Our Journey Through Technology: Or, Getting Rid of Screen Time

There are a thousand thousand reasons to love this life, everyone of them sufficient.

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Most everyone in southeastern Virginia is watching for the leaves to begin browning around their edges and preparing to fall into our yards as we start settling into new autumn routines and daylight rhythms. This is one of the things I love most about Virginia. We have such beautiful changes of seasons. I have grown to really appreciate the turn and the tilt of the earth as we move from summer’s extreme heat to winter’s blistering cold year after year. Our home life has turned away from the traveling, leisure, and late evenings of summer and is now more focused on new house projects, routines, and instruction. The beginnings of turning inward and spending more time in our minds reading, practicing, learning, and creating always start in the fall, continuing through the deep winter when we’re all tucked tight inside, hibernating. After the busyness of spring and summer, this time of year is always welcomed. This is actually the first time that we’ve put our older boys into any after school activities. They started both cub scouts and piano lessons this year. I’ve always been wary of over scheduling my children and structuring play out of their lives, but this feels slow paced and reasonable for our family. It also makes them seem older to me, which is a welcomed gift.

I’ve been watching my oldest son, Myles, a lot recently. He’s 7 and in second grade, quickly growing out of the innocence of young childhood and into an older child, rounding the corner into adolescence. Sometimes it’s tough watching him lose his innocence and navigate the world. This age is a particularly awkward as he gains more social awareness, constructs his peers and the world into hierarchies, and is yet still so clumsy and emotionally fragile. I can only imagine that it will become more and more difficult as he continues to grow up and we navigate through my and Jason’s parenting. We all have lots of learning to do, and still more failures and successes to accumulate over the years.

The most recent topic that we are navigating through is our children’s use of digital technology. As they all get older their love for and immersion in so much technology is always a struggle for me. It’s something that we try to monitor and keep boundaries around, but often it almost feels like an impossible battle. And what are we fighting? At times it seems so benign and harmless. They love to play Minecraft and watch YouTube. It’s what they enjoy. And yet, so quickly it becomes all that they want or know how to do. I find that they even become more agitated and bored the more that they are connected to their games and television. When it’s turned off they pace around the house, become agitated at each other, and oh, do they whine. It’s as if they forget how to play and use their imaginations. They need something to stimulate their brains and flash across their eyes in order for them to function and participate in the world. And obviously, this concerns me. There’s a slew of research out that argues against so much digital technology for our kids. But there’s also a slew of research that supports it. Some would even probably argue that our world is becoming increasingly more digital so we should all rethink and restructure how and what we consider to be normal social interaction and play. Though, I do become wary when my children, and myself, need constant stimulus to function and interact with people.

Since the summer’s heat has finally lost its grip around here, I’ve been pushing the boys outside every day. And wouldn’t you know, they have no idea what to do. Jason and I set up their micromachine trucks and soldiers outside in the dirt and rocks and showed them how to play, attempting to spark their imaginations. While it takes a few minutes, they finally latched on and began to play. But as soon as another kid comes outside, the same fight ensues trying to keep them outside. They all want to immediately go in and play on a tablet or watch YouTube. Then it’s a hoard of boys pestering you to go to someone else’s house and play the xBox.

Well, over the weekend I had enough. I went through our house and unplugged every television. I put away their Leap Pads. I took out the Wii. I banned Minecraft and all access to the laptop. For the sake of my sanity and the health of my kids. Do you know what happened? The world continued to spin into autumn and my boys played outside. They spent hours building Legos. They drew on construction paper. They played on the swing with their sister. When a kid came over that wanted to take them to their house to play video games I said NO. I put my foot down. Yes, they whined a little bit. Yes, it was harder parenting. But they got over it.

