It’s More Than Junk Mail…It’s Racist Socialization

Every year around the holidays we receive a gift catalog providing us with an opportunity to buy a farm animal for families living in Africa. I have tacitly accepted it as a harmless piece of junk mail. The catalog typically sits in our pile of junk mail. But, after my older daughter commented on it, I was forced to give it some attention.

“Dad, can we buy an animal for a family in Africa. The animals are for families in Africa who don’t have their rights met. They need our help. Come, look,” she said.

Upon her request, I walked over to the table she sat at and glanced at the catalog, which rested on top of a disorderly pile of dozens of week old Black Friday advertisements, credit solicitations and a few bills we have yet to add to autopay. I looked at the pictures of the young Black children and had an instant flashback to my childhood, playing with Legos and hearing/watching commercials on TV of Sally Struthers asking for people to adopt starving children in Ethiopia.

I barely took note of the conscious/subconscious recollections as I flipped through the catalog. Reviewing the pages I began to ask myself, “what is this telling my children about what it means to be African and racially Black?”

After making it through a few pages a moved the catalog to the side and glanced at the other advertisements beneath it. I quickly noticed the pictures. White children playing with toys, Young White adults buying a new TV. White, White, White. Finally, I saw a brown person. He was in Home Magazine on a ladder fixing a window. It was an advertisement for home repairs.

“Dad, can we buy a family a goat? The children in Africa are poor.”

As is often the case with my daughters’ questions, I was speechless.

“Sweetie,” I uncomfortably began, “I noticed that this is the only piece of mail in this whole pile that has a Black person. Every other person in all these advertisements is White.”

Insecure with my response I continued, “I need to think about this and then I need to talk about it with mommy.” The conversation had temporarily been put on hold. However, I knew from my many other experiences with her questions that I was not off the hook. It was only a matter of time before she would once again ask to buy a goat.

Considering the Literature

In the book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas, author Ibram X. Kendi provides an in-depth historical account of the evolution of racist ideas. He begins with Aristotle’s writing on skin color hierarchy around 300 B.C. Aristotle posited that the darker the skin color, the more inferior a person was intellectually, physically and morally. On top of the hierarchy were Greeks, with pale skin. On the bottom were dark-skinned Africans, who he called Ethiopian which translates from Greek into English as “burnt faces.”

Throughout history, the most widely consumed stories in American have created and adapted racist ideas that Africans, and subsequently, Black Americans are at the bottom of the human hierarchy. They are the least evolved, lazy and uncivilized. In many stories, and socialized into the minds of White people, Africans, African Americans, and Black Americans are in need of being saved from their own evils. These stories (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tarzan and The Blind Side, just to name a few) reward the White person for being a loving, caring, benevolent and first and foremost, not racist. A.K.A. The White savior.

Back to the Catalog

Upon hours of reflection, I concluded, with reservations that the organization’s cause is well-intentioned  They probably do good for thousands of people, but what do their solicitations, perhaps even propaganda inadvertently tell people who come across it? What about young children like my five and eight-year-old children? Two children alone, probably nothing. The organization’s images and other offshoots of Sally Struthers’ work juxtaposed with the thousands of messages that portray happiness and all good in this world as White or White ideas, a whole lot.

In her recent publication, Robin Diangelo provides a wonderful framework for understanding why and how White people are socialized to see themselves and their way of life as good and in need of using their good to heal the pain and suffering of others. She points out that White people tend to focus their healing on those who they perceive as lazy, uncivilized and unintelligent. More often than not, those people who they identify are people of color, specifically, people who are Black.

Racial Socialization

When my children watch television, read a book, listen to a song, have a conversation with their friends, or read a piece of junk mail they are seeing and hearing happiness and that is what we as parents want. Of course, not everything is happiness and happiness does not equate to anti-racism. When the face of happiness is most often White or White ideas, and the face of non-happiness is Black or Black stereotypes, the thoughts, ideas, and construction of happiness our children are developing strengthens the adaptations racism must make to stay invisible and endure in White America.

Our children are trying to make sense of the social world they live in. In this world, or at least in this country, skin color remains to be the leading qualifier for quality education, health care, housing, employment and access to just about every other human right. As a White person, I want to do good. My heart tells me that I should be the savior for all of those children and families of color who I have been socialized to think are in need of me. But the truth is, as much as they may be in need of resources for their human rights to be met, buying them a goat or chicken isn’t going to do much, and it definitely doesn’t repair all of the layers of dysfunctional social and political infrastructures that have kept those families in poverty.

Later in the evening, as expected my daughter came back to me with her request to buy a goat. “Sweetie, perhaps instead of buying a goat for a family, we could do some research on why the families don’t have their human rights. We could find other ways to make a difference and perhaps talk to other people about why those families don’t have all of their human rights.”

Years from now, I will likely feel differently about the answer I have given her. However, I am confident that I will have no regrets for my choice to listen and speak up, because #OurChildrenAreListening.

Resources on human rights crises in Africa

https://www.hrw.org/africa

https://www.ictsd.org/

https://www.un.org/africarenewal/