Aug. 31 2011 11:33 AM

Why a popular method of pretending we don’t see color undermines progress when it comes to race

Aaryn Belfer

Mommy blogger Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman, posted a tutorial on her blog in 2009 -- complete with color-enhanced photos -- illustrating how she teaches her home-schooled children about diversity.

Behold: The lesson plan begins with the purchase of Play Block People, miniature plastic multicultural figurines made in China. The figurines are then tossed into a white Le Creuset cast iron pot (Get it? The melting pot?), where they’re stirred with a wooden spoon. Et voilá! A post-racial society for her children to play with.

They’re all living peacefully in that pot: the blacks, the whites, the Native Americans. Sort of like at the beginning of America! Except -- there’s a wheelchair dude, and there weren’t wheelchairs back then, were there? Anyway, it’s inclusive.

I’d been simmering on this topic since a reader first sent me a link to Drummond’s post. But it wasn’t until spending four intense days in race-focused workshops this past July that I decided to finally pick on Drummond’s approach. After all, it’s about as wrong as the disturbingly white memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. unveiled in Washington, D.C., last week. Somebody really should have given more thought to the chosen medium.

As disturbing as Drummond’s approach to teaching diversity is the agreement of her many followers. The response was a whole bunch of atta-girls and excited I’m-gonna-try-thats. The enthusiasm of her fans is so powerful that you can practically see the light bulbs going on in dark basements across the heartland. By George! It’s brilliant! they might be saying to themselves as they add “black figurines” to their shopping lists.

The thing is, I don’t want my daughter’s choices, opportunities, identity, sense of belonging and self-worth -- and those of her black brothers and sisters in this country -- to be dictated by the pseudo-educated, pale-faced Baby Drummonds of the world. The planet doesn’t need more white folks with unearned, unacknowledged privilege who learned about diversity when their mommies decided to dump a bunch of “sturdy, rugged and awesome” rainbow colored Block Play People into the hands of their kids and call it a job well done.

“[W]hen it comes to discussing diversity with my children,” Drummond says, “I choose not to discuss diversity with my children.... I figure it’s a more powerful message for the Block Play human race to coexist without a lot of fanfare and hype than if I separated them, sat my kids down and explained, ‘This is a black family. This is an Asian family... etc.’ If they have questions, I’ll answer them as I’m doing the dishes or painting my toenails.” And this woman publicly refers to herself as a pioneer. I can only wonder how she would’ve fared along the Donner Pass.

Look. Teaching children about diversity with plastic figurines is like teaching a woman to have an orgasm by showing her a photograph of a dildo.

The fact is -- and there’s plenty of peer-reviewed research to prove it -- children don’t not see diversity simply because parents choose not to mention it, an act that, in itself, is proof of white privilege. Progressives, especially, are guilty of using this method.

Despite the good intentions, it turns out that if you don’t talk to your kids about a topic, they’ll learn about it elsewhere. If the conclusions remain unspoken, children will draw their own. They need only turn on the television, open a catalogue or magazine or go out into the real world to learn about how non-white people are viewed by our society. The authors of Nurture Shock have written about it. Anderson Cooper re-proved it in his “race doll test.” And -- hey, ho! Just look at that: Dolls being used effectively to teach about race. The mind reels.

You can bet that black families across America are discussing race, all the time. And white families need to be engaging in regular conversations, too. White children cannot learn about diversity because they have three Native American dolls and two black ones. Moreover, they cannot learn about their own abundance of unearned privilege, an awakening essential to the larger dialogue about race.

The children of people who decide that Oh, we’re all the same in God’s eyes cannot know that black people are regularly denied bank loans, car loans, promotions, jobs and housing because they are black; that they are ignored in restaurants and followed in department stores; that they are assumed to be guilty before innocent, incompetent before qualified, uneducated before intelligent. Despite what figurine-land has to say about it, the reality is that white grownups in power (and even those not in power) do, in fact, see color and then act -- maybe overtly, maybe not -- as if theirs is superior.

A real pioneer would pick up a book (and, no, The Help does not count). She would ditch those Block Play People, grab her children by the hands and introduce them to people of color. Mingle with them.

Share meals with them. Have friendships with them. Love them. And then she would start talking about race in an open, honest and straightforward manner. While doing the dishes or painting her toenails. Or -- my preferred method -- while sitting face to face, looking into their beautiful curious eyes and telling them the hardest truths of all. Straight up.

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