Mirror, Mirror…

by Sugarbabies

Several months ago my daughters, ages 3 and 5, started using this expression: “What the heck??” It was the way they said it, though, that was so amusing. They said it in that high-pitched, incredulous, hands-on-hips tone, “WHAT thaaaahhhh  HECK?!!” every time they saw, heard, even tasted something that they found strange. It cracked me up. I remember thinking, “what the heck is that all about? WHERE did they get THAT from??” Did you catch that? I didn’t. It wasn’t until a few days later when I actually uttered the words out loud, in that same tone, that it dawned on me. I say that. In that way too. That’s where they got that from, me! I was so tickled. I had never realized that I had a habit of saying that until it was mimicked back to me. True story.

Here’s another true story. One morning last year I was combing my oldest daughter’s hair in preparation for preschool. I asked if she wanted me to arrange her hair into Afro puffs or “big puff puffs” as we call them in our house. She vehemently told me no. I was taken aback by the forcefulness of her answer since she previously liked her hair that way. I asked her why not. She said she didn’t like big puff puffs. I said, “of course you do – you’ve always liked them. They are so pretty on you”.  She still didn’t want them. I pushed, “everyone always tells you how pretty you look when you have big puff puffs, I thought you liked the way they looked on you.” Silence. Then it occurred to me, “ Did anyone tell you that your hair wasn’t pretty like that?” I asked her. Pause. Then, “ Ashley said she didn’t like my hair like that because it was too curly”, she told me quietly. Ashley was a little girl in my then four-year-old daughter’s class. Ashley was Korean.  I knew the name Ashley well, because I had heard it several times. “Ashley wasn’t being my friend today” or other such examples of when Ashley would seemingly exclude my daughter from play.

I had previously dismissed this as normal child’s play and something that my kid would just have to get used to. After all, not everyone would always want to be friends with her. Typically I would advise her to just go play with someone else. Until this bombshell: “Ashley told me she couldn’t be my friend because I have a brown face.” There’s more: “She said she could only be friends with Alexis because Alexis has a white face”.

There are times as a parent when no matter what you’re going through you have to keep your cool in front of your child. Because if you freak out, they will get frightened. So you do your best to “table” whatever you are feeling or thinking to digest later.

I went very still. The calm before the storm. It’s hard to articulate all the thoughts and emotions that roared through me at that moment. Rage, disgust, disbelief, pain. What kind of world do we live in, I thought, that my four-year old has to experience racism! I was floored.  I wanted to march to that school, get that little bitch Ashley and shake the snot out of her. I wanted to go in the school director’s office and scream out my pain and frustration and tear that school apart.  But mostly I wanted to pick up my baby and hug her and never let her go.  I wanted to shield her from this particular brand of ugliness.  Instead, I told my daughter, as calmly as I could, that there was nothing wrong with her curly hair, it was beautiful. And that there was nothing wrong with her brown face, it was beautiful. I told her to look at me and tell me what color my face was. “Brown”, she said meekly.

“Do you think Mommy is pretty?” I asked her.

“Yes” she said grinning.

“Well, I have a brown face, and you think I’m pretty don’t you?” I went on to list people in our lives that she loved who had brown faces and how they were so beautiful and we loved them. She understood. I was glad.

In the aftermath, we(my husband and I) did, of course, meet with the school. They did, of course, meet with Ashley’s parents. Her parents did, of course, express shock and horror that their child would say something like that to a classmate. Although they never denied that she had said it. Their only explanation was that she might have picked up that kind of language from some kids in their neighborhood. It was one of those situations where there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could do. There were some token gestures, like separating the two girls for one week and having teachers “observe” behavior to see if there was a change.  There was a sudden emphasis on “differences” in the curriculum for the next week or so. Though these moves were well-meaning, they did not cut to the crux of the issue. All involved understood what was going on but were too polite to point out: the child had picked up those attitudes at home. She was mirroring what she had been taught, whether consciously or not. She got “the message”. After all, she didn’t tell my daughter that she didn’t want to play with her because she had a brown face; she said that she couldn’t play with her because she had a brown face. It was forbidden.

