Now that Tiger Woods is a dad, golf aficionados might wonder what princess Sam’s arrival might do to her old man’s game. Baby-boomers might wonder why the couple chose to name their daughter the tomboy-chic “Sam” instead of the time-tested “Samantha”. Others may wonder if Tiger’s wife Elin’s credentials as a former nanny means she’ll still need one of her own. But as a mom who’s doing her best to raise kids who take pride in their heritage, I’m wondering how the PGA champ plans to approach his daughter when it comes to the matter of race.
My query is far from unfounded. It’s no secret that Tiger Woods has a history of dodging phone calls from the NAACP requesting his support, of laughing off fried chicken jokes made by other golfers at his expense and publicly admitting to Oprah Winfrey that he’s not black or Asian, but ”Cablinasian”, meaning Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian, (despite the fact that neither of his parents were white). By this point, his publicists know better than to return phone calls asking the American Express spokesman to speak at Black History Month events.
Either way, I hope Tiger will prepare his daughter for the fact that despite however famous a person is or how wealthy they are, race still matters in America. I hope he’ll brace Sam Alexis for the fact that there may come a time when she hears a racially tainted joke uttered at the lunch table of whatever prestigious private school he and Elin choose to send her to. Or better yet, that there may come a time when she has an experience similar to my own, some twenty-odd years ago on the schoolyard:
"Come to me, blackie!"
I was mortified as I stood there in pigtails, watching Doug Cohn beckon me with his chubby little finger. My only comeback was to tell Lise Toplin, the safety guard (oooh, a big fifth grader!), who whinily told him to "Stop being mean."
Later, Doug ended up in my eleventh grade Sociology class. Regularly, as the teacher was explaining things like propaganda and the media. I felt Doug’s eyes on me. He wasn't waiting for the right time to ask me to shine his shoes, he clearly wanted more than that. By then there’d been plenty of time for new stereotypes about black females to plant themselves I his brain. It was the good thing that sociology class was at the end of the day. That way, if I felt the urge to run right home and take a shower, I could.
I think the best way to teach children about racism is to approach it in a similar manner to how one might begin talking to one’s child about other things that may (or may not) make a parent feel a little uncomfortable to discuss, like sex and death. Both topics are big issues, but also ones that will come up in a child's life whether we want them to or not. Like the birds and the bees, I think there are some things that kids should learn from their parents before they get misinformation from somewhere else.
Not unlike the facts of life, my husband and I take each of our daughter's questions about racism as they come. Then we try to break it down to a level she can relate to, given her age (five). A preschooler might want to know things like why MLK had to fight for freedom in the first place, but the answer doesn't need to be a lecture on the atrocities of slavery or a detailed account of lynchings in the Jim Crow south. That will come later. For now, we talk about how black people weren't allowed to eat in the same restaurants as white people or drink from the same fountains. How that would make a person feel (if they weren't white)? Is that fair? Preschoolers love to talk about what is and isn't fair, so at this point, discussing race has basically been a piece of cake.
We’re also careful not to dwell on the fact that in America, our ethnic group has been considered inferior, because we don't want them to become so self-conscious of others biases that it limits their ability, as evidenced by "The Stereotype Threat". Instead, we choose to focus less on racism and more on the accomplishments of African Americans and the aspects of our culture that have been written out of standard education. We know that racism will eventually rear its ugly head; we try our best to give them the ammunition to confront it head on when it does.
Yet people of color aren't the only ones who need to understand prejudice. White children should be taught about it too, so that by the time it comes up in school, they are sensitized to the issue, not dismissive of it. And like sex, if a child has reached 9 or 10 without ever asking about it, it's probably a good idea to go ahead and have "the big talk". At that age, a fifteen-minute history lesson should do the trick (I wish Doug's parent's had done that). The last thing a parent should want is to find out that their kid was off at college participating in a (insert favorite minority group here)"costume party". Much like catching one’s daughter on a commercial for "Girls Gone Wild", that would be proof that someone dropped the ball.
The toughest part is, most parents have the birds and the bees all figured out (or let’s hope so), but many adults, of all persuasions, are ignorant about the history of race in America and how it plays into our everyday lives...from where a person decides to sit in a doctor's waiting room, to the friends they choose, to who they elect for president. Knowing that racism will affect their children at some point in life (whether it's through white privilege or bearing the brunt of direct bigotry) should encourage any parent—including those who are famous golfers—to learn as much about it as they can. So when it’s finally time for “the big talk”, they’re prepared.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, the late William Howard May (June 17, 1911 — June 4, 2007), who taught me to be proud of who I am and took pride in the groundbreaking success of Tiger Woods as if he’d been a grandchild of his very own.
On Friday my posts also appear as an online column for Time Out New York Kids. Visit them at Time Out New York Kids for more city-specific parenting tips and diversions. The regular column is called Not the Nanny, which pretty much answers the crazy looks I sometimes receive when I'm out and about with my rosy-cheeked son.