What?! That’s not Elsa! She is black! It’s ugly!” She’s sitting right here with me, (Laughter) she is almost in my lap. What would you say? I sat there frozen. (Laughter) I could ignore it. (Singing) “Let it go, let it go.” (Laughter) (Applause) I could get angry. “Don’t say that about black people!” But I love our Chelsea, and I wanted to know more. So, I said, “You think
black skin is ugly?” (Yelling) “Yes!” she said. “Well, not your skin … but Elsa is not supposed to be black.” And I could only agree with her. What followed was a loving and truthful
conversation with six-year-old Chelsea, now ten-year-old Damon
and three-year-old Zoe. Three white children
and their black grandfather. And what Chelsea taught in that moment is that our ethnicity
is essential to our identity, even if you are an animated character. When we talk openly
with our children about race, we don’t burden them, we free them. We allow them to embrace
an essential part of their own identity and to embrace the identity
of everyone they come in contact with. We handicap our children
when we operate in racial silence, and we rob them of an essential part
of their own identity. I believe this is especially the case
for white, or “grey,” children like Damon, Chelsea, Elliot and Zoe. The vision I longed for
is not a post-racial society. I cherish my experiences
in multicultural Hawaii and in the ever-growing diversity
of Antioch, Tennessee. When we ignore differences,
it diminishes us all. The vision I longed for,
and the vision I suspect you longed for, is not post-racial, but post-racist – you can clap – (Applause) where the destruction wrought
by race and power is eliminated. We are not here to talk about racism
although it remains stubbornly real. Its inequalities are well-documented, but those inequalities are only symptoms
of something deeper in our psyche. There is the reality that race matters
and not always in positive ways. So, how do we proceed? Well, we start by taking
our cues from the children. We answer those questions. We tell them that race is not real
but that race does matter. We break our silence
when they want to know why some brown skin is called brown but other brown skin is called red
or yellow or black or white. And if we really want
to benefit from our diversity, and if we really want
to break the strongholds of racism, we tell the truth to children
even before they ask. Tell them again: Race is not real, but race does matter. And tell them why. Christian is Damon’s
and Chelsea’s older brother, Christian was 11 when five-year-old
Damon asked one more question. We were in a fast food restaurant,
and the two boys were sitting at a table, separate from the grown-ups
and children. Damon got up, out of his seat,
walked over to us, touched my arm and turned back
to his brother, and said, “I just want to know what color is this.” We could see the reluctance
on Christian’s face, he did not want to answer this question. He’d already learned
the rules of racial silence. So, I tried to break
the tension for him, and I said, “Just answer the question.
What color is it?” (Laughter) Finally, reluctantly,
he said, “It’s brown …” Damon walked proudly back to his seat: “That’s all I’m saying.” (Laughter) He just wanted the truth. Thank you. (Applause)