As Parents, we are constantly teaching. Most of the time unconsciously.  Most of us carry certain attitudes about race that we would be horrified to see reflected through our children to the rest of the world. What I learned from this situation was to be a more conscious teacher. An intentional parent; keeping in mind at all times that there are little eyes watching. Knowing that I have to be, right now, in the present, who I want my children to become in the future. Who I am today informs who they will be tomorrow. Being ever diligent. It’s hard. I slip. Then I remember, and I keep trying.

I wish you joy.

Djenaba

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Categories: Spirit Matters

9 replies

  1. What a a lovely post. I enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately “at home” is not the only place that the little Korean girl could have picked up such thinking. America is still permeated by “White is Right” thinking. It’s woven into the very fabric of our society. Even black folks have fallen victim to the same beliefs. You have to work hard NOT to succumb to this mentality. So I applaud you for bringing it up at the school. Unless racism/prejudice is pointed out, acknowledged and countered (especially among the young) it will continue its silent perpetuation.

  2. Ms. Kelly:

    I applaud you for sharing this personal and painful experience with the world. We must as parents of young children put a voice to racism when it occurs. When it hurts our young children on both sides. Unfortunately young Ashley has had the deadly seed of racism planted within her from either her parents, her peers or our society.

    Little Ashley is not to blame but everyone and everything that has come before her is. From our social media, to our government and the adults who are molding her young impressionable mind.

    I can’t imagine being the mother who has to hear this and deal with the pain of hearing how your young and beautiful daughter at such a young age has learned to doubt her beauty, her hair, her race and the color of her skin.

    I can recall these moments too when I was ten years old and questioned why I didn’t have “good hair” like my cousin. I explained with pain in my heart that her hair is naturally curly because her mother is German and my uncle was African American. I thought it was hurtful and also I knew at a very young age that it was ignorant. I immediately went to my parents and they explained to me that this ignorance was not my shame to bear but to those who speak and perpetuate a mentality that was born from the beginnings of slavery in the United States.

    I am waiting for the day when my boys will come home with a similar situation. When they maybe questioned about their own family. Their mother and their father. I will wait for the day when they are too conflicted by what they have heard in the media or their peers. I pray that I will handle it as beautifully as you did with your daughter.

  3. Thank you, Catina – let’s pray that your boys will be equipped for that day… better yet… let’s pray the day never comes 🙂 Thank you for reading. ~ Djenaba

  4. Thanks, Azizi. you’re right. Its an unfortunate part of our society. it all starts at home. way before they start school. Thank you for reading, glad you enjoyed 🙂 ~ Djenaba

  5. Loved your post! Thanks for sharing. I applaud your and your husband’s courage for bringing this to the attention of the school. Acknowledging that there is really nothing that anyone can “do” is so different from doing nothing. Keep posting and I’ll keep reading!

  6. Thanks! I’ll keep writing if you keep reading 🙂

  7. Thanks for having this blog and sharing your insights, Dieynaba. Hope you’re well and otherwise having a good summer with the girls!!!

  8. I know I’m late commenting on this but i too must share my story. I am a very light-skinned mommy with a beautiful brown-skinned 5-year old daughter, Mya. She told me that Shakira (who’s mixed) was teasing her because she is “too black.” Then she said she wished she was white like me. My heart ached because I knew that she had just experienced for the first time what she will deal with her whole life…RACISM FROM HER OWN PEOPLE!

    I didnt go to the school and curse Shakira or her parents, I didnt overreact (outwardly anyway). I took her in the mirror and showed her the beautiful girl God had made for the world to see. I kissed every spot on her face and thanked God for blessing her with beautiful skin, a beautiful nose, lips, etc. And we prayed for Shakira for not knowing that we come in all beautiful colors.

    Mya and Shakira go to the same summer program and she told me that she told Shakira, “I’m not too black because God don’t make mistakes and I am perfect just the way he made me.” Then that little turkey said, “I know you wish you were brown like me but it’ll be ok.” It sure will!

  9. What an awesome way to handle that situation! Its so sad but sometimes the harshest instances come from our own. Thank you for sharing, April ~ Djenaba

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