On the same day President Trump reportedly said “s—hole” countries in Africa were inferior sources for future American immigrants, my 12th-grade daughter was starting to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in English class. The juxtaposition was too much.Conrad’s British novel indicts the racism of European imperialism in Africa in the late 1800s, specifically during the ivory trade. Ironically, however, many readers consider the novel a racist text because of the way it backgrounds Africa, stereotypes the “primitive” natives, and treats the whole continent as a blank slate for the white imagination.
So there I am debating the relative racism of a British writer’s 1899 novel, when Trump’s 2018 “s—hole” comment (and preference for Norway) drops into the mix. Talk about the return of the repressed. What a shameful moment for our public discourse that deserves bipartisan condemnation. This is not a criticism of Republicans or Democrats — just a call for all Americans to reject such language, and for all parents to help their children navigate the fallout.
After processing my disgust, I brainstormed ways to turn the incident into a teachable moment. First, my daughter and I discussed how wrong the statement was, but also how Trump’s denial that he said the word and his lack of an apology compounded the problem. I also condemned Trump’s defense that he had to use “tough” language to make progress on the immigration issue. What he said was not tough, straight-talking, or just politically incorrect. It was supremely ignorant and arrogant. Not only is the statement not true about African countries, but it completely ignores the destructive legacy of American slavery in many of those countries.
Second, I searched for recent books that explore parenting and racism in our current, far from “post-racial” reality. I was pleased to find Julie Lythcott-Haims’ recent memoir, Real American. Lythcott-Haims, who also wrote the free-range parenting book How to Raise an Adult, is the daughter of an African-American doctor and a white British teacher who married in 1966 in Ghana. Real American explores what it means to grow up “a biracial black woman in America,” sometimes in searing detail.
She explains that while growing up in white-dominated upper middle class environments, she struggled with her identity as white, black or sometimes neither. Rarely did she feel an integrated sense of self. As she declares, “I come from people who survived what America did to them. Ain’t I a Real American? . . . I’m so American it hurts.”
Lythcott-Haims’ journey was filled with microaggressions. A poignant example is when her close white friend in high school said: “I don’t think of you as Black. I think of you as normal.” But over many years she learns to accept “my light-colored skin, the sound of my voice, the biracial kink of my hair … I would one day fully embrace my Black self like a long-lost mother, hold myself in my own arms.” She is also happily married to “the Jewish boy named Dan” who long ago “loved me when in my deepest self-loathing over being both too Black for whites and not Black enough for Blacks I couldn’t even locate a self with which to love myself.”
Lythcott-Haims and her husband are now parents of two multiethnic children, and she tells them: “You are part Black, Eastern European Jew, and Yorkshire coal miner. … You come from people who survived.” She also appreciates her husband’s efforts to become “the best possible white father to our Black son,” saying “He develops his consciousness about the Black experience by reading, listening, watching, informing himself.” If only all non-black Americans could engage in similar self-education, especially President Trump.
Beyond discussing Real American with me, probably the best way my daughter fought back against the “s—hole” comment happened a few days after it was reported. On Martin Luther King Day, she participated in a “Day of Service” involving people of many ethnicities. The whole experience reminded me of how much our children are watching and listening to the adult world, especially one dominated by cable news. Passionate, partisan debate over important issues like American immigration is fine. But blatant racism demands bipartisan rejection.