Growing Up Guilty: Shaming and Blaming at Home

resized kid picLast week, a White woman named Eula Biss wrote an article in the New York Times. You are fore-warned: it is vile and disgusting. She writes about her own internalized White inferiority beliefs—and she writes about forcing those self-harming, false, and abusive internalizations on her young son. She recounts a scene of abuse and its aftermath in words that convey the horror story this child is living through:

When he was 4, my son brought home a library book about the slaves who built the White House. . .my overview of slavery and Jim Crow left my son worried about what it meant to be white, what legacy he had inherited. ‘‘I don’t want to be on this team,’’ he said, with his head in his hands. ‘‘You might be stuck on this team,’’ I told him, ‘‘but you don’t have to play by its rules.’’. . .

I read. . . ‘‘Little House on the Prairie’’ to my 5-year-old son one day. . .when the Ingalls family is reckoning with the fact that they built their little house illegally on Indian Territory. . .Laura watches the Osage abandoning their annual buffalo hunt and leaving Kansas. Her family will leave, too. At this point, my son asked me to stop reading. ‘‘Is it too sad?’’ I asked. ‘‘No,’’ he said, ‘‘I just don’t need to know any more.’’ After a few moments of silence, he added, ‘‘I wish I was French.’’

The Indians in ‘‘Little House’’ are French-speaking, so I understood that my son was saying he wanted to be an Indian. ‘‘I wish all that didn’t happen,’’ he said. And then: ‘‘But I want to stay here, I love this place. I don’t want to leave.’’ He began to cry. . .What my son was expressing — that he wants the comfort of what he has but that he is uncomfortable with how he came to have it — is one conundrum of whiteness.

How anyone could perpetrate such heinous psychological and emotional abuse on their own child is beyond me. Children need to have their identities nourished, not destroyed. They need to be encouraged to be racially proud, not left so crushed that they no longer can identify with their own real selves without pain.

While Biss makes laughable claims about genetics (she is dead wrong), and even more laughable claims about kinship (is she blind? Can she not see the difference between races, and that yes, all White people are connected by the same?) it is not this alone that is the problem. It is the conclusion she draws from these and other lies she embraces. It is the teaching that Whiteness is nothing of substance, but that attached to that nothingness, there is guilt, stigma, and degradation. This abusive belief is spread through the wider society all around us, but some people may see it more clearly through the eyes of a child.

What Biss is telling her son is this: “You are nothing—which means there is nothing to be proud of, to celebrate, or to belong to, in your Whiteness. You are nothing. You are a lie. You don’t exist. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t bad. It is because you are nothing—because, somewhere, back in time, someone who looked like you dared to claim they were something—that you must be ashamed. Even though you are nothing, and that nothingness erases all things which you might think to celebrate about your identity, it does not erase the things which you are supposed to be ashamed of about your identity. You are to feel nothing but shame, and  you have nothing to think about yourself except abhorrence, and inferiority. ‘Badness’ is your only identity.” This is nothing but pure psychological and emotional abuse.

Compare this emotional torture Biss is putting her son through, to the release from all guilt and shame that non-White parents give their children. They, like Biss, point the finger at her son: it is the White man who is to blame, they tell their children. I can’t help but remember another article I read about a year ago, this one by a hybrid woman named Dana Canedy, partially of Black parentage, raising a very light complected, blue-eyed son, whom she desperately wanted to identify as “Black”. She recounts the conversation she had with her son about race:

Like so many African-American parents, I had rehearsed “the talk,” that nausea-inducing discussion I needed to have with my son about how to conduct himself in the presence of the police. . . So I told him, and then Jordan asked if it was rare for the police to hurt black people. I said that. . .most police officers are dedicated to protecting us. But, no, I added, it is unfortunately not uncommon.

“Then I don’t want to be black anymore,” Jordan declared.

He asked if I was crying. I dabbed at my eyes and searched my mind for what to say.

“Son, your father was an incredible African-American man,” I told him. “And you are an amazing boy who is going to grow into just such a man. Please be proud of that.”

Oh the difference! She makes sure to give him the message that when Black people get into conflicts with the police, it is White people’s fault. Not his. Police “hurt” Black people because they are Black, not because they did something they shouldn’t have—like physically assault a police officer. In fact, White people are so bad in her story, that he needs to feel unsafe around them. But at least Canedy knows that for her son to “deny his blackness. . .would mean rejecting the reflection he sees every time he looks in a mirror.” And that that would be “internal damage. . .that would surely be as painful as any blow from a police baton.” She is right, but she is raising her son so that he can do that damage to others—and Biss, who has been so damaged, is passing that damage onto her son. That is the very thing being instilled within him. To reject the reflection he sees in the mirror, and tragically, Biss seems totally oblivious to the horrific damage that this is doing to him.

Both the differences and the similarities between the racial conversations Biss and Canedy have with their children are illuminating. There is a massive difference between telling a child that others are bad, and so he needs to look over his shoulder, and telling a child they have a bad identity. It is immensely less damaging to worry about one’s safety, than to have one’s soul killed inside. These two cases are different:  they are different, in that one mother tries to build up her child’s self-concept, and the other tries to tear it down. Yet in one way they are completely the same. They are the same in who they want their child to blame: they both want Biss’s son to be to blame, and they both want him to accept that blame as his identity in life. He must learn that White life exists to suffer for other people’s wrongs.

Because of this—because this is the way White and Non-White  all too often grow up hearing, from teachers, politicians, authority figures, and sometimes, unfortunately, also their own parents—that we live in a society so hostile and abusive to White personhood. It all starts here. And it all starts with children before they can ever hope to understand the dynamics of melanosupremacy’s hatred of White people for themselves.

No, I am not calling for Biss to have her son taken from her, or for some governmental agency—no matter how well intentioned, as well intentioned it would be in such a case—to force her to stop abusing her son this way. Nor am I calling for that for Canedy either, to stop her from teaching her son to hate White people.  I believe in free speech and belief—and the right to teach your children whatever you choose. These are precious freedoms, vital to our people’s survival (and to the survival of all), not to be surrendered. But we do need to do something.

We do need to continue to push for a movement to counter these abuses in society, so that fewer people like Biss, struggling to cope with crushed and degraded self-concepts, choose to cope by becoming self-harmers, and by passing on their pain to their children. And we do need to do something, so that fewer non-White parents teach their children from a young age that Whiteness is to blame for whatever they find unpleasant in life, and that Whiteness is to be feared and hated. We do need to do something, say something – and we need to start now. It is these early lessons from those around them, whether parents or someone else, that shape how children will look at the world when they are older. That worldview should be shaped by responsibility and not by blaming others or being forced to take blame that is not theirs. Their worldview should be shaped by justice, not by hatred.

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