The other day, I was browsing Lisa Belkin’s “Motherlode” blog on the New York Times website when I stumbled on this post, discsussing the saga of an alleged racial faux pas by “momblogger” Jackie Morgan MacDougall. Apparently, a year ago MacDougall shared the story of how her three-year-old son, brought by her husband to see her at the office, saw her African-American co-worker and blurted out, “Mommy, why is her face brown?”
I was completely mortified. What was I doing wrong that he would he say something like that? Aren’t we all supposed to be colorblind and not notice the differences in people? But as soon as I got over myself, I quickly realized that his asking about her skin was no different from him pointing out I have blue eyes, and not hazel like his or why I have “dots” (aka freckles) on my arms.
I asked my co-worker to field the question because I was interested in hearing how she’d like it answered. She explained to him that people come in all colors and her skin is just darker than his. He waited a beat–thought about what she said–and then asked if we could watch Toy Story 2 for the ten thousandth time.
What I learned from my preschooler that day is that recognizing differences in each other is not harmful, racist, or prejudice–it’s natural. It’s when you judge or treat someone differently because of those differences that’s hurtful. And that was the furthest thing from his sweet three-year-old mind.
The post sat there quietly for nearly a year with only two comments (the first quite positive, praising MacDougall’s wisdom, the second neutral), until it was discovered by another blog in May and became fodder for debate. Champions of “anti-racist parenting” flocked to MacDougall’s blog to accuse her of “white privilege” and call her post “disgusting.” She was castigated for everything from punting the question to her co-worker — and thus forcing a person of color to be a spokeswoman for her race — to having the temerity to think that being “colorblind” is a good thing.
There was more criticism after Belkin publicized the debate. Well, now, MacDougall offers profuse apologies that brings to mind the “self-criticism” sessions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well as the horror of a character in George Orwell’s 1984 who learns he’s been guilty of “thoughtcrime.”
When Jacob asked that now infamous question, I turned to my co-worker to field it. A move that makes me cringe when I think about it, one of those moments I replay in my mind, continually feeling ashamed at the cowardly way I handled my own son wanting his mommy to help him work through something in his head. I dropped the ball entirely.
I can remember that day in my office so clearly. I remember the feeling of nausea that swept through my entire body. My initial reaction, the thing that drove me, was the fear that my son — my innocent, sweet, lovely son — had hurt someone I worked with, someone I respected, someone I cared about. What I never realized was that it was I who hurt her.
I missed a teachable moment that day. But the person who needed to be taught wasn’t Jacob. It was me. I was given the opportunity to provide my son his very first life lesson through conversation. I blew that chance.
From this self-flagellation, you’d think MacDougall had, at the very least, condoned an unintentionally racist comment made by her child (such as saying that he didn’t want to touch a black person because he/she was dirty). What a ludicrous overreaction.
At worst, McDougall made a minor mistake. At best, she may well have handled the situation correctly: it might have been far more embarrassing for her colleague to listen to a white person explain why some people’s skin is dark than to explain it herself. What’s more, there is absolutely no evidence in any of MacDougall’s accounts that her co-worker — who, she says, “playfully addressed the question” — actually felt “hurt.” (You could even argue, if you wanted to go that route, that it’s a form of “white privilege” for a white person to take it upon herself to decide what a black person feels in a race-related situation.)
McDougal is profoundly shaken by the fact that some commenters believe she’s a racist:
In all the time I’ve been blogging, I’ve most always been able to shake off negative comments, knowing that they come from others’ anger or ignorance — but I don’t want to do that now.
Because this time, it’s different. Some of them are actually right.
Of course. Because this time, they used the “R” word. Self-criticism time! MacDougall’s only defense is that she’s not really racist, merely “human” and “flawed.”
Fortunately, most of Lisa Belkin’s commenters are nonplussed and put off by MacDougall’s self-castigating tone (except for the very first comment which congratulates her on having such “self-awareness”). This comment by Eva Robertson is particularly good, pointing out the problems with the criticisms directed at MacDougall’s original post, and noting:
This is the evil of the PC world. It inhibits reflection, conversation, and progress.
To the folks from the “anti-racist parenting” thought police, I would say this:
1. If you love self-criticism so much, perhaps some of you should examine the not-so-subtle condescension implicit in your so-called “anti-racism” (such as the suggestion that a child should have been told, “Yes, Mary does have brown skin. I think it’s beautiful”).
2. Self-righteous ideologues like you help perpetuate racism. Because, by making “anti-racism” synonymous with this kind of PC nonsense, you are making it a lot easier to brush aside any criticism of real racism as mere “political correctness.”