Wednesday, August 5, 2009

minor bump in the road

So I am not even going to hint that this is a big problem. It is not any sort of issue to get fussed up about, just the sort of thing that made me think twice. So, thought I would share. Cuz that is how I am. Generous.

When Teena was in her pre- 4k summer school class, there was a little girl who started a few days late. Teena and she became friends, in that 4 year old little girl way. She came home one day all excited about her new friend and so I asked about the girl. The conversation went like this.

Me "How cool, a new friend! Tell me about her!"

Teena "Um, she is my friend"

Me "What do you like about her?"

Teena "She is my friend"

Me "Okay.... what does she look like?"

Teena "I don't know"

Me *sigh running out of patience....* "Okay, what color hair does she have?"

Teena *pause* "She doesn't have any hair"

Me (Ohhhhhhh, must be the kind of friend no one else can see) "Okay, eat your lunch."

A week or so later, I met the little girl who did indeed turn out to be real. And you know what? She has NO HAIR! Ha ha, her hair was cut super super short, just head fringe really. She appears to be Indian, as in from India, not as in Native American. Teena just looooves her. She also has the prettiest girlie name, and wears the most gorgeous girlie dresses.

Getting to the point, tonite Teena was dancing around in front of that show America's Most Talented Whatever. The one Genea is going to sing on as soon as we knock the crap out of her mental health issues. And she said, out of nowhere, sticking her foot up on my coffee table and showing me her leg, "look Mama, my skin is almost as dark as my friend Girlie". This is what my brain said:

*aaauck!!! She shouldn't say that! Could that be considered a racist thing to say? Her friend might be offended! Other kids might be offended! That's offensive! Correct her! Get on that now! Baaak! Yikes!*

My first instinct was to jump in there and correct Teena. Just to let her know that is not something we comment on to other people. We don't talk about skin color with people who have different skin colors. It could be considered rude. Or offensive. Or worse. I mean sure we were in our own home in our basement, but if I didn't say something in the moment, I would be missing an opportunity to teach her something important, really important. And if I let the comment slip by, was I letting her know that it is okay to say these things? Giving the wrong impression? These thoughts conflicted with my other thoughts, which were basically she is 4 and she says 75,000 things in an hour and her perspective is probably that she wants to be like her friend.

When I was a kid, I was ignorant of racism. Ignorant as in, I just did not know about it and so I did not think in that pattern. But in a very real way, that is a luxury I was allowed. The circumstances I was born into made that lack of awareness sustainable. Many more people in the world have no choice but be fully cognizant at all times. While I strongly feel as an adult that people in this country need to be aware of racism, acknowledge it and do their part to work against it, I also see a value in leaving that slate clean for a time. Because when I learned about things like slavery and the holocaust, it scared the hell out of me. That people could treat other people in such heinous, tortured ways... it was terrifying and horrifying at the same time. And honestly, it may be right or wrong or none of the above but learning about it made me look at people from different racial backgrounds in a way I hadn't before. It was intimidating I think, to look at people knowing how they had been treated by others and survived. Fear of a misstep changed my interactions for a time. There was also a certain disconnect though, for example my friend next door was 8, and I was 8, and he was Jewish and I was Catholic and we were both born only 8 years prior. He also was not a girl and I was. THAT was the big difference to me, as a kid. Big kids taunted us for being friends because he was a boy.

Like I said, conflicted. On one hand, I think maybe I should have laid some groundwork with my girls on the subject. On the other hand I think well, sooooo, Teena is right, she is getting tanned and her skin is getting darker and her little friend Girlie does have slightly darker toned skin. And if I make an issue of it, then it is out there as an issue. But then, if Teena said something like, look at that old lady in the wheelchair and pointed, I would correct her. If we came across someone who is albino and she said, wow that person is really light and pale, I would shush her, even if we were just driving by in the car and the person could not hear us.

By disclaimer though, I am in no way shape or form trying to make this a bigger issue than a minor bump in the road that got me thinking. My perspective comes from only the direction of being Caucasian from a Caucasian background, and that might make me less aware than I could be.

Conflicted, like I said. And quite likely overthinking. Ahem.


  1. I think it's great that she noticed her friend's skin color and that she wanted to comment about it because it gives you opportunity to celebrate how we are all made differently. "Yes, your skin is getting darker. Doesn't girlie have beautiful skin? Isn't it cool how there are all different kinds of skin colors?"

    Just my thoughts. :)



  2. I grew up in Wyoming, where diversity was hair color, there were no people of color. My grandfather hired a man from India, that was attending a nearby college, to help him with construction during summers. One day they were at our house fixing something.

