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?