[Originally posted to Facebook, September 12, 2018]
When Karen picked Aspen (3 years old) up from school today, the teacher told her that she had overheard Aspen saying, “Brown people are smelly.” The teacher was mystified, because she knows us, and knew that didn’t come from us. Karen suspected that Aspen had heard another kid at school saying that, and repeated it. So we decided to talk to her at dinner tonight.
I asked her how it was going in her classroom, getting to know her new friends in the Tiger Room. After asking who she was friends with, and who she liked to play with, she said, without prompting, “Black and Brown people are stinky.”
Karen asks, gently, “Did somebody say that to you?”
Aspen says, “XYZ kid says that. He also says Black and Brown people are all in trouble.”
Me: “Hmmmm. What do you think about that?”
Aspen: “I don’t know. It’s not very nice.”
Me: “Do you think that’s true?”
Karen: “I’m a Black person. Do I stink?”
Aspen: “No, Mops!”
Me: “Karen, how does it make you feel when you hear that someone said Black and Brown people are stinky?”
K: “That really hurts my feelings. It makes me feel sad and angry.”
Me: “How do you feel about it, Aspen?”
A: “I feel sad and angry, too! It’s not fair!”
Me: “I bet you do! You’re a Brown person, and you don’t stink!”
K: “Some people say mean things about Black and Brown people. And you’re right, it’s not nice at all.”
A: “And it’s a lie.”
Me: “You’re right, Aspen. In our family, we know that all kinds of people with all kinds of different skin are beautiful, and everyone gets to be loved. And we love Black and Brown people.”
K: “And what t-shirt are you wearing right now?”
A [smile lighting up her face]: “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”
K: “That’s right. We believe that Black Lives Matter in our family. And if anyone says anything mean about Black or Brown people, we have to say ‘No! That’s not true!'”
Me: “Aspen, do you want to practice with me? I’ll pretend I’m XYZ kid, and you can say what you want to say to him. Okay?”
Me: “I think Black and Brown people are STINKY!”
Aspen: “THAT’S NOT TRUE! STOP SAYING THAT!”
Me: “But they are. I know it!”
A: “They are NOT. I’m Black AND White, and I’m not stinky. And neither is my Mops or my Sister.”
K: “High five, Aspen! That was great!”
Me: “Yeah, high five! We’re so proud of you! And what if the kid doesn’t listen to you? Who could you talk to?”
Aspen: “You, or Mops, or… maybe a teacher?”
Me: “Yep. You can talk to us about anything. I think [Teacher who we really trust] is a great idea, too.”
Aspen: “Okay! I’m done talking about this Can I have my dessert now?”
Parents of white kids: this is what we’re up against. Kids are SPONGES at 3 years old. I bet anything that the kid in Aspen’s class heard this from a racist uncle, or on TV, or any of a thousand other places. And repeated it, believed it as fact, because that’s what kids do. (I am assuming it’s not the parents because most of the white parents in this pre-school are white liberals with–at least externally–decent racial politics.) And it fell on MY beautiful, fierce, precious, beloved brown baby’s ears today, and this is how we spent our dinner hour.
I also bet that when the teacher talks to the parents of this kid, as she will because we’re going in there tomorrow morning to make sure the teacher knows what’s happening, I can almost guarantee that the white parents won’t be equipped with the skills to do this well. They will either ignore it, as just something kids do, or they will be so worried that their baby not be perceived as racist that they will scold and shame him, and tell him that we never, ever, ever say things like this, that he will get the message that we can’t talk about race, and we can’t ask honest questions about the differences between us–and meanwhile, nobody will ask him where he heard this, or help him have a thoughtful conversation about how this isn’t actually true, and how some people have ideas about people with Black and Brown skin that are harmful and hurtful and we have a responsibility to ask ourselves, “Is this really true?” before we believe them. And this kid will feel like he’s stolen a cookie or broken a toy and disappointed his beloved parents, and will have a clear message that he can’t talk to them about this, and he can’t ask questions about race (even though he doesn’t even know what that false, socially-constructed category is yet, he only knows that people have different skin colors and they might be different in different ways, too). And another white man will be created.
I hope to God that conversation goes differently than I imagine it going. But I doubt it will, because I know how ill-equipped most of us white folks are to raise kids who can resist the evils of white supremacy culture, because we aren’t equipped ourselves.
And God help those of us who are white people trying to raise multi-racial kids with healthy racial identities–especially those doing so without critical mass of people of color sending positive messages about their racial group and providing strong, vibrant representation and role-modeling.
All I know is that I am SO glad to be a parent with Karen, and so grateful for the years of learning and critical reflection with so many mentors that helped me to be a parent tonight. And I know that my beautiful, brilliant, multi-racial baby will be facing this kind of shit for the rest of her life, and it just makes my heart sad.
White parents of white kids, I don’t completely understand what it’s like to raise a white kid, but I have a pretty good idea because I was one myself. I’d love to talk with you.
White parents raising multiracial kids, I’d love to share stories and strategies with you.
And everyone, everywhere, raising children: let’s not fool ourselves. White supremacy culture training in Amerikkka starts in the cradle, and we have to–HAVE TO–develop the skills to help our children resist it, for their own spiritual, emotional, social survival.