Awkward Week: I Have a Dream

We just finished observing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and by “observing,” I mean “making the girls clean up a bunch of water they poured onto the bathroom floor because they were playing ‘Cinderella’ and then sending them to bed with no stories.”

The build up to the day was better, though.

I was glad to see that my 6-year-old first-grader was learning about Dr. King in her class all last week, and she was very interested in the subject. She marked his actual birthday (Jan. 15) on our family calendar, brought home worksheets and coloring pages about him, and told us how he worked to fight against laws that were unfair.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “coloreds didn’t get fancy drinking fountains.”

We live in a very, very white town—like 85 percent white. Once, a couple of years ago, we decided to ride the city bus for a loop to show the girls our city. At the main hub, near the library, a passenger disembarked, prompting my firstborn to say, loudly, “Now the only people on the bus are us, the driver, and that different-colored-skin man!”

I try to use such situations/conversations to discuss the merits of diversity—as well as tact. There’s no ill intent behind her race-related talk, but I do frequently feel bad that I’m raising my kids in such a homogenous area that seeing a person several shades darker than us is headline news to a 4-year-old.

Also, this happens from time to time:

Me: What would you like to drink with dinner?

Secondborn: Gooja geeja goloja.

Me: I don’t know what that means.

Secondborn: Geeja jeeja.

Me: What is that? What are you saying?

Firstborn: She’s speaking Spanish.

Me: That’s not Spanish.

Firstborn: Gooka goloka.

Secondborn: Goka jolooka shashee.

Again, I try to use such moments as teaching opportunities, maybe dropping some actual practical Spanish—though I’m not a huge help there, since I studied French all throughout high school and college. Thanks for nothing, Dora and Diego. What was I putting up with all that shouting for?

On the flip side of all of this is an acceptance that makes me wonder where the previously mentioned questions come from. Some white friends of ours recently adopted a girl of a different race, and my daughters have never batted an eyelash. Same with a playdate at the beach this past weekend. A dad we met up with had an adopted son with a much, much, much darker skin tone, and my girls accepted the situation so seamlessly, it wasn’t even a situation to them.

It was like That’s your son? My dad has a son, too!

I wish I knew what triggers a comment in my girls—why they’ll point out skin color or someone speaking another language in one setting but not even notice it in another. And now I feel awkward writing about all this, like I’m making a deal out of something that’s only a deal because I’m making it into one.

What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Awkward Week: I Have a Dream

  1. I feel like maybe they only notice skin colour when there’s not something more interesting going on. On a playdate at the beach, they’ve got far better things to do than talk about skin colour, but when sitting on a bus their minds might be casting around for something to talk about.

  2. Carleen Butterfield

    When my daughter was young–even though she is your wife’s older cousin–there was some great stuff on Sesame Street. The “created characters” were all vividly different colors and the human characters were according to my daughter: were more subtle colors of brown, orange and pink! There were no blacks or whites in her mind and I didn’t offer the option. They each had a great function in the program. I like to believe that Jim Hansen’s genius was deliberate in this choice. Remembering from my interior designer days–if you want to make things look more connected than they might seem–you do something distinctly different. If you have a brown, orange and pink candle–they look different. But if you put a large green plant near them–they become much more alike. Thanks Jim Hansen for taking the art principle to humanity!

  3. gabrielle

    my brother, at about 4, was walking with my mother to the playground. he saw a little boy and said, “look at that brown boy, mom.” My brother is half black.
    Halima told me, in high school, that is elementary school she had always thought that i was half black, because my siblings were.
    my nephew used to tell my cousin (Peruvian, and fluently Bi-lingual) that he could speak spanish. he would then sing “el pollo loco” and say some gobbledy-gook.
    all this to say: kids are exploring their world, and trying to figure out how it all goes together. we, as white parents aware of some of the injustices around us, have a deep and unrelenting fear of raising bigots, against our strongest will.
    specifically regarding the “speaking spanish” try to remember that “babbling” and exploring sounds that are interesting or different to our ear are the foundations of learning a language. it is only the fear of the bigot-child that keeps us from embracing that and letting them explore the music of the language.

  4. Eric

    I am fascinated by how kids process these things. Our oldest daughter, now 10, when she was in K and 1st grade, never even thought about using skin color as a way to describe her friends and classmates. The boy with the “black polka dot hair” was the best she could come up with. One of the hardest parts of watching my little ones grow up is having to try to explain the intricacies of race and ethnic relations in America to a kid who is just searching for a way to describe her classmate so her parents will know who she is talking about. The sad part is, I think it’s mostly fear about what other adults will think of us as parents if our kid blurts out something totally natural for a 5 year old to say. The truth is, we should probably be learning from our kids – that skin color is just the same as hair color or eye color or height: it describes what someone looks like, not who they are.

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