Somewhere along the way this no-shame, no-guilt, parenting culture has turned into a game of survival that often overlooks what’s best for our kids and families. Sure, I feed my kids frozen chicken nuggets and turn on the television when life gets out of control and hard, but it easily and increasingly morphs into our daily lives and routines. And then out of nowhere I have a brood of digital addicts who don’t want to leave the house. And for what? So that my life is easier? Parenting is easier when your kids are staring at a screen. But that doesn’t mean it’s what is best. At least not all of the time. That’s not to shame parents who do it! We’ve all been there. But we can encourage each other to press into parenting when it’s difficult. We can set rules, limits and boundaries that teach our children how to use their imaginations and interact with others in the physical world. That is, I guess, if you value the physical world. The world that has natural rhythms and cycles and is moving our family into fall. And we’re not going to miss it.

Real Talk: Cultivating Kindness

Surely by now we all are friends. At least the distant digital kind that give a listening ear and kindness when we need it. Right now I need a real talk moment. Parenting has been quite a struggle for me recently. I find myself so easily agitated at my children, even the littlest one, barking orders at them, wishing the day away until it’s time for bed. It’s such a shame because I see how it affects their tempers and attitudes. How they’re treated is often reflected in how they treat others. These days it’s mostly with annoyance and anger. Sigh.

What’s the most difficult is that my two boys are absolute turds. I say that in the most loving, motherly way, but holy shit, they are so loud and fight so much. And you know, Jason and I try to teach them kindness and gentleness, but out come the punches and cries that someone took something that they were looking for and will neeeeever give it baaaaack, despite all of our modest attempts at guiding them to loving others. That’s about when I drop my head and wait desperately for 8pm reading, toothbrush, pj, and bed time. Okay, honestly, they could go to bed in jeans and cavities at that point. Just please, for the love of god, close the door and fall asleep. And there you have it. A vicious cycle of anger begetting anger, and more anger, and a heaping tablespoon of annoyance. No wonder my kids are just so lovely to be around.

I think that it was, oh, everyday this week that the boys were squabbling when I pulled them aside to talk to them about kindness, about honoring others with our words and our actions, loving others, treating them how they would like to be treated. They both darted their eyes around the room, squirming to get away from their nagging mom, and told each other sorry, now give me back boy toy, you thief! 

You know, cultivating kindness really is difficult. Everything in our flesh rejects it. It is a discipline to think of others and not yourself. To forgive when you have been wronged. To love when others hate. Selfishness and pride rule our bodies and minds. Well, at least in our family. And that’s really what I have been struggling with. My own selfishness and time. I want to do what I want, when I want it. So, naturally, that causes conflict between me and my toddler when she’s hungry right when I want to, oh, go to the bathroom or check my email. It also causes conflict when I don’t want to read or play games with my son after he’s been asking for an hour. And I get annoyed. Then he hits his brother. Like I said, it’s a vicious cycle.

But you know, I could go off and read a list on how other families have worked to cultivate kindness – writing encouraging letters to each other, baking each other cookies, shooting rainbows from their… I’ll stop – but those lists always leave me feeling like a pretty big failure. My kids don’t donate their allowance money to starving kids in Haiti. Hell, I can’t even get them to loan me $5 for a coffee at Target. They have Minecraft paraphernalia to buy! But what we can do is cultivate forgiveness. When they do wrong they can confess, ask forgiveness, and be forgiven. Maybe that will cultivate more kindness in the long term. To know that you’re forgiven and loved would motivate anyone to be kind to others. Even me.

Colin Kaepernick takes his place in a long line of oppressed American patriots

Okay, class! I think it’s time for a history lesson. With our country having emerged upon a very important and timely intersection of blackness, Americanness, and football, I think that it’s high time for us to uncover some of the truths and unfortunate historical contexts that have brought us to this very poignant moment. I’m taking my cue from the 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who has been silently kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem at his games in protest for the unjust treatment and oppression of black people at the hands of police officers. He has recently inspired many athletes across our country, professional and amateur, all the way to elementary students during the morning pledge of allegiance, to kneel in silent protest. A noble cause.

