What Toni Morrison Taught Me About Parenting

How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others

I, rather ambitiously, set a goal for 2018: read one book a week.

This is going to be quite the stretch for me as I read less than half that many in 2017. But why not give it a shot?

The first book on the list was from an author I’ve never read before, the great Toni Morrison. In 2016, Morrison delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. The Origin of Others, a collection of essays based on those lectures, was released in book form in September of last year.

The goal of Morrison’s lectures/essays is to explore the way America’s writers have discussed social “others”, particularly through their employment of black characters, positively and negatively. Her essays engage with the journals of slave owners, slave narratives, and some of the greatest literary minds America has ever produced including, crucially, her own work. Throughout, Morrison observes the way “the Other” is depicted, using each instance as a window through which we can understand our context today.

Rather than offer a full-orbed book review, I’d rather apply Morrison’s argument to the everyday task of raising my little girls. As Toni Morrison considers these things for the good of the next generation, I will do the same.

Representation Matters

If we were to boil The Origin of Others down to its core, a thesis would emerge: how we think of others reveals much about who we are.

How do we think about those who are different than us? Do we view them with suspicion? Are we threatened by their proximity or by the increase of their agency? Or do we welcome the other? Are we willing to be taught by them and willing, even, to be changed by our interaction with the other?

The primary lens through which Morrison asked these questions was literature. I’d like to make a similar point in regards to television shows, particularly by focusing on the way Latino/a characters are brought to the small screen.

I did an unscientific perusal of the most popular shows in the United States (thanks IMDB!) at the start of 2018. I was happy to see that some shows did, in fact, have Latino/a representation. But representation is only part of the battle. How Latino/a’s are represented matters just as much.

Sterling K. Brown emphasized this in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes a couple of weeks ago. When thanking This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Brown said,

“Throughout the majority of my career, I’ve benefited from colorblind casting which means, you know what, hey, let’s throw a brother in this role, right? Really cool.

“Dan Fogleman, you wrote a role for a black man. That could only be played by a black man. And so what I appreciate so much about this thing is that I’ve been seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me.”

Most of the Latino/a roles in today’s television shows are a part of what Brown calls “colorblind casting.” Sure, a throw-away line about heritage is included a few episodes into the show (now that the role is cast) but nothing about the detective/doctor/lawyer/whatever is distinctly Latino/a.

And the times that a character’s Latina/o heritage is integral to the story, she/he is cast into a stereotype. Cue Sofia Vergara’s bombastic “Gloria” or the women of Orange is the New Black (Latinas as convicts — how original). And when Cristela Alonzo tried to follow in George Lopez’s footsteps with a comedy about a Latino family, the show was canceled after one season.

Where should my daughters look for representation in television? Where should I? Because representation in pop culture matters. It is in the mirror of the television we are able to see how the country views us. Are we nothing more than loud-mouth criminals? Are we scrubbed clean of our culture and heritage in order to fit a poorly-drawn character profile? Or are we complex men and women with volumes of stories to tell?

Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope. We cried through Coco together (ok, I did most of the crying). We giggle through the silliness of Elena of Avalor and, when she’s old enough, I’ll watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with her and root for the surprisingly (for a comic-book show) complex character “Yo-Yo Rodriguez” as she fights for the future of humanity.

But I also hope that when she’s older there will be more shows that depict Latino/a characters in all their complex glory.

Teaching Children by Example

As Morrison notes, the practice of “Othering” is caught, not taught. We don’t sit children in a classroom and teach them to be racist or sexist (at least not consciously). These things are caught by the example we pass on in the mundanity of life.

But how are we to know if we are setting a bad example? Perhaps asking a few diagnostic questions can help us discern the unspoken lessons we’re teaching our children and even expose some of the hidden prejudices of our own hearts.

What is the standard by which we measure positive and negative?

Is beauty measured by proximity to whiteness? What cultural codes are “ok” and which ones fail to measure up? What forms of worship are our children being exposed to? Do race and ethnicity inform whether we understand something as good or bad, right or wrong?

What cultures are we intentionally exposing our children to?

Is the skin color of all the dolls and action figures in the playchest the same? What cultures do the characters in the bedtime books come from? What color is the Jesus in the painting on the wall? What music are you listening to? What role models are you encouraging your kids to look up to?

What picture of the church are we displaying?

What preachers do you listen to on the stereo as you do chores? What devotionals will your children find you learning from? What kinds of worship music do you listen to in the car on your way to school? What brothers and sisters are you inviting into your home for fellowship and prayer? What relationships do your kids see you investing in?

Resisting the Draw of Sameness

It is easy for minorities to enter into a conclave of sameness after facing racism, discrimination, and indifference. And perhaps, for a time, such a decision can be for our own well-being and self-care. But I pray this would last only for a time. God has called us into a new nation made up of men, women, and children from all nations, ethnicities, and cultures (1 Peter 2:9). We must not respond to Othering by turning to the same devilish weapon.

Toni Morrison has expressed through the wisdom of common grace what Scripture plainly teaches, that God loves the nations and is working, in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, for their healing and restoration (Revelation 22:2). Are we setting this example for our children? Or are we teaching our children to be fearful of the “Other,” to see the “Other” as inferior? Are we preparing our children to go into a world where they will be seen as the “Other?” Do they have the tools of forgiveness and steadfastness?

If we, whether consciously or unconsciously, live in patterns of ethnocentrism or cultural sameness, our children will see that example and may follow it. However, if parents desegregate our lives and minds, our children will have an example to follow. May we provide an example to our children that reflects the Kingdom-mission of God.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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