The last few days, Clara has woken me with the snakey touch of her cold naked body. In this heat, she and Jeff are sleeping downstairs on the couch and thai mat, respectively. Today we played a familiar game
(The seed and the gardener … I carefully bury her curled form in pillows, wishing sweet growing wishes. I water the pile with dancing fingers, tell how the sun shines down. In time – a sprout! Her body slowly grows from the pillowy soil; I water; the sun shines. She grows to her full height. Sometimes I harvest and eat; sometimes I smell her flowers; sometimes I lay in her shade. Then we laugh and it is my turn. As I grow from the warm dark soil, I look out the window to see the tops of my kin all around. Hello! Hello!)
before we went downstairs for toast.
At night, Z and I lie naked in the bed, our bodies expressing their tender transitory expressions
(nipples, pubic hairs, labia, shoulder blades, toe nails, eyebrows)
in the yellow-black summer air as we twist on top of the quilt with our heavy heat-damp books.
She likes a lazy head-scratch from my hand that’s not holding a book as much as her dad does. I like to weave my hand in and tug slowly on the roots – a firm touch in a world of not-enough contact for our animal selves. Our hair, tangled from drying under hats after river swimming, mingles on the pillows.
A few days ago, in the wake of the inevitable announcement of the extension of online schooling in our district, I decided to revisit some old blogs I used to follow about project-based un-schooling. Despite the rotten taste in my mouth as I read an entry from 2017
(in which the writer loudly rolls her eyes about suggestions she’s received that she might be able to do more good by having her kids in school and bringing her remarkable energy to bear on the system for the benefit of all kids in her community)
I got a journal out and tried a thing she suggested: just make notes of what your child is interested in, help them see patterns, look for a project together.
Zelda was willing. I asked questions; made notes. Soon enough, she suggested that this process was not revealing anything to her – that she already knew the things that I was asking. She used a descriptor I often use: “It just feels like an interview.”
I stood up for my sense that something needed to happen in these long aimless days – a project, a process. I said that without other adults providing structure, investing time in her learning – I felt that she needed more support. I said that the variable endlessness of the rapidly refreshing digital social scene is always available, always tempting us – usually without giving us the kind of personal, relational context in which challenge can reveal or satisfy. I said – too much.
Zelda let me know, with a tight voice, damp eyes, that I had gotten on the whiteness train again.
No, she did not say: whiteness.
She said: I feel like this thing with the notepad makes it so it’s not you and me talking anymore. It’s like this is for someone else who doesn’t even know me. She said: it hurts my feelings when you talk about the things I’m doing that you don’t like, to try to get me into your idea. She said: I think I hurt your feelings when I said your questions weren’t helping me, and so you got defensive.
I sat back, took a breath. Let her know: you’re right, that I felt somehow offended. You’re right that I wanted to defend my idea. But the wild truth is, it wasn’t even my idea. It was for someone else.
What was the feeling that drove me to the old blogs where I used to take comfort in a vision of learning and family that seemed protected – separate – from the mechanical grind of 9-5 and systemic education?
The idea laid alongside, called up through the announcement of more online school: that she is not getting enough, that I am not giving enough, that we are not doing enough. Here’s this feeling: scarcity. Worry.
And then, so quickly, here is whiteness: a fix for this.
I can hear the voices: why is this whiteness?
The central urge of the cultural energetic of whiteness is to dominate. The proliferation of ways that this urge manifests in individuals, communities, policy, structures and systems has been one of the primary activities of white culture over the last several hundreds of years. If you are curious about the concrete historical scholarship of this, please read Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X Kendhi. If you want a nuanced inquiry into the ways whiteness shows up in individuals, turn to Layla F Saad’s book, White Supremacy and Me.
One flavor of whiteness I am especially susceptible to is the exceptional opt-out. Public charter schools in Portland are full of this kind of whiteness. I know, because I’m there, too. The ironic rant that I found on the project based unschooling blog was a perfect example of this kind of whiteness. The central thesis is: I am different. And the truth is that we are all different! Something to celebrate! But when the core urge of dominance gets a hold of this thesis, it becomes: I am different, and I can and should use my power and privilege to prioritize the preferences of my (segregated) community ahead of the collective.
One big way this gets facilitated, in my experience, is fear of what will happen if we do not use our power in this way. I connect the exceptionalist voice in my head with class – the fear of the aspiring middle class that if we continue to identify with and care for those among us who remain in poverty, we will be dragged down. Those with more power than we have are using it to get ahead, to meet their own needs, to hoard resources – so we must too! But exceptionalism is clever and says, but we would never do it the way they do. Once again: I am different. Still, the fear under the aspiration makes using the power of separation, of mobility, of access and identity, almost… self-defense? There is a perpetual tinge of victimhood to the exceptionalist in me: she will be obliterated by dominant culture if she does not pull away.
I cannot overstate the role of fear in all this. Despite having an open channel with my kid, and checking for her willingness; despite my overall parenting practice, which is not overtly coercive, the way I approached Zelda was not rooted in connection. I did not start with questions and feelings. I did not start by checking in with my own emotions. I started with a vague worry, and added a sprinkling of internet, the guidance of someone operating transparently from unexamined privilege (privilege I also have benefitted from), and came up with an imagined goal, which I carried to the body of my kid to try to plant it.