What we cannot ignore but rather must confront is our country’s history of racism, misogyny, and oppression. It has infected every area of our nation, from the first boots of colonialism that stepped onto marshy banks to knees that are bent on football fields. To ignore and to insist that this history has either been left behind or that this history is over exaggerated is to see history from a blind and ignorant lens of privilege. But the reality is that you don’t have to look far to find it.

Let’s go to 1781 when Thomas Jefferson, one of our country’s most honored founding fathers, wrote Notes on the State of Virginia only five years after he wrote the declaration of independence. In this text, Jefferson gives breath taking overtures on the separation of church and state, individual liberty, the richness of America’s natural resources, and the inferiority of “the blacks.” After describing black people as having no mind to write or learn, having a foul smell, being designed as an animal for hard labor and little sleep, being incapable of loving their women and only desiring their bodies, he concludes “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” It should be no surprise then that when we look at the the creation of the constitution in 1787, our other founding fathers decided that black slaves were considered to be only 3/5ths of a whole person. Property to be haggled over for taxes and representation, more seats in congress.

Though we are two centuries away from these inaugural decisions at the birth of our nation and many if not most of the institutionalized systems of racism have been dismantled, the remnants of these systems ring in our ears and in the lives of black people if you choose listen and look around. From the war on drugs, to the repeal of the voting rights act, the mass incarceration of black youth, the labeling of “super predators,” the new Jim Crow, antagonism against the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and on and on, this system of racism was bred and incubated in our country’s revered historical documents and founding fathers. This festering racism that is found in most of our founding documents has interwoven into the American consciousness. And how couldn’t it? The same documents and historical figures who we revere as the ancestors of our freedoms and patriotism are the very inscribers of racism and misogyny into our systems of governance, legislation and culture.

Recently, Boami Jones wrote an article in the Undefeated titled “Kaepernick is asking for justice not peace,” where he poignantly suggests that “While the major party candidates for president spent the week pointing at each other with charges of who is or isn’t the real racist, Kaepernick pointed at the flag and, by extension, every person who takes pride in the American flag.” This suggestion naturally ruffled quite a few feathers. But if we consider for a moment that you lived in a country where your founding fathers considered you to be 3/5ths of a person, a smelly, unintelligent, lustful person, property, that perhaps you would have a difficult time revering it as much as your white countrymen.  Especially when you witness firsthand the racist imagination that your fellow countrymen have inherited from our founders. It may often be much subtler and undetectable to some, but it is also very obvious when videos of murdered black citizens scroll across our screens every day.

To deny the very obvious historical racism that Kaepernick is protesting is not just ignorant, it is wrong. The work that he is doing is only un-patriotic to those who hold our country up to an infallible esteem and who ignore the very problematic and hurtful history of racism that many of our brothers and sisters in America experience daily. There is nothing noble about forgetting and ignoring that history and present reality.

That is why critiquing our country is important. It’s what moves our country forward and away from its dark beginnings of slavery and genocide, and towards a hope of more equality, freedom, and liberty. This is a freedom that has not solely been fought for by soldiers. It has been fought for by generations of oppressed people. People whose backs were striped with whips and held by chains. Necks that have hung from trees. Women who sat on bus seats. Children who first integrated into schools. Indigenous people who stand at Standing Rock. Football players kneeling on the side lines. Those are the patriots who demand that their country respect them and move us towards a greater freedom. A greater equality. A greater happiness. Kaepernick is actively participating in the National Anthem not by standing, but by kneeling in remembrance, reverence and in protest against the legacy of racism that has and continues to affect him and his ancestors. God bless America and the patriots who demand better.

An Elder’s Wife: Part II

Here on the other side of my husband’s life-long ordination to the office of elder in the Presbyterian Church of America the coffee actually seems to stay warm in my mug longer than it used to. I’m not saying that the Lord is now blessing his service with warmer than normal coffee. That probably isn’t in line with reformed theology. I’m just saying it’s a strange coincidence and He works in mysterious ways. That’s all.

