YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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April 2016

By Rochelle Fritsch, blogger at The Late Arrival

Interrupting Racism in Families

Rock breaks scissors

Scissors cut paper

Paper covers rock

These are the familiar rules of childhood that determined who’d be "It" in a game of tag, or who’d be seeking in a game of Hide and Go Seek.

Back then, those rules only meant that someone got what they wanted because they had the advantage of “throwing” a rock, paper or scissors in comparison to what their playmate “threw.”

Embedded in those rules was a larger, but just as important rule: The flip side of the strengths that rock, paper or scissors have is weakness.

The Rules Apply to Families

Traditions can be viewed as a family strength. Traditions surrounding who members will seek as spouses establish stability for future generations. Traditions surrounding cuisine, language, religion and music strengthen connections to the family’s country of origin. No matter the area in which traditions focus, they provide a secure lens through which generations see the world around them and their identity in it.

However, the flip side is that traditions also have inherent weakness. Family members encouraged to “stick to one’s own kind,” miss out on knowledge, experience and enrichment those outside of tradition can bring.

In segregated cities like Milwaukee, tradition can also limit mobility of where families potentially live; or sticking to tradition can be the first step toward living beyond one’s means in an effort to live among similar people.

Intra-denominational faith-based traditions of different racial and ethnic groups divide members of the same religion versus uniting them.

In this familial game of Rock, Paper, Scissors as it relates to diversity and race, future generations will lose unless the game is interrupted.

More Than Words

Interrupting racism is more than correcting grandpa when he refers to white people as crackers, or gasping in horror when grandma calls your black friend colored. Grandpa and grandma were more than likely living their tradition – seeking out sameness of identity in people like themselves – which sometimes ends up manifesting itself in the language they use today.

While gentle corrections can build awareness in people regardless of age, it is important to understand that eliminating the use of offensive language is only one step. Just like traditions didn’t become traditions overnight, interrupting racism in families takes time.

Passive Interruption

Media can be a subconscious influencer of the way people think about race. A simple, passive way to begin interrupting race may be a conversation about the next television show or movie you watch with family members.

The next time you and a family member(s) are watching a television show or movie, ask:

  • Did everyone in the movie look like us?

  • Who didn’t look like us?

  • Did the villain look like us?

  • Could the same story have been told with someone who does/does not look like us?

  • Why or why not?

If younger children are in your care, the questions are simpler:

  • Do you think princesses in fairy tales look like you?

  • Do you think princes in fairy tales look like you?

  • Describe a princess/prince. Why do you describe her/him that way?

A seemingly passive activity and simple questions can evolve into larger dialogues about how individuals within families see themselves or see others who are unlike them.

Active Interruption

While Milwaukee is a segregated city, it is rich in a diverse population – over half of which are people representing minority racial and ethnic groups. This geographic separation provides an opportunity for everyone to physically step outside boundaries and experience a different worldview.

Uncomfortable as it may seem at first, take your family to worship at a church of your denomination with a different worship style than your own church. Introduce yourself and talk to their members. Visit a mosque or a temple and talk to leaders within those houses of worship. Attend listening sessions from alder people outside of your district. Sit in on one of the Zeidler Center’s ongoing community conversations.

These are just some of the many opportunities the community offers for people who might otherwise be separated geographically to engage and interact with each other.

The Stakes are High

Going into any opportunity, it is important to assume you know nothing – except that the people who you meet may look different than you – but they are exactly that: people.

Be humble enough to ask questions. Be willing to listen. Be open to having your preconceptions challenged. Then take what you learn and keep the conversation going within your family about what was learned, or discuss what was different than expected and how it could impact the way you think.

The divides of race and ethnicity are deep, but they can be bridged if enough families take small steps toward interrupting racism in the home.

Unlike Rock, Paper Scissors, the stakes for interrupting racism are a lot higher than deciding who will end up being "It" in a game of tag.


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