When I was growing up in a military town on the border, I didn’t give much thought to race. In a sense, I was colorblind with all the good and the bad that goes with that. I lived in a really diverse place. The combination of the border and the military meant that my school had a lot of students of color. With the innocence of childhood, I saw my peers as much the same – human. I liked some of them and some of them not so much. The feelings were driven more by the things of childhood than anything else – proximity, friendliness, and the like. When we hit middle school, it became more about a social pecking order (I was a nerd, so I was never at the top of that pecking order and was largely just fine with that) and maybe, to a lesser extent, common interests. Still, race didn’t seem to be a big factor.
It wasn’t until high school that the colorblind blinders started to come off. One of my friends started dating someone of a different race. Our peers didn’t really see it as a big deal, but an awful lot of adults did. I just couldn’t get it. He was a good guy. He treated her well. He was kind and funny and friendly. He was also black and that seemed to be the only thing that some people saw when they saw him with her. It stunned me that they didn’t actually see him .
A number of years later when I was dating the man that would one day become my spouse, I remembered those days. I was working as an engineer and so was he. Our friends were all young professionals and no one thought anything of the fact that he is Asian and I am white. I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from adults back in high school though. I watched how people looked at us as we rode the train into the city to see a concert. I noticed some small scowls on some of the older white faces. I noticed some wrinkled brows on some of the older Chinese faces. I thought about these looks a lot as I considered whether I would marry this man. I wondered what it would be like for our children and whether I would be placing undue hardship on them as they walked between two cultures and two races. Ultimately, I decided to believe in good, to be optimistic. After all, my experience was that my generation was fairly tolerant and surely that would just get better over time as the older, less tolerant, generation passed on.
Over the years, as I have traveled through life with this man and our children, I have seen a life very different than my own sheltered childhood. I have seen men suggest that he should not be allowed in a room because of his race. I have sent my young children off to school with a knot in my stomach because a Chinese man was arrested for spying. I had heard what adults were saying, so I knew what my children’s peers were probably hearing around their dinner table and would probably repeat at school. I have watched people make eye-pulling gestures at my children to make fun of their race. I have watched as my daughters’ white peers referred to them as Asian and their Asian peers referred to them as “bad Asians” because they did not strictly adhere to the Asian cultural norms either. I have watched my daughters learn to drive and had conversations with them about how they should behave if they were ever stopped by a police officer. I have watched them go off to college, choosing a school with a large Asian population so that they would be less “other” only to discover that they are still “other” because they are also white. Many of these things I expected. Some I did not.
There have also been things that I did not expect. I did not expect my husband to sit down at the kitchen table planning a route to drive my daughter across country to school that would be driven almost entirely by finding the safest route for them. I did not expect to have to worry about whether they would encounter racists that might do them physical harm like that done in Virginia and Tennessee. I did not expect to insist that they call me every night so that I would know they were safe rather than just because I love them. I did not expect my husband, an internationally recognized researcher in theoretical computer science, to be questioned by police because he mailed a care package to our daughter at school. (Thank goodness he keeps such meticulous records and had the receipt proving that his package was sent to Wellesley and was not the package of drugs sent to a prison.) I did not expect to see permission given so openly to be racist. I did not expect so much of the population to be silent in the face of that.
These sights, both expected and unexpected, have changed the way that I see the world. I can not be colorblind because the experiences that we each have are colored by the color of our skin whether or not that should be true. To be colorblind would negate the fact that the experiences of the young muslim girl wearing a headscarf in my class, the black young man wearing a hoody walking down the hall, the boy who sits in the ELL class three doors down learning English are different than my own experiences. I can not ignore that difference. I have to speak to it.
A classroom is one of the only places where people of all different races and religions intermingle on a regular basis. Teaching children to see each other and to value each other for their shared humanity has to be a part of every single classroom. Even math.