If anything, Jason’s new leadership role looks to me more like the Order of the Phoenix where he shuffles off to a few super secret meetings and comes home with enchanted lips not telling me a darn thing. Not that I try to get things out of him. But, say if I did, we already discussed that it’s best for him to not share anything with me that I don’t need to know. Elders and pastors at churches tend to work with people who are involved in sensitive situations that need to be handled with, well, sensitivity and discretion: struggling marriages, infertility, diseases, loss of jobs, death, really a multitude of life’s curve balls. And I’m glad that Jason is there to walk with people when they’re at their most low and sometimes their most high. He’s such a gracious, loving, understanding, and gentle person. I’m glad to see him serve our church in that way. As long as he doesn’t tell me about it.

Honestly, it is a struggle for me to know that he is involved so intimately with so many important decisions and people’s lives in a way that I would love to be. I could very easily pressure and manipulate him to indulge my curiosity and desire to have some sort of power through knowledge in our church. But what would I do with that information anyways? Salivate all over it? Give my friends knowing looks and side glances when a whisper of conversation comes up that I know something about and they don’t? Oh, how important that would make me feel to be in some sort of imagined inner circle. That I would know information about people and decisions that others don’t. I’ll tell ya. That’s dangerous for a church. And I don’t want it. I mean, I do. But I don’t. So, I’ve told Jason to keep things that are need-to-know to himself. So far it’s been much more difficult than I thought it would be.  But, hey, the hot coffee is a perk.

The last thing I guess that I’d like to verbally vomit here and then regret later is how much I forgot, but am rediscovering, that I don’t naturally fit into white American middle class Christian culture. I haven’t really felt it this strongly in a long time. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I drink, cuss, agitate, and skirt the line between meek and coarse. That lovely and gentle elder or pastor’s wife who humbly couches her tone even when disciplining her children, probably even during the most hot sex with her spouse, just isn’t me. (What? Too far?) I’m not saying that those are the women at our church. I actually love our church because there isn’t this expectation for me to conform to imagined constructions of femininity. At least that hasn’t been my experience. But, you know. It’s still there. When Jason was interviewing for the position as elder, I had a frank conversation with the session about my voice; about what and how I talk in public spaces like this one here and they assured me that I didn’t need to feel any pressure to censure myself because of my husband’s new role. I really am thankful for them.

But, guys, I’m often so brash with people.  I have opinions. Opinions that are strange and offensive and I’m not afraid to share them and confront people when I disagree. And people don’t really like that. Especially Christians. And especially since I’m a woman doing it. Have you all ever watched the sitcom Roseanne? Well, that’s the women in my family. They’re all a bit raunchy, a lot witty, very loud, moody, problematic, rough around the edges, and opinionated. From my great grandmothers, maternally and paternally, all the way down to me. Every one of us. I didn’t know a woman who policed her tone or held back her opinion. And that did often cause harm and hurt in our family. There was and is plenty of abuse and damage because of it. But it also is a big part of what has liberated me. There was love and kindness in their rough wit and harsh tone. And it’s those qualities that have gotten me on the wrong side of people’s opinions about me, especially men and Christian women. I’ve gotten in more than my share of spats with people who don’t like my personality or who are offended by my tone, opinions, and way that I talk to others. And, I don’t know, I guess it makes me nervous that these expectations about what my personality should be will be much heavier with my husband being an elder. I don’t want to be antagonistic. I want and pray for humility and to love people. To be gentle and kind. To acknowledge and accept when I’m wrong. Repent and ask for forgiveness. And I’m often embarrassed and ashamed of my personality, especially since I choose to be so public online.  But being exceptionally nice, over the top kind, super sweet with cherries and whipped cream on top just isn’t my gig, nor is it a biblical calling.

