by Natalie McCabe Zwerger
This blog was originally posted on the Everyday Race Blog by Center for Strategic Solution‘s (CSS) director, Natalie Zwerger. CSS is hosting their third annual Decolonizing Education Conference on June 7-8, 2019.
At the end of last year, I gave birth to my first baby. V is smart, happy, and beautiful. The future for V is beaming with possibilities and will most definitely be filled with the love of parents, grandparents, family, and friends. In addition to all of this, racism has a hold on my newborn child. Not racism of the KKK-type, but as in the system that has been propelling her forward while indoctrinating her with biases and misconceptions of Black and Brown people.
How can I possibly suggest my daughter is already privileged by racism? Hear me out. V was born into a system: first, she is a beneficiary of a racist society; second, she is indoctrinated with biases that she may or may not consciously acknowledge as she grows older. A denial of this reality is both utterly wrong and reflective of privileged white folks choosing to disavow themselves from owning their role in the perpetuation of injustice.
Systemic racism is a venomous society where membership is automatic and must be rejected not once, but in perpetuity, at every turn where it affords you privileges, both visible and invisible to the untrained eye.
Let me get concrete for you. My child was born with white skin. From the moment she entered the world, quite literally, in the hospital, the faces she saw, the people who first cared for her… looked like her. She was born to a mother with white skin (me) and a father with white skin. I did not face great risks in pregnancy or childbirth. According to the CDC, Black women are 3-4x more likely to die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth than white women like me. In fact, more broadly, I am more likely to live longer, have greater access to pain medication and mental health treatment, and certainly to have medical professionals who look like me responsible for my care. These are not the experiences of all mothers or all women or all people, generally. Beyond my racial privileges, I, and by default, my daughter, also benefited from privileges because of my socioeconomic status and because of my status as a cis, straight person. So you see, before my daughter was even a week old, she slept on pillows of privilege that neither she–nor I–did anything to earn. But, membership requires no prerequisites. Nothing must be proven. It is all automatic. And there’s more…
A few days after V was born, we drove home from the hospital, likely recklessly, probably not obeying all the laws of the road. We were far too focused on the little peanut in the car with us. I also acknowledge that we, consciously and unconsciously, know that white folks are stopped by police at disproportionately lower rates than Black and Brown folks. Again because of nothing more than the system, the racist society, in which we are members.
This trip home is important too because V entered a world where I had a job with parental leave benefits, allowing me to spend the first few months at home with her. This job is also a manifestation of the benefits that the society of systemic racism, affords me. A 2017 study found that racial discrimination was no different than it was in 1989, with the exception of a slight decrease in anti-Latinx discrimination. My positionality as a white, Puerto Rican, doesn’t exempt me. I, too, have been a member since birth.
In the first 5 days of life, my child lived and breathed in a racist system. She had barely opened her eyes or cried her first tears before her life took a particular trajectory because of her skin color, because of the skin color of her parents. The biases she already is developing are documented. By 6-9 months, infants stare longer at faces of their own racial groups + “older but not younger infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music.”
Let me step away from the concrete a bit. Systemic racism, the not-so-secret society, is a machine. One that is fueled by “the way we do things here,” by “the way it’s always been done,” by “history,” by nothing and everything, no one and everyone at the same time. If every white person decided to call in sick tomorrow, not even get out of bed, white privilege would still exist. Racism would still exist. The only movement that isn’t automatic is the fight against it, the swim against the tide, the conscious unlearning and disorientation, the dismantling of the structure.
I pull from Beverly Daniel Tatum’s description of racism as a system that advantages and disadvantages people based on race. My daughter is advantaged. Every breath she takes, every day she benefits, she perpetuates the status quo, she allows the wheels of the machine to continue turning. Her complacency is and will continue to be its fuel. Her inaction or even lack of awareness serves as payment of her membership dues in this vicious society.
I see my role as of parent as modeling and teaching V that this system exists, that her membership was guaranteed from the moment my partner and I knew we were pregnant. And, most importantly, that she has a part to play to actively reject it. A responsibility that I try to model every day. I, too, am accountable for developing a critical consciousness in her that will eventually serve to support her acknowledging and interrupting her own biases. The world has already started to communicate narratives to her, single stories about groups of people. To confront this, I am doing things like meticulously curating her bookshelf.
However, I also know she will head to school one day and read Dr. Suess. It is my job to develop her critical thinking skills, to demand that SHE demand more from her teachers and the books they put in front of her and her future classmates. This way, when she encounters Dr. Suess, whose lesser-known writings perpetuated numerous racist tropes, and whose well known texts often offer troubling messages of exclusion, she will employ her consciousness and not accept that just because a story is written a certain way, or because a history is told to her, that it’s right or true. I know there are conversations yet to be had about Halloween costumes and holidays and the intersection of my/her whiteness and our Puerto Rican ethnicity. I anticipate this work will prompt her, as it does me, to confront our racism. It will require that she acknowledge and understand her impact as someone who walks into rooms in the skin of a colonizer. An enslaver. A racist. And it is my promise to her and myself that every day we will work to decolonize, to disrupt and dismantle, and to disavow the system, the bias, and the indoctrination by using every 24 hours as another opportunity to manifest a world that is just and equitable.
Natalie Zwerger is Director of the Center for Strategic Solutions, an equity and racial justice center, dedicated to promoting and sustaining equity in the classroom and beyond. Ms. Zwerger is a facilitator in the NYU Knowledge Partners program, part of the campus diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Ms. Zwerger has provided professional development and technical assistance to educators from PreK to college across the country, including Puerto Rico. A former teacher in the Bronx, Ms. Zwerger has nearly 20 years of experience as an educator and advocate for children’s rights.