THE BLOG

Talking About Privilege With Your Kids

09/04/2013 01:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013
Lea Grover

Race is something I've always found it difficult to wrap my head around.

You see, I am not white, I'm Jewish. Oh yes, I can pass. Lots of Jews can pass. And just as many, if not more, can't.

I have two biological sisters. My older sister is paler than me, but doesn't pass as well. That's because of her hair -- her hair that is indisputably ethnic. My younger sister doesn't pass as well either. That's because her skin is so dark that she's sometimes mistaken for Middle Eastern of non-Jewish descent, which can be particularly awkward when it's a Palestinian who's making the mistake.

But I pass, mostly. I've got blue eyes and pale skin. So I "pass." But I've known I've been "passing" my whole life.

I've known since I was very little that I wasn't white. It's one of those things, people don't experience privilege unless they're excluded from it. Part of privilege is that you're "normal" from the get-go. When you're not part of it, you're a novelty.

I was the freaked out kid at the pool who the middle-aged white ladies surrounded, taking turns touching my hair without permission.

I was the good-natured token, listening to every story about every other Jewish person anyone in the room had ever met.

At 9-years-old I sat on the floor with my best friend in the wee hours of the night, patting her shoulder and trying to comfort her through her paroxysms of grief that I was condemned to Hell and she would have to go to Heaven without me someday unless I could somehow stop being Jewish.

I am not white, but I am also not black. I do not share the universal cultural experiences of being African American. I don't have to choose between demanding equal treatment or being an "angry black lady," I've never been pulled over without cause, I'm not faced daily with the cultural appropriation of my incredibly large and visible minority by the even larger and disproportionately more visible white population.

I am enough other to have experienced some of being either.

Being white isn't just about having pale skin and fine hair. Being white is about being the standard. About how any deviation from that standard is bad, and you are less accepted and even tolerated for it.

But being white also means that you have a pervasive ignorance of the experiences outside your privilege. This is something I know. When I was 13, I was playing a game with some theater friends of my older sister. I was pretending to be an alien, doing research on humanity. I asked her friend, an African American man, to describe his family. He told me he was raised by his mom. I asked if that was typical. He said yes, and I was shocked. And then I got a lecture from him, as well as another friend of his (also male and African American) about the dearth of male father figures in their communities. In their childhoods.

Although at 13 I didn't exactly have the words for it, I saw my white privilege for the first time.

Even though I'm not white, I know what privilege is.

I still have a hell of a time talking about race in general, but I can teach them about the cross section of American-ness and Jewish-ness.

I can say, "Our entire Jewish culture is based on a history of fleeing Inquisitions, Crusades, genocides, pogroms... Every holiday we celebrate is under the cloud of five thousand years of otherness. When Columbus sailed to the New World, your ancestors were fleeing his homeland for the Netherlands with nothing but the shirts on their backs. When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, your ancestors fled Polish persecution for Israel. When the Civil War threatened to split your country, your ancestors faced genocide in Russia. When your great great grandfather came to this country, he would never see his family back home again -- they all perished in the Holocaust. And when your family came to this country, they were not welcome in the way you feel now. They were Christ Killers, hook-nosed yids, traitorous money-lenders. That is how the country we love and call home saw them. It is how some people still see me, your mother. It is how some people will see you."

And I do love this country. Truly. And I am grateful for it, and to it. And it is my obligation to help it continue to grow and mature and change for good. And part of the debt I give my country is my children.

American children. Children who, unlike me, have a white parent.

I have one daughter with my older sister's ethnic hair. She also has my younger sister's dark complexion. She will never pass as well as me, and definitely not as well as her twin sister -- who has the finer hair, bluer eyes, and lighter skin of her white father.

So what do I tell my children about race? I don't know what box to check. I'm not Caucasian. I'm not Middle Eastern, either. I'm not non-white Hispanic, I'm not Asian or Pacific Islander, I'm not Native American.

The only box I can check is "Other," and write in, "Jewish." Because race isn't about the color of your skin. Not always. But it's also about that.

When my 3-year-olds tell me that their friend from school has a big sister with pretty brown skin, so when THEY'RE big girls, THEY will also have pretty brown skin, I bite my tongue.

I don't want to tell them they're wrong, because they'll figure that out on their own. Because I don't want to be the person responsible for making them suddenly see that there is a difference beyond the superficial in the color of their skin and another person's.

I don't want to be the one to put the words of privilege into their vocabulary. But even more, I don't want to leave them unprepared to ignore the words of bigotry and hatred.

I want to direct this conversation with my kids. I want them to know that people are different, and that's GOOD. That people have different kinds of skin and different kinds of hair and different kinds of faces and different kinds of genitalia and different kinds of histories and different kinds of intellectual ability or disability, and the endless variations of humanity are a testament to how amazing we all are.

I also want to explain to them, before somebody else does, that some people still see something else when they see brown skin, or kinky hair, or a long nose. I want to be the one to explain to them that, because they have light skin and light eyes, people will be kinder to them. Almost universally. And that as nice as it might be, it's wrong.

But I don't want to have these conversations, because they are based in a truth that can't be hidden or candy-coated. I don't want to be responsible for showing my children that racially motivated hatred exists. I don't want them to start thinking of people in terms of race, because with racial awareness comes judgement. But at the same time, they need to be aware of people's cultural and racial experiences. They need to know why certain behaviors are unacceptable. They need to know that racial experiences are different, and that difference does not imply relative worth.

I have no idea how I'm going to have those conversations, but it is essential to teach our children that racial biases exist. That if they're not careful, one day they'll realize they trust white skin on sight and don't trust brown. Or that they'll expect every news report about a criminal to be about a person of color. Or that they'll be surprised when the bad guy in their movie doesn't have darker skin and coarser hair than the good guys.

I want my children to see these messages for what they are -- ignorant assumptions made by a class that is spoon fed privilege from the day they're born.

I am in charge of making sure this is the message they receive. I need to take ownership of that. I need to make sure I raise people, American citizens, who don't accept their privilege.

The only way to end this culture of privilege is to ensure that those who benefit from it reject it. That when we are in the position of privilege and somebody else is struggling through persecution, we stand up and take ownership. I want to know that someday, if my kids see that their brown-skinned friends are being treated differently than them, they will approach the culprit and demand an explanation.

That is the debt I owe to a society that has largely accepted me as one of its own.

But I also want them to point out their differences when they are ignored. Point out the hurt it does when their culture is appropriated or demeaned. I want them to take pride in their uniqueness, in their racial and cultural heritage.

The best way to teach a child anything is to set an example, and so I charge you to step back from your life for a moment and look for the privilege you experience.

Do you know that you have a place to worship, no matter where in the country you might move?

Do you know that you will get fair pay for your work?

Do you know you can call the police if you are in need and they will see you as an innocent victim?

Do you know that if you speak the language of your childhood home, you will be understood?

These are privilege.

Be aware of it. And consider what it feels like to answer "no" to any one of those questions. To all of them.

The burden of educating my children on race and privilege doesn't fall only on me, it is ours as a culture. My lessons mean nothing without the contrast of reality, or the television they watch and the people they meet and the pictures on magazines on the rack at the grocery store.

It's time we all took some responsibility for that.