Those are just a few of the things that have come up in conversation with me and Jason over these last few weeks. Things that have been on my mind. I’m also trying to be careful to distinguish between what is reality and what is my perception. I want to be wary of projecting my insecurities onto the actions of others. Meaning, I don’t want to assume that other’s think and feel certain ways that they don’t. And I also want to be mindful of why I’m sharing my experience of having a husband that is an elder at our church. I think it’s important to deconstruct our leaders, their roles, and the roles of their families. We should always be confronted with our expectations and beliefs about others and to rethink them. So, that’s what I’m doing for myself and offering it to you. Take it how you want. It’s not like I’m going to stop talking or anything.

When relationship habits hurt

We turned the key of our old wooden front door and were met with a century’s worth of woody must that lofted up through the floors while we were away. With the air conditioner off for more than a week, the stale air inside of our house stuck thick in each room from not circulating. Our house’s old age always surprises me and welcomes me back home, adding us to its history and care.

Our vacation last week was a dream. While I was worried that it would be more difficult and disappointing than relaxing and fun, the way vacations can often turn out, it met us with an abundance of unexpected pleasure and leisure. Returning home we all feel refreshed instead of exhausted and remarkably closer to one another. When was the last time you heard of a family vacation actually doing that? I don’t have many pictures from our vacation, which is probably a good reason as to why it was so nice. Phones weren’t a huge distraction and we didn’t force any posed family pictures, trying to fake the fun. It happened naturally and with low expectations. No organized games, events or outings. Nothing was planned. We kept it flexible. If we wanted to go on a bike ride, we went. If we wanted to watch TV or nap, we did. Food was kept simple. Lots of snacking. No forcing the kids to stay at the table and finish their veggies. We came and went with the breeze and tried to limit how much we controlled the kids. Even they needed a break from our often militant parenting that demands their obedience and complete adherence to our rules.

Bending our family rules for a week and being a bit more free was really life giving for us and our kids. It actually helped me to appreciate the rules in our house a little bit more.  Coming home to regular bed times, screen times, eating times, healthy food, and routines doesn’t feel quite as oppressive after having an entire week of foregoing what we do the rest of the year. And it makes me miss it. I miss the long evenings with the kids, snacking on Oreos and playing cards. The spontaneous jaunts to the beach. Leisure bike rides to the store. No where to be. No one to accommodate. No one to please.

If anything, that’s where coming home has been the most difficult for me. I came home having spent time alone with my family for 7 days to friends and family, both close and far, whose expectations I just can’t live up to. This summer has been difficult in a lot of ways for me, but mostly it has been most difficult relationally. I am usually very committed to keeping up with my friends and family throughout my day and week, trying not to become insularly consumed with my children, spouse, and work. That means that I regularly text, call, and keep up on social media with people in my life. But this summer, for various reasons, I just couldn’t do it. Perhaps I felt relationally tapped out. Perhaps having older kids around during the summer proved to be a lot more demanding than I had anticipated. Whatever the reason, I haven’t been responding to texts and keeping up with phone calls like a usually do. I’ve stayed a savvy social media user and responder, though we all know that that medium of connection is much more impersonal. Maybe that’s why I preferred it these last couple of months. At any rate, once I returned home from a week away with my family, I was immediately hit with how I’ve disappointed a number of people this summer. Friends. Family. Acquaintances. How I can’t juggle so many relationships, both near and far, with any type of depth for such a prolonged periods of time without disappointing someone. If I choose to start a new relationship, an old one will naturally be taken from. To spend lots of time and emotional energy on a long distance relationship means that I will have less to give to those who are close.

