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"I can't teach him what it's like to be black,"
June 13, 2001 5:00 PM   Subscribe

"I can't teach him what it's like to be black," said Van de Perre, who is white. "But I can teach him what it's like to be Canadian and to be a well-rounded human being."

The endgame of a custody battle between a white, single mother with a questionable employment record and a black, married father who played in the NBA. A lower court awarded custody to Blue Edwards, the father, in part because "[the child] would be better off with the wealthy Edwards family which can raise him in black culture".
posted by Big Fat Tycoon (17 comments total)

 
I'm not sure what my feeling on this is, but it seems a bit of a strange way to decide a case. However, I'm not entirely sure how big a part of the decision the "black culture" bit played.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 5:03 PM on June 13, 2001


Custody fights are horrible things--If I could change the law a bit I would require that the wife have a lawyer, the husband have a lawyer and the child (or children) have a laywer to represent their best interest. The fee for thechildrens' lawyer to be split by both parents.
posted by Postroad at 5:56 PM on June 13, 2001


*ignoring FreeSpeech*

I'm not black, but I have grown up straddling two distinct cultures, and have been immersed for the past seven years in black culture, and I can tell you that there is much credence to the claim that it is important for a child to grow up in their own culture. Things as profound as the books that one reads, to simpler practices such as hair care are all things that are difficult to recreate by a parent who is of a different background from their child.

That said, there are times in which a parent's love and support over-ride cultural sensitivites. I don't know this case well, so I can't really say who should raise the child. But, culture necessarily does and should make a difference.
posted by Avogadro at 6:00 PM on June 13, 2001


The child is half white (and half Canadian).
posted by caraig at 6:54 PM on June 13, 2001


"But I can teach him what it's like to be Canadian and to be a well-rounded human being."

that's just mean. talk about child abuse.

:P
posted by jcterminal at 7:29 PM on June 13, 2001


Yeah, I think what I was trying to question was how the courts would decide which culture prevailed in helping determine who was the better parent. It just seems like something too subjective to bring into play. And it also seems to be kind of a self-perpetuating stereotype, to assume that because the child, Elijah, will appear black to most of society, or at least deemed black by most people, that he necessarily has to be exposed to "black culture" to cultivate appropriately "black" characteristics. I mean, if a black person has only "white" characteristics (and the quotes indicate that I'm still not sure what we can definitively call "white" characteristics), does that make that person less black? Or in this case, more white than black? The same questions apply to any person who visibly appear a certain "colour" or "race" but who have grown up in another culture.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 7:30 PM on June 13, 2001


[sarcasm]
He gave the kid to the richer guy, which would please the conservatives, and he gave it to a member of a minority, which would please the liberals. Is this judge running for public office somewhere? Sounds like a win-win situation for a politician.
[/sarcasm]
posted by ZachsMind at 8:40 PM on June 13, 2001


I don't like your argument very much, Avogadro. "Culture" and "background" are issues of software. A child's own culture is whatever culture they absorbed as they grew up. A child's background is whatever the beginning of their life was like, and whatever the people they socialized with were like. The idea of a racial culture is silly if taken literally - race is inherited and culture is learned, and the only reason we link the concepts is that most people learn their culture from the same people that supplied their genes. It's a convenient shorthand, but misleading in cases like this.

The statement "it is important for a child to grow up in their own culture" rests on tautology - whatever culture a child grows up in is their own culture. The meaning I pull from underneath that sentence is, "it is important for a child to grow up in the culture people will assume they belong to after observing that the child shares physical characteristics common among members of that culture".

This is a dubious proposal. I can agree that there is value in teaching a child about the assumptions people may make about them, so that the child is better equipped to deal with such things. But this is not the same thing as training the child to make those assumptions correct!

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:11 PM on June 13, 2001


I can agree that there is value in teaching a child about the assumptions people may make about them, so that the child is better equipped to deal with such things.

