The Blindness of Color Blindness by Maria Rowan

I was born and raised in the rural south, where racial difference was like oxygen. You inhaled it, you exhaled it and you learned about the function and composition later. While my family checked the white or caucasian box on forms, my county was predominantly African-American, a term that did not exist yet. I learned to say "colored", which my mother said was polite, and then to say "black", the term preferred by my classmates to whom it referred.
 
When I started first grade, my elementary school had been integrated for only three years. That year, we were grouped at our four top tables alphabetically and to create gender and racial balance, girl and boy, white and black until the teachers ran out of white children. People identified as white or black by the same one drop rules that governed slavery and then segregation. This continued throughout school.
 
Picking teams in middle school, the white and black team captains alternated choosing one black child and then one white child. In high school, the homecoming queen ballot always listed two white seniors and two black seniors. In the classroom, no one talked about moving beyond race. Black teachers and students wanted white students to recognize the achievements of their ancestors in the face of our ancestors' attempts to keep them enslaved and after emancipation keep them as far away from the benefits of education and elections and employment as possible.
 
Like many parents raised in insular communities, I wanted my child to have a broader sense of the world than her own backyard. At eighteen months my daughter, Emily knew more people from diverse religions and cultures than I did at eighteen years. We read myths and stories from many traditions and skimmed our huge book of photographs of families all over the world.
 
I read essays that warned that a child who thinks of everyone as different on the outside but the same on the inside becomes a child who defaults to thinking of everyone as "white". Coming from my necks of the woods, I didn't believe that was possible. Until last year when I discovered that the color blind children in my daughter's kindergarten class told a biracial classmate that she had to pick the "light" not "brown" skin color in a class art activity. The teacher intervened. At home, I emphasized the rudeness of challenging the classmate's choice, as a person and an artist. My daughter, Emily understood the artist part, but when it came to race she remained perplexed.
 
Honestly, so was I. As I age, more people use the adjectives "multiracial" and "biracial". What if I told Emily to use the wrong words? What if she hurt someone's feelings? Did I want her to start assessing and categorizing people? What if one day she rolled her eyes and corrected me on my archaic and racist language just as I rolled my eyes and corrected my mother. I did not want to teach Emily anything that would ever make her ashamed of me or ashamed of herself.
 
Over the summer, Emily's confusion about skin color came to a head. One morning on a remote island, we visited a museum with an exhibit honoring the 100th birthday of the last remaining member of that island's one African-American family. As Emily gazed at handmade textiles and family photographs, I read the commentary on the segregated school. I asked Emily to imagine being on that tiny island. Teachers come to your house in the afternoon, but the law says that because your grandparents were slaves from Africa you can't set foot in the school house where every single other child on that island spends their day.
 
In the afternoon while digging in the sand, Emily asked "Now that I am getting tan again, am I a brown skinned person?"
 
Without thinking I replied "No. Your skin color doesn't change when your skin color changes."
 
Emily looked at me like that sounded as ridiculous as it sounded.
 
Then, I knew. There was no way around it. Emily needed the whole story. Trying my best to discern what was vital information from what was detail, I covered four hundred years of history in about forty minutes. I started with slave ships leaving Africa with captives who would never see their families ever again. I ended with me learning all this in my newly integrated schools.
 
I made it abundantly clear that slavery did not happen far away, but where we lived. And segregation did not end long ago, but in my lifetime. When I finished, Emily wanted to know - Who? Who were the people who believed that children shouldn't go to school together?
 
Those people were us; my grandparents, my mother, my brother.
 
I know I am not the only mother ashamed that her family resented the civil rights movement instead of embracing it. As a child, I struggled to understand the disconnect between what I learned in school and what I heard at home. My mother tried to change with the times, but her little triumphs over her prejudices only reveal how deeply ingrained those prejudices run. As a child, I saw this, and I became scared, as a mother, to speak for fear of my mother's blind spots and revealing a similar one to my child and then that became my blind spot.
 
My daughter's elementary school class does not resemble mine. There's more than two races; there's three just among the children from Burma. The students are assigned to tables based on who distracts who the least. Emily's teacher, an African American woman the exact same age as I, ended her lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. by saying that with all he dreamed, at the time, we could not imagine seeing what we will see today, the inauguration of Barack Obama.
 
As a child, I could not even imagine a Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, whereas Emily can not imagine why anyone would oppose one.
 
Watching the childrens' increasing fluidity of interactions across gender, race and language lines and witnessing their unanimous enthusiasm for Barack Obama, I can almost forget that the people who drew those lines still exert influence, but I've learned even when their beliefs do not, the shame of them can, if we can't own it and speak of it.
 
At age seven, my daughter is beginning to understand the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and her heroine, Rosa Parks, but I still need to fill in the blanks about the challenges they faced.
 
I draw on my awful heritage of living among people who retreated into an engrained racism even when they attempted otherwise. Their language and thoughts, being simple, are far easier for Emily to grasp and reject than fifty cent SAT words like inferior and institutionalized.
 
She's also learned that her mother weeps constantly when reading books about slavery or talking about this year's election or watching the inaugural concert clips. I found underneath my shame, there was a deep grief and I may weep for the rest of my lifetime - and one day my daughter may weep that I wept. Or she may frown and talk about what an idiot I was. I've grown comfortable with that idea.
 
This morning, I am proud to belong to my generation and to celebrate the changes of our lifetime, but I am more excited about what is yet to come.
 
Maria Rowan lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter, all natives of the state. This morning they are thrilled to have not just a new President, but several inches of snow.