And then add to all of this that I’m introverted. I’m extremely relational but it costs my mind and body a lot of energy. I am charged with quiet and solitude, which as I’ve mentioned before is a rarity around my house, not with relationships. So, it’s no wonder that being away from others and the demands that my (amazing!) relationships require was so life giving. It should also then not be a surprise that it showed me how unsustainable being constantly available to so many people is. It doesn’t leave room for me to invest deeply in a few people. It only allows for me to invest shallowly in many. And I say all of this as if I have soooo many friends. That isn’t true. I don’t spend a lot of time with people. I’m mostly always at home with my kids, reading, writing, texting, lurking facebook, being super digitally social, but not super physically invested. What a shame. For me and for my loved ones. But to stop that behavior means that I won’t be as available to as many people. To get away from my texting and social media behaviors and relationships means that I’ll hurt a lot of people with whom that’s my only form of relationship with. And I hate that. I love being connected to so many of my friends. But, in all honesty, being away from those pressures was so wonderful for me and for my family and in turn, I am so much closer to them for it.

I’m not planning on stopping my relationships with people who I primarily text and interact with online. I’d miss you all too much! And I have more long distance friends than I do physically close friends. Maybe I should just ask for a little grace when I drop the ball, or maybe my phone. I do need to be in my physical space occasionally! Or maybe just more vacations.

In defense of Norfolk Public Schools: The truth is, they are fantastic

There’s something that I need to tell you that’s rather important. Something you may not expect and may initially scoff at, but just hang in there with me:

Norfolk has amazing public schools.

Phew. I’m so glad to get that off of my chest. I’ve been dying to tell you for weeks now. I know that you’re surprised; you’ve heard so many terrible things, so many rumors, from so many people. I’ve heard them all, too. And it wasn’t too long ago that I was nervous about sending my kids to NPS too, but here we are loving it. There has been quite a lot of noise and many heated conversations in our community this summer about Norfolk’s new school budget, most of which lack any type of data or understanding about funding and distribution of resources, but fear not. I’m here to set a few things straight for you and provide a little bit on context to show you just how great our schools are.

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First, let’s just get it out of the way. The budget increased this year by 3.6% from around $315 million to $326 million. But, that increase just doesn’t go very far in a district where there are so many varying needs. 10 teaching specialist positions had to be removed, leaving a few schools without any reading and math specialists all together, a few schools having to share, and the rest with either a full or part time specialists. If you’ve been paying attention to this discussion in our local newspaper, you’ve seen how hot people are about this reduction in teaching specialists. Mostly the complaints are coming from some of our most successful schools, which were pointed out in the Virginia Pilot this week as being some of our most “affluent.” What first needs to be analyzed is the use of the term affluent; it is a very subjective term that is not easily defined. While Ghent School is in a more affluent part of town, it is a lottery school and has a mix of students from middle class and lower income neighborhoods. However, it performs well. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when positions need to be shifted and redistributed that schools that are doing well don’t have as big of a need as schools that are struggling. And yet, people are still surprised.

Parents at Larchmont, Ghent, and Taylor wrote dozens of letters to school officials complaining about the injustice of their children losing reading and math specialists; that their children are doing well because those specialists are there. How dare they penalize the most successful and redistribute based on need? This is where we need a bit of context and understanding about these positions: how they are funding and how they are placed. Last year, Norfolk had 68 city wide teaching specialists. Once the new budget was approved they removed 10 of those positions leaving 58 city wide specialists. This was back in June and there was nary a peep from any parents in west Norfolk. After that decision was made in June, it was then time for officials in the division to place the specialists. Once it was discovered that Ghent, Taylor, Larchmont, Tarallton, Mary Calcott, Willoughby, Ocean View, and Sewells Elementary Schools would be now sharing specialists, the letters streamed downtown in droves mostly from parents with students in Ghent, Larchmont, and Taylor. Where were these letters when the school board was making their budgeting decisions in the Spring? And importantly, why did they assume that their schools would not be considered when reductions needed to be made?

