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.
Categories: Spirit Matters