Thursday, September 25, 2008

Anti-Racist Parenting & Teaching Terminology

Renee over at Womanist Musings has written about an awful picture that her son's school sent him home with. It's an important read and an excellent example of radically anti-racist parenting.

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Picture description: A cartoon girl is depicted with a smiling face and large rounded eyes. Her hair is in two braids, one on each side of her face. In her hair she wears a band that goes around her head and has a feather attached to it in the back.

In the comments AR raises an important point about terminology. This society has a habit of re-naming "othered" groups. This idea that only "Native Canadian" or "Aboriginal person" are the correct names to use is really quite problematic. Imagine if we switch it up and a white mother told her white child that there are only two names that should be used in reference to Americans of African descent: black or African-American. Well, is it really their right to decide what we should be called by them? What about if some of us want to be called "people of color" or a "women of color"? Who gets to decide how an individual or group should be described?

When someone outside of a culture asserts that some of these labels are unacceptable and others are correct it really isn't an improvement over those situations when someone uses the supposedly-incorrect terms. It isn't the word itself that makes using a particular label problematic. The problem is with the re-labeling itself.

If I pointed out to the white person in my example that some people of African descent prefer terms other than "black" or "African-American", it wouldn't be because I wanted her to change to using some other word for us. More than anything else, it would be so that she might see that the important thing is to allow people to be self-identifying.

The picture in the post is problematic for MANY reasons. For one thing it erases the identity of those it's supposedly portraying. It's just a generic Indian. In reality, Indians are no more the same than all Africans are the same. Some may wear clothes just like you and your family but others wear clothing that may be quite a bit different from it. Sweeping statements about what we want to be called are not really any better than the generalizations made regarding what sort of clothing we wear.

I'm trying to explain myself in as few words as possible, so I'm sorry if this seems kind of choppy and I hope you can really see what I'm saying as being written with a spirit of love and admiration for those who make such determined efforts to engage in radical, anti-racist parenting. I'm right there with you, trying to hash out these issues for myself and my own child.

The main point I'm trying to make is that those who one might encounter who say that they want to be referred to as "either Native Canadian, or Aboriginal" are only speaking for themselves. They can't tell you what terms are correct to use for all of us because that's not something they can decide. There are no agreed upon terms because we are not one group. We are people belonging to and/or descended from different nations.


Renee said...

I did some more investigation after the commentary on your blog and mine and have found that yes Native Canadian is acceptable but native this way is not. This could be a difference of country perhaps.

The most important thing to me is that we avoid using language that 'others' or marginalizes. I certainly am not claiming the right to name or label another group. Whatever a person wants to be referred to is the the terminology I will use. Not being a part of the particular culture in question I am negotiating things that I am not familiar with but my goal is still the same. To make sure that I approach with respect. I will certainly take not only your post but the commentary on my blog into consideration. Dealing with race is a learning process. I may not always get it right but my heart is in the right place.

JGH said...

Hi - I found your blog looking for a list of banned books.

You raise lots of thoughtful points here. My daughter and I went shopping for a Halloween costume yesterday and she picked a "Native American" costume that is probably the live version of the above picture. I don't want to take away her fun, but for some reason, and I think it's because of the points you bring up here, I don't feel so comfortable with it.

bint alshamsa said...

Hello JGH,

Welcome to My Private Casbah! I'm glad you commented. You know, kids see so much exotification in the media that it's no surprise that Native American costumes would seem appealing to children. For many kids, that's what Halloween is all about: the chance to be a character, a beautiful, mysterious, strange or fanstastical "other". As a mom, I hate having to be the party pooper all the time. However, sometimes the fun that our kids might have comes at the expense of others.

Imagine being the mother of a NA child. For us, Halloween or any costume party is marred by the fact that if she tries to go out and celebrate it at all, she will have to brace herself to deal with these racist images and those who see nothing wrong with them. Imagine if every time your culture was depicted, it was just to portray it in a racist and stereotypical manner. Think of the difficulties a girl would experience trying to feel valued and respected when even the other little girls and boys who claim to be her friends behave this way. I want my daughter to be able to enjoy these same childhood experiences that so many adults can remember fondly.

I know people who wouldn't dream of dressing their child up as Little Black Sambo but never stop to consider the fact these t.v. Indian costumes are unethical for all the same reasons.

I'm glad that you are willing to consider the impact of these issues. Most people refuse to do even that much, so it sounds to me like you're a more ethical parent than many people care to be. Maybe you could use this as an opportunity to teach your daughter about how actual Native American girls feel about these costumes. Ideally, I would prefer to be able to present my child with enough information so that, when given the opportunity, she would make different costume choices because she wouldn't want to reinforce these racist stereotypes.

I hope you'll come back again and comment here whenever you like. :)