Many parents are concerned that the decisions of placement were made based on affluence. However, it needs to be pointed out that only 3 of the aforementioned schools are not Title I schools. The other 5 are. So, affluence was not a factor. The decisions of placement were based on the number of students at each school, achievement (or accreditation), and need. Affluence may be a resulting factor in which schools had their specialists reduced or removed, but it was not a variable in deciding. What I would like to ask the parents complaining about this decision is if they would ever consider moving to a neighborhood that is zoned for the schools that receive full time teaching specialists or ask to have their child sent out of zone so that their children who are struggling in math and reading can receive that assistance. No? Why not? My sense is that they believe those schools are not good enough for their children, for whatever mythic reason, and choose to send their children to schools that are fully accredited and lacking teaching specialists.

The second piece in this discussion is how teaching specialists are funded. There is no state wide mandate for reading specialists at our public schools and Norfolk is the only school division in Hampton Roads that pays for city wide teaching specialists out of their own local operating budget; our school district actually pays $5 million for all 58 of our teaching specialists, both math and reading. While Virginia Beach provides reading specialists to all of its elementary schools, both full time and shared, they rely on state funding and do not provide math specialists to any school that is not Title I. While it is up for interpretation concerning statewide priorities in terms of how and which type of specialists are provided to each of our schools statewide, it is important for us to acknowledge that Norfolk has done a very good job of prioritizing both reading and math specialists for our students.

While many scoff at the $122,076 that the board will be spend on traveling for professional development workshops this year, which is quite a lot of dough, if not too much, there is more to see in this budgeting picture. While our district has one of the smaller school budgets in Hampton Roads, it spends more per student than any other, which includes its commitment to providing 58 city wide math and reading specialists.

Images from Norfolk.gov

While money spent is not a complete and accurate metric with which to measure how well a school division prioritizes its students, Norfolk does offer a budget that attempts to manage the various needs found across our district. While it is not perfect and there is a need for better fiscal and budgeting decisions from our board and administrators, the numbers tell a picture of how our city leaders actually to value and prioritize our students. We must work at looking at facts instead of reading sensational local news articles that disregard the actual numbers and instead rely on insidious rumors and myths about our schools. If you have never visited a Norfolk public school, let me invite you to do so. Go take a tour. Talk to the principals. You could even go to a school board meeting. Or even better, send your children to our public schools. It’s important for us to get a more realistic understanding of our schools and our neighborhoods when we enter into these debates and conversations. Because Norfolk is a great city that has great schools. We just have to make a conscious cognitive shift away from what we hear and what actually exists.

Perceptions of Beauty: How Speaking About Anti-Racism Is Not Divisive

When I was a child my grandmother and I would watch QVC in the evenings while she got ready for bed. Sitting at her vanity, she’d slather on her cold cream with her hair up in pin curls while I laid across the bed next to her with my feet kicked up and picked at the loose threads on the knit blanket. Her favorite segments on QVC were the Fenton glass basket sales and the porcelain dolls. She kept the TV turned down low during the makeup demonstrations declaring that the women looked like a bunch of hussey clowns in all of that lipstick, but when the porcelain dolls came on she turned up the volume and watched with her full attention.

Straight and tall, the creamy white dolls stood on their stands with bright, glossy eyes and ringlets of yellow, red, and chestnut hair falling down their shoulders from under boater hats. Decorated in Victorian lace and bows, these angels of the house were so beautiful. After a long day of housework my grandmother gave them all of her attention. She dumped her burdens and absorbed them. The camera panned across the line of dolls and stopped at the end to zoom in on the one with smooth dark porcelain skin. Her deep black eyes stared out unmoving but knowing and they pushed my grandma back into her chair as she looked away and finished wiping the cold cream off of her face.

“Oh, grandma look at that one. She’s beautiful,” I said wispily.

Jerking around with pinched brows, my grandma looked at me and said, “Now, you know that doll is ugly as sin. Don’t go saying stuff like that.” She turned off the TV and finished her night time beauty routine. Twisting hair. Smearing cream.