    I still remember the look my mother gave me when I opened my four year old mouth and asked why he had black skin. His answer to me was "why do you have white skin?" when I told him that was my skin color he told me the same thing back.

    The only reason I remember the incident is because my mother fuhreaked out about not asking questions like that. To me it was just different. Looking back his response was brilliant and it taught me a lot.

    Now having children of a different race, it doesn't cross my mind, but I realize that it crosses others minds. I hope for the same brilliance in dealing with it.

    In my own mind, I don't think kids learn racism from having nothing said to them, rather having the wrong things said to them. Like which colors are good or bad, or if someone is this color then they do this or that.

    White is a minority in our community, and our family has felt it especially when dealing with CPS. Early on we were told we couldn't adopt certain kids because of our race, unofficially of course. And the remark has been made to us by more than one person that were we the majority race we'd have been able to adopt our kids 3 years ago.

    It's a difficult subject, because no one wants to talk about it. So, I appreciate that you brought it up. I think that only when we can discuss it openly will it get better.

  3. Sounds like she thinks dark skin is a GOOD thing, so why not just let it slide?
    Little kids compare themselves to their friends all the time. I used to long for hair long enough to braid like my Asian Indian friend Vani, instead of being stuck with a horrible "pixie cut" inflicted on me by my dad's barber.
    I have rarely felt so humiliated as I did the time dad took me to get my hair cut and the barber asked if I was his little boy. To me, in my four-year-old fantasy, I was a sexy Bond girl with long, flowing hair. The "little boy" comment stung.
    Kids pick up racist attitudes from their families. As long as you treat people fairly and respect them for who they are, she will to.

  4. I agree that is wasn't a biggie - she had nothing negative in mind, she was just relating to her friend. Sometimes people say mean and ignorant things and those people need to be told what is wrong with what they do and say. For your daughter, think of it as an opportunity to teach about cultures:
    Yes honey, you get darker by being in the sun. Your friend, Girlie, was born with lovely dark skin because...
    You're an awesome mom with a wonderful heart!

  5. My class of second graders, who are from all different countries, talk about skin color often. I had a little Korean girl last year who was fascinated that I was "pink". She just loved to put her arm up to mine and compare.

    Our first grade teacher does an art project where the kids have to mix paint to match their skin tone. They all start with brown. I think that's neat. We're all brown. It's just that some people add yellow or white...or pink. ;>

    Agree with commenters above. Noticing and mentioning is fine. It was done without any malice.

    OT note: My roommate's mum in London was from Ghana. She'd often grumble, "I don't know what's wrong with those people in America. African-American. Ha! They're just black." It made me giggle.

  6. I agree, I wouldn't be worried that she noticed, it is an observable difference and it doesn't sound like she thinks darker skin is bad. I think hannah_rae's response would be good, but just one thing to note on that: you may want to explain to Teena that while all skin colors are beautiful, it's usually better to keep thoughts about it to ourselves.

    I'm just worried that if she said that comment to her friend, she may lose that friend. I come from an Indian family, and in Indian culture darker skin is considered very undesirable. This idea is instilled in kids at a young age. So if Teena were to make that comment to her friend, her friend may not like it, and worse, if the friend mentioned that comment to her parents (not tattling, just talking as 4 year olds do) those parents may take it very offensively.

  7. This reminds me of a funny/interesting conversation I had with my oldest daughter, years ago when she was in kindergarten or 1st grade. She told me one day about her new best friend and I asked her what she looked like (trying to figure out if I knew this girl.) She answered, "well, her skin is kind of brown and her hair is dark and she wears lots and lots of braids and barrettes." "Oh," I said, "is she black?" ", kind of medium brown" was her answer. hehehe. My kids go to a school that has a lot of different ethnicities represented, and I think it is kind of cool (for this time in their lives) that it has made them so innocently unaware of racism. I grew up in the South and my childhood experience was completely opposite!

  8. I agree with many above.... If she'd said that her hair was getting lighter in the sun and was nearly as blonde as a blonde friend, you'd never think a thing of it. I think we get our knickers in a twist when we anguish that noticing differences is the same thing are being prejudiced.

    That has always struck me as part of the problem with some feminists, too. DIFFERENT is not bad; different is just DIFFERENT and cam be very interesting. If you start thinking that "different" is bad....i.e. thinking that typical feminine traits are less valuable than typical masculine traits THAT strikes me as a real prejudice. It is when one difference is considered "bad" or "negative" that we have something unpleasant brewing.

    The hard thing is getting kids to realize the difference and getting them to understand that some adults don't know the difference.

  9. Rozmin- thanks, that's exactly the sort of thing I was concerned I might be missing!
    It is a stuggle to know where the line is sometimes when you only have your own perspective. But I know Teena is oblivious and was just noting something she saw.


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