I want to be so clear: this is normal! This is nuanced! I am not monstrous. I am a caring parent. And, Scarcity is monstrous. Scarcity makes those with power believe they need more.
And, she felt the third party. The way my body was half turned, hoping for some imagined approval from an audience that will never truly love me.
She felt the seed I had in my hand and its questionable provenance. She asked: did Gaga do this kind of thing with you when you were a kid? I said, no, because we didn’t have a pandemic. But my mom did really focus on my education, making sure I was challenged. She moved me to a private school when the public school was utterly boring and remedial; she signed me up for adult writing classes when there weren’t ones for youth; she made sure that I took the dance classes and the swim lessons.
Zelda asked: How did that feel for you?
And I had to admit that though I always felt challenged, and loved the feelings of being immersed in learning, in the flow of movement, of being recognized, given opportunities to learn, given privilege – I knew, too, as kids almost always do, that there was something happening that was bigger than me, not really about me, or at least not only about me. That mysterious third party sat at my mother’s shoulder as she corrected my essay, looked over my grades, hustled to pay for my extracurriculars: an unnamed external whose eye was everywhere, whose energy could suddenly be unleashed at any time.
The quest for a space in which whiteness is not watching – is not operating – is a common theme in Black American narratives.
I saw a meme this week that said, Whiteness expects everyone to deal with whiteness except white people. This quote was attributed to Sonya Renee Taylor, who I deeply honor. Generally, I assume Black people know much more about whiteness than I do, because of how important it has been in my conditioning for whiteness to remain unacknowledged and invisible. And. As I sense into the presence of this omnipresent but unmentioned third party – who came to a meeting I had with my daughter yesterday by making what could have been a conversation into a meeting, by suggesting I would need a notebook to do it right, by making me an executor of my daughter’s intellectual and creative estate, by gripping my body when she questioned the necessity of the meeting, so that I undermined her so-far resilient response to a global and very personal loss of structure, predictability, and physiological intimacy with her peers – as I sense in to this possession that I accepted but that she rejected – I know that whiteness actually expects white people to deal in whiteness all the time. It expects white people to plant the seed of whiteness into themselves and into each other and into our children – every day.
I processed this experience with a good friend who does non-profit work with organizations that support communities and individuals who are systematically oppressed by US economic and social policy and practice. She connected the whiteness showing up in my meeting agenda with the whiteness of the whole non-profit grind – a drama layered so thoroughly over whatever deep wish to help, to reverse the damage, to support the vulnerable … that there is no dance left for all the feet getting stepped on. My friend named the best outcome of the best work possible in their office: to turn to the most impacted and ask what they need, and then to work to unconditionally meet that need.
Which, considering the fear, is really radical, right? The fear that we – the moderately privileged, the white working class, women with education, first generation college grads, alternative thinkers, escaped from religion – will be thrown back in with the most oppressed if we actually attend to them.
How does this connect to parenting?
We have all learned to employ power-over. It is the status quo. For those of us who wave the educationally exceptional flag, desiring a world where our kids are co-creators of their own learning experiences, the tools of power-over find expression in the quest to maintain and protect their opportunities.
My friend pointed out that actually asking what the most impacted need – showing up in our bodies, slowing down, staying present while they seek an answer in themselves and staying present when and if that answer changes shape – is intensely vulnerable. Because we do not think we can supply what they need; we have not been given the tools. Which is why we try so hard to convince them that they need the things we have to offer.
I see both these vectors coming together in this current moment, and in the project conversation I had with my kid.
My desire to better support her; my fear of TikTok being an insufficient resource for a whole year of socialization needs; my wish for accessible models to engage her interests in a structured format; my desire to be right in there with her in her learning – all of these are real, true, ok ways to feel. And, whiteness says that if we do not employ power over, we will suffer. We will fail. Exceptionalism says that if we don’t get to do it just the way we want, we will suffer. Our difference will be erased.
Pause with that. Do we really want to deform another generation to desire only what they have access to in a system designed to steal land and labor for the benefit of a few? Do we want to teach them to seek what they can gain access to by aligning with power and tacitly cooperating with oppression?
This comes down to the inevitable scrambly moment. In my own conversation, the ability to pause and receive Zelda’s refusal to accept the pill, was the turning point. I relinquished the power of the notepad, the plan, the vicarious online authority. I became a learner: vulnerable, willing to be seen, questioning myself. We held hands on the couch, and talked about screens and social media, about the pandemic and the uprising. She suggested that if I feel afraid that she’s not getting enough, she is totally up to talk about what we could do differently. But, she said, “it’s better for me if we make that about you.”
So here’s my check-in. As we flap our hands about school. Online, offline, masks, in person, pods, full-on drop-out, standards and skills, social-emotional, health and survival. How does that show up for our kids, in our homes? How does the particular way we worry manifest in the particular solution to the particular scarcity we encounter in the guise of our own powerlessness? (If you are thinking, “I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to think about school,” how is this exceptionalism segregating you?) How, in this process, do we double down on the harms we encountered as children, when our sovereignty and intrinsic value were demeaned by the adults who sought to support us to assuage their own fear?
And, essentially, can we root our security in the abundance of actual sensory information all around us that assures us that our children – and the children of our neighbors, and the children of those who live in neighborhoods we do not covet – are deeply, inherently valuable? We do not have to do anything to them to make them valuable. We merely have to treat them – and ourselves – as the whole, worthy humans we already are.