*****

It’s quite amazing how years later old memories can apparate into our realities. I thought of that story of my grandma and the black porcelain doll this week after I packed up all three of my kids and went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for lunch. Waiting in the check out line, Ruby was sitting in the front of the shopping cart by me while the boys flipped through magazines. When we finally moved up a spot, we stood next to a young black lady in the line next to us with a little girl around the same age as Ruby in her cart. As I was in the middle of telling the boys, yet again, that they could not buy any candy, an older white man that was in line behind the black lady and her child walked over to Ruby, rubbed her hand and said, “Why hello blue eyes! Aren’t you a beauty!” I turned around to see him fawning over Ruby and I immediately felt my skin begin to glow as I noticed the young black man behind me give a knowing look to the other child’s mom. She looked at Ruby, then at the old man, pinched her mouth shut and turned around towards her baby. The old man continued on saying that Ruby would be a heart breaker one day and that she was just so sweet and pretty.

He didn’t notice a thing. Because what really just happened? Did anything happen? Did I read into the faces of the people around me? Impose my intuition on them? I don’t believe I did. Something very subtle and culturally big happened. And I thought of my grandma’s dolls. I remembered back to my grandmother telling me that the black doll was as ugly as sin and I felt ashamed. And angry. What happened in the grocery store with Ruby was so subtle that it was almost unnoticeable. Well, unnoticeable to the white man. The little black baby sat in his direct line of vision for minutes. There was no fawning. No talking. Almost as if the baby wasn’t there. And then we strolled ahead of him. He craned his neck and walked across the aisle towards Ruby to show his admiration for her beauty. I noticed. And so did the black adults around me. I was immediately uncomfortable for what he had done and I felt complicit. I was complicit. And, sadly, so was Ruby. My little girl has been born into a racial system that places her at the top of what is considered beautiful: blonde hair, blue eyes, creamy white skin. And there’s my grandmother again: “that doll is ugly as sin.”

There’s this myth out there among white people that if you bring up or talk about racism or oppression against people of color that you are in some way creating racial division. That uttering into words the everyday experiences of racism is what actually creates division and unrest, not racism itself. We think that if we keep silent about it, ignore it, only talk about chipper white-ass things, it will somehow magically not be there, if it was really there to begin with. I’m always perplexed by this cultural myth. It isn’t until something crosses or saddens us (white people), our own friends, our own family, or our own values that we feel compelled to share our grievances and concerns. In those moments we don’t consider bringing up how we’ve been wronged to be divisive. We consider it to be a part of the process of restoring justice. And it is. But this moment at the grocery store happened. That other mother’s beautiful little girl was ignored and vanished under the system of beauty that my child has privilege in. The people around me felt it and witnessed it. The division was there. It’s still there. Is my mentioning it and telling the story creating more division? Or, is it me warning us, white people, to open our eyes. To look around. To look at and see the faces of the people of color around us, these faces that have for centuries have been told are “ugly as sin.” It’s a lie. Look at them and remember that it’s always been a lie.

I think my daughter is so beautiful. Parents tend to always think that about their own children. And the other mother thinks the exact same about her daughter. If only our culture didn’t choose sides. As I was standing there watching the black adults around me groan at the display of centuries worth of racism, racism that they see every day, I didn’t know what to do. What could I have said or done to decenter this old white man’s perceptions of beauty? What could I have done to have made it right? I didn’t do anything. I just stood embarrassed and in disbelief. The old man went back to his place in line and silently waited for his turn to check out. I herded my kids back to our van and drove us all home. I played the scene over and over in my head for hours and couldn’t get the looks of the black man and woman out of my mind.They knew exactly what happened.  And I wish I could tell them that I’m sorry. You’re so, so beautiful.

I decided then that this story had to be told. There are those that believe that these stories are divisive, that they create racial tension. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is already a divide. It’s been there for centuries. It’s told to our children when the beauty of black baby’s is ignored because our grandparents told us that they’re ugly as sin and dangerous as hell. Well, no more. No more.

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