Sunday, January 29, 2012

i thought i raised a white supremist

Olivia, ever the jokester, comes home from school the other day.

Olivia: "Mom, I have a joke."
Me: "OK.  Let's hear it."
O:  "It's racist," she says, giggling mischeviously.
M: "OK.  Then you shouldn't repeat it."
O:  "I know, but it's sooo funny."
M: "Olivia, racists jokes aren't funny.  You shouldn't repeat it."
O: "No mom, you don't understand.  It's sooo funny!"

In the battle of who gets to talk," Olivia always wins. The child, beautiful and charming as she is, cannot stop the words from tumbling out of her mouth.

She delivered her joke.

I'll take my own advice and not repeat it, but I will say it wasn't anything new. The gist of it:  there are too many Mexicans. 

We live in a diverse area, and Olivia's friends hail from a wide variety of backgrounds.  I've noticed that there seems to be a lot of friendly 6th grade banter going on lately regarding everyone's various "colors."  Olivia, for example, calls her bi-racial friend, L., "Hershey."  In return, he calls her "low-fat milk."  They laugh.  I'm glad they find difference normal instead of scary.

This is not the first time Olivia has repeated a racist joke, however.  She will tell me, "It's ok because L. told it, and he's black," or "R. told it and he's brown."  I admit that things have gotten murky.  What's the etiquette for a black person telling an anti-black joke to a white person?  Is the black person "allowed" to do that?  Is the white person supposed to laugh? 

I do know this:  It's NOT ok for the white person to repeat the joke.  When I explained this to Olivia, she knew it too, telling me, "Mom, I know.  I know.  L. and I are just joking around.  We're friends." 

They seem to have it worked out.  Do they really need my intervention?  Are they at a level of racial familiarity and comfort that my too-careful generation cannot understand?

But what about this joke about Mexicans?  It nagged at me even after we'd put the conversation to rest.  Olivia obviously thinks it's OK to tell a racist joke if you know your audience and acknowledge the racism.

I disagree.  There remains this underlying problem of why the joke is funny. And that's what I realized I needed to ask her about.

On the way to school the next morning:
M: "So...[not so casual segue]... Why do you think that joke about Mexicans is sooo funny?" 
O: "I don't know, it just is."

We go round a bit with similar answers until we get to:

M: "I'm not angry or anything.  I'm just trying to understand something.  Let's think about it."
O:  "Well, you know.  It's funny because there are too many Mexican people."

I admit, her answer surprises me.

M: "Really?  Why are there too many Mexican people? What's wrong with Mexican people?" 

I can feel the volume and pitch of my voice rise a bit in the annoying way it does when I feel emotional.  I take a deep breath, hoping to keep my tone as casual as hers.   I try to remember what I learned in Lamaze 1,000 years ago about focus, relaxation and breathing. Could that be useful here?

O:  "You know.  There are just too many!" 

Innocent of my distress, she speaks in a tone that is happy and disarmingly matter-of-fact.  It's as if she's telling me, "You know, Mom.  The P.E. teacher has hair in his nose.  It's funny!"  Plus, why does she keep saying I know?  What do I know?  Apparently nothing!

With help from a few strategic and breathless "hee hees" and "hoo hoos," emitted through the clenched teeth of a parent in the throes of something out of her control: 

M: "Well...maybe there are too many white people? What if your joke was about white people?"
O: "That would be dumb."

I sense we're getting somewhere now.

M: "Why?"
O: "Because."
M: "Well, when I look around, I see a lot of white folks.  Why doesn't that mean we have too many white people?"
O: "Because, Mom. It's our country! We own it!"

my reaction

My breathing turns to the desperate kind,  "you know," the kind that means the Lamaze training really isn’t working anymore. 

M: "What? How do you figure that?"
O:  "We took it over.  We own it."  Then, sensing my disagreement, she looks at me, "Don't we?"

And this, my friends, is when we arrived at kiss-and-ride. 

With a line of cars waiting impatiently behind me, I kissed my sweet little white supremist goodbye and sent her off to lord over all of her many colored minions for a fun-filled day of harmless racist banter between friends. 

We've talked about racial equality: to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  We've talked about slavery and how wrong that was.  We've talked about Martin Luther King and what a great man he was.  We've talked about how things should be.  The thing we haven't talked about is how things are. 

I tried to sound casual when she got home in the afternoon, but I'm pretty sure I started talking before the door closed behind her--now who has words tumbling out of her mouth? 

During the day, I concocted a kid's version of the eco-racial history of the U.S.  It went something like this:  "Imagine if you and I play Monopoly and I cheat for 400 turns around the board (300 years of slavery plus 100 years of Jim Crow), refusing to let you buy houses or collect $200 when you pass Go.  During that time, I buy all the property and collect rent from you.  I get really rich and powerful.  After 400 turns, I decide to stop cheating by letting you collect $200 when you pass Go and letting you buy houses if you can afford them. I tell you things are equal now, but I keep all the money and houses I got while I was cheating.  Would the rest of the game be fair?"

"No way!" she says with indignation. 

"Right," I answer.  "Well that's kind of how it is now in America.  A lot of white people want to play fair, but even though there are lots of poor white folks, white people as a community still have most of the money and power that we inherited from all that cheating.  Plus, it's only been 47 turns around the board since we tried to stop the cheating."

She looks at me with wide eyes.  "Oh." 

Feeling all puffed up about how well I thought I'd handled this, I ask her: "So, do you understand why it isn't fair to say 'We own it,' or 'We took it over?' or why it's not funny when white people make jokes about who has (or doesn't have) money or power?"

"Yeah," she answers.  "I get it."  Then, "but mom, I didn't mean white people."


"I didn't mean white people own the country, I meant Americans.  You know, like British people own England. Mexican people own Mexico.  Americans own America."

Now it's my turn.  "Oh." 

Suddenly I'm all turned around.  First, I'm not sure that's true (that she didn't mean white people), but also, I realize this is one of those moments where, good explanation or not, I had spent a lot of time answering the wrong question.

Apparently, instead of a white supremist, I have some sort of xenophobic nationalist on my hands!

Is there a board game that will help us talk about immigration?  Somehow I don't think Risk or Stratego will achieve the desired effect.

Parenting is sooo complicated.


  1. I dealt with the same thing with my kids-- they were repeating jokes they heard, which were funny to them oly because their friends told it-- there was little understanding of the actual joke.

    It's hard to scold when there is no real malice. My youngest was beside himself with tears when I informed him of this issue-- he felt betrayed by the joke-teller. I saw him grow up a little that day.

    1. poor little guy. Olivia was upset as well. kids always want to do right. it just gets confusing!

  2. Your Monopoly analogy is classic. I may need to borrow that for my kids!

  3. Yowza! Great post. I love the Monopoly analogy.

  4. YOWZA for sure!!!! This is a great post. You have to find a way to get that monopoly analogy on a poster or something. I have got to get around to playing monopoly more with my kids and then "blam!" hit 'em with your analogy. When someone acts greedy at our house, we like to say, "Why are you acting like John McCain?" Ok, so that joke was from the last presidential election. We certainly need to update that. And Mittens deserves to be mentioned in such a way.

    1. I am laughing at the idea of playing monopoly so that "blam!" - you can hit them with a lesson! and i love the john mccain joke. will probably borrow something to that effect for the next election.