Journal Gazette Publication: October 14, 2018

We tend to think that school-age children are blank slates who don’t see color and only learn about race when they first encounter it. Yet studies show that by ages 2 and 3, kids use race to choose playmates as well as to reason about people’s behavior. By ages 4 and 5, white children show strong biases in favor of whiteness and have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others. And overall, prior to age 10, kids can explicitly voice what they see regarding race, but over 10 they’re not as willing or able to do so. One conclusion being, they’ve learned to be quiet and accept what they see as the norm.

Now, it’s tempting to think of this in the context of young children and how we can better guide them, but that’s not where I’m going with this. Kids today are not blank slates who don’t see color and neither were we when we were kids. Thus, we need to apply this information to ourselves.

Here’s how it went down for me.

My first five years were spent amid the backdrop of the 1960’s with civil rights events most certainly playing on the living room TV, the nightly news a featured family event in our house. The adults in my life shared their nuanced opinions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. My dad, a proud WWII veteran, shared his less-than-nuanced thoughts with my older brothers about Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight a ‘white man’s war’ and because of that, losing his boxing title.

When driving through downtown Milwaukee, my father instructed us to roll up our windows. Noticing that only people of color were standing near us on the sidewalk, I asked if they were the reason why. “Of course not!,” my mother hissed, shooting me a stern glare as she reached past me to lock my car door.

I cannot count the times I was told by my loving, well-intentioned parents, “Everyone is equal no matter what they look like.” Case closed. No more discussion warranted despite the unavoidable images of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the action of pulling me closer in the department store when passing a person of color. When Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were murdered, I was three and five respectively, feeling the shockwaves via the grown-ups around me.

And then I started school – already deeply mired in the discrepancies between what was witnessed and what was voiced and knowing clearly that I should not talk about it. I lacked  connection with any people of color in the very white schools I attended and learned a whitewashed version of American history, both of which ensured that I was rarely, if ever, challenged on issues of race and equality.

So why does this all matter? I’m an adult now. I’ve checked my biases, I understand the essence of my white privilege, and I have the proverbial Black friends. Most importantly, I can confidently and adamantly answer the question, ‘Am I a racist?’ with a resounding ‘NO!” Case closed. No more discussion warranted.

But you see, that’s no longer the question.  

The real questions are: What did we learn in our early years that is so ingrained in us, so resistant to counter evidence, that no matter how much we think we’ve evolved, those embedded, embodied discrepancies linger? What remnants of being shushed as a child reduce us to being nervous at the idea of talking about race now, in particular, with other white people? And why do we as a white culture feel that having intentional conversations about race is wrong and confrontational?

Think of the conversations we could have with each other if we were personally and collectively trying to understand and unwind this early learning and the culture (aka, the system), that brought it about. Conversations not stuck in guilt and shame, not bent on convincing or proving our goodness or dismissing the notion that racial inequality is still alive and well, but on excavating the truth. Those are the types of conversations that allow individual healing and lead to collective, community, systemic rebuilding.

The false narrative is deeply and intricately embedded in all of us. Let’s ask and answer the right questions. Together.

Ellen Sauer is the co-creator and facilitator of CREWW: A Collective of Radical Engaged White Witnesses, and co-organizer of Human Library – Fort Wayne.  www.ellensauer.com