I don't know about Canada, but in a society as fucked-up about race as the U.S., the importance of equipping a child who has inherited dark skin with the tools to deal with the issues that skin will bring cannot be underestimated. It's important to avoid essentialism, but far more important to instill self-worth and a sense of belonging in a child as early as possible and by any means necessary.
posted by sudama at 10:21 PM on June 13, 2001


I agree with you Mars that on first blush my statement seems like a tautology. However, that's only if you see a person's cultural life as something that begins at birth, and assumes that a person is (using your analogy) a software-less computer upon which you install the software of society. I don't think that's quite accurate. Like it or not, before any child is born there are already expectations about what the child will be like. Perhaps there is something wrong with having made these assumptions in the first place, but they will always be there not because people are racist, but because people cannot divorce their own cultural memory from their perceptions of the world around them and the people that inhabit it.

The meaning I pull from underneath that sentence is, "it is important for a child to grow up in the culture people will assume they belong to after observing that the child shares physical characteristics common among members of that culture".

That's right, but it's more than mere physical characteristics. Even if the boy did not have any physical traits that are "black", unless the mother withholds from him all knowledge of his father, he will still be curious about his heritage and may feel impoverished as a result of being denied that aspect of his life (no matter how happy his childhood may have been).

The tragedy is that in a perfect world, Mr. Edwards would not have been already married and he and Ms. dePerre could have raised the boy together so that he would be immersed in all aspects of his culture. If Ms. dePerre could have made an effort to teach him what is was to be black, then perhaps she would be the better person to raise him. I hope that Mr. Edwards would do the same.
posted by Avogadro at 6:00 AM on June 14, 2001


It's important to avoid essentialism, but far more important to instill self-worth and a sense of belonging in a child as early as possible and by any means necessary.

And apparently, the way to accomplish this is to stress to the child that he is different, that he's not like everybody else, that he has to somehow deal differently with the world and everyone in it because his skin is slightly darker than everyone else's... Nice way to start out teaching tolerance.

By continuing to stress differences rather than similarities, you accomplish nothing but perpetuating the "fucked-up" attitudes about race you would at first glance appear to be arguing against. But then, that would be racist of you, wouldn't it, and we all know from all the long, drawn out MeFi debates that only white people can be racist.
posted by m.polo at 6:23 AM on June 14, 2001


Ugh, the URL I linked to disappeared faster than, uh, something that disappears fast. Here's an article from a year ago that details the beginnings of the Supreme Court case.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 6:54 AM on June 14, 2001


I'm touched you think mine was the most interesting comment, m.polo. (What's the emoticon for a kiss?) Let me explain what I meant.

I don't think tolerance is taught; rather, intolerance is modeled for children by (mostly) ignorant or (occasionally) malevolent parents.

It's only because society affords those with white skin innumerable privileges contributing to the systematic oppression of people of color that my son will need to be taught from the start how to deal with white racism.

This doesn't involve teaching him that he's different. It means teaching him that he's inherently valuable and capable of anything he determines to accomplish while also preparing him for the fact that many of the people and institutions he will encounter in life will not reinforce his sense of worth. To do otherwise would be irresponsible and unfair, to understate the matter.
posted by sudama at 7:06 AM on June 14, 2001


This doesn't involve teaching him that he's different.

Indeed. Most "different" children have no difficulty figuring this out for themselves.
posted by kindall at 7:31 AM on June 14, 2001


I'm mixed, and I'm half white.

In my experience, whites don't view me as part white, and minorities tend to view me as a sellout when I identify with white culture. I think I should be able to identify equally with both, and not get looks from either side.

I don't like the idea of being forced to choose one side of my culture simply because of the color of my skin.
posted by jennak at 9:08 AM on June 14, 2001


So the kid either gets raised by a basketball groupie who admittedly went out trolling for stars, or somebody who slept around on his wife. Great decision either way.
posted by DiplomaticImmunity at 10:43 AM on June 14, 2001


DiplomaticImmunity got it -- the kid deserves to be raised by a family made up of people with higher standards than either parent has displayed up to now. The pinheaded philandering jock or the sports slut. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Poor Elijah.
posted by Dreama at 11:21 AM on June 14, 2001


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