|Silver and Ocho's dolls. (Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)|
There’s nothing quite like having spent your life being mad at racism, learning about its insidious effects, living on both sides of the equation in the United States and in West Africa, and having your precious child say something racist. It sent me into a full panic. How could this happen?
Ever since I had read NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, I had made it a point to talk openly with Silver about skin color and body difference. In the chapter entitled “White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” the authors trace a variety of studies to build a case that not talking about race explicitly with children results in kids forming their own biases in favor of their own race. White parents in particular felt uncomfortable talking about race with their children. They relied on vague statements such as “everyone is equal” to convey a message of colorblind equality. One of the researchers, Brigitte Vittrup, summed up the problem when she said, “A lot of parents... admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”
These parents assume that children are born colorblind and that if they don’t practice prejudice in their own household, the children won’t pick it up. For them, drawing attention to racial difference is tantamount to opening the door to racism. Bronson and Merryman argue that children already notice racial difference, and that by not talking about it, parents convey the message that only people like themselves are OK, and they imply that racial Others are somehow less nice, trustworthy, friendly, etc. as whites are.
I had my own experience with a child “naturally” noticing—and fearing—difference. When I lived in Senegal, my youngest “sister,” less than a year old, would cry the moment she saw me. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Dakar, she saw few foreigners in her neighborhood, much less in her house. It took a week of seeing me every day before she warmed up to me. This story, of African babies crying at the sight of a “white” person, I heard repeated often amongst Peace Corps volunteers and expats. Similarly, when Silver was an infant, my Congolese ex-boyfriend came to Los Angeles with his Senegalese wife and their dance company. We spent an afternoon and an evening catching up. Silver, not a very trusting baby to begin with, wanted nothing to do with them.
Bronson and Merryman only touch on the role that cultural and social messages play in forming racist attitudes outside of parental influence: “Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence.” They don’t speculate, however, on how early these messages in the cultural environment begin to saturate a child’s mind with information on racial hierarchies.
It was easy to know when Silver began to notice gender differences. Her favorite colors seemed to change overnight from turquoise blue and red to pink. She would say things like, “Boys don’t have long hair” or “No, Mama! Not those pants! Those are boy pants! I want girl pants!” I blamed the older girls at day care.
And yet it seems that kids rarely come out with overt signs of noticing racial difference by themselves. Certainly, Silver didn’t talk about it until I started to. But if African babies cry at the sight of a “white” foreigner, and my “white” daughter cried at the sight of two Africans, perhaps attitudes towards racial difference form so early, in a pre-verbal stage, that our only choice is to undo early racial bias.
Armed with the evidence from NurtureShock, I diligently acquired all the right books: We’re Different, We’re the Same; Shades of People; All the Colors of the Earth; Whoever You Are. We talked about the people we knew and what colors their skins were. We talked about how we have different skin colors within our own family, how Grandma’s skin is darker than Mama’s skin, and my skin is darker than Silver’s.
Silver has, and had, plenty of African-American teachers. For a while, her favorite teacher was a woman of Xhosa heritage—not just Black, but Africa Black. What we don’t have here are friends (e.g., people who have come over for dinner or had us over for dinner) who are African-American with dark-brown skin. Most of my African-American friends are on the East Coast, and the few I had here finished graduate school and scattered to take up jobs in Chicago, New York, Boston, Ohio, etc. Since I became a parent, I haven’t met many other African-American parents because I live on the Westside in Los Angeles. We have white people, Asians, and Latinos in abundance. Black people? Not so much. Many of the African Americans I know are mixed—I swear, we halfies/hapas/metis/mestizos must be the majority here—and so come in a range of shades, few of them dark.
So when my daughter told me, “I don’t like people with dark brown skin,” I knew I had to seize the moment to undo my terrible mistake. I said the two words that opened the door: “Why not?”
And that’s when she said, “I don’t like them because they aren’t pretty.”
I started cursing Disney in the foulest terms I could come up with. Silently, of course.
(To be continued in Part 3.)