When our girls were little, it was part of Dennis and my routine to tuck them into bed at night. I loved this time of the day so much that I can scarcely recall the tender moments shared cuddled beneath the handmade knitted afghans and blankets that piled upon their beds, while taking in the sweet scent of just bathed babes wrapped snuggly in my arms without getting slightly teary-eyed. Dennis often tucked Abigail in, while I tucked our youngest, Meg into bed. Part of our routine was to ask them to share one good thing about their day and one thing that bothered them and then we would take turns praying together. I’ll admit some of those conversations about stuffed animals and the cat poop in the sandbox got monotonous, but even in those moments, I knew my girls needed to share their lives with us, no matter how trivial we found certain aspect of it to be—or how they would often prolong these conversations so they didn’t have to go to sleep. (Many…many of these talks were the equivalent of “Can I have another glass of water? Or I need to go potty again”.)
I remember some of the girls’ prayers as if they had just prayed them yesterday; so sweet and innocent they were, so full of joy and promise, many of them were dreams breathed to life—nearly magical. At three years old, Meg consistently prayed:
Thank you for butter and mayonnaise and cookies. You da best. Amen”
I was entirely endeared; smitten really—loving her more than I could fully put into words the second she was placed into my arms, and each day she since, she has opened my eyes to a world I had long forgotten, taken for granted, or was completely ignorant to. Truly, looking at life through the eyes of a child is unmatched by any other experience we could ever hope to have. We can learn so much from them by getting back to the basics, peeling off the layers of world, and speaking without reservation our thoughts and asking the hard questions.
I remember when Meg’s prayers began to change from food obsessions, her friend Anabella, and Sammy, her play horse, which in actuality was the kitchen broom to a deep searing pain that I never imagined possible for a child of her age. Her nightly prayers moved, as if overnight, from prayers of thanksgiving and joy to heart-wrenching, agonizing pleas.
Please make me pink, like my mommy. God, why won’t you make me pink like my mommy? Can’t You do it, can’t You do it?”
And she would sob and sob like no three or four-year-old ever should due to such inner trauma exasperated by the realization that she was black and her family, alllllll her family members, were white (which she called pink). My heart aches with this memory, one that set the next dozen or so years into motion, where the topic of racism and multiculturalism entered our daily lives.
Admittedly, this was new territory for this middle-class Dutch girl, who had been raised in a predominantly white community. I think my High School had two or three African Americans and before the term “colorblindness” was coined, that’s what we were doing: pretending we didn’t see differences in skin color or culture, but we did. It was a role most played– believing, legitimately believing, it was the opposite of racism, that it is what “good” people do to show “sameness”, and not judgment. We somehow thought, and still some believe today, that this was a step toward healing the iniquities, the savage injustices that have been and continue to be done against cultures different than our own. But this well-intentioned role, is missing the mark. I was missing the mark, even with my own daughter.
I didn’t know how to do her hair. I didn’t know to moisturize her skin. I didn’t know that an awesome collection of black history books wasn’t enough. I didn’t know that I would step foot into places where I was the minority so that my daughter would see that she was not alone in this great big world and that a part of her culture is curiously beautiful; breathtaking really. As a white mama, I could no longer play the part of colorblindness. I needed to embrace her differences and this meant getting really uncomfortable.
Colorblindness focuses on our commonalities, ignoring our differences; ignoring the parts that make us feel uncomfortable. What this implies is that these differences are bad. Even when we see these differences, neither culture talks about them because we know it will make for uncomfortable feelings. And it’s our human nature to avoid things that are uncomfortable or feel unsafe.
It felt uncomfortable to take my little white ass into a salon shop to ask for hair advice. It felt overwhelming to look at the hundreds of brightly colored beauty products geared for my girl’s unique skin–all incredibly over priced, mind you. It felt uncomfortable to go to cultural events where we were seemingly the only white people (I actually think this gave me great, great perspective). It feels uncomfortable when people look at us as we walk down the street; some have smiled pitifully, while others have laughed, remarking at my daughter’s hair (this is a really, really big thing by the way). It is uncomfortable when we get unsolicited “advice”. It is uncomfortable when people ask if she’s adopted while she is standing right there! People!!!! (this in and of itself deserves a whole other post)
It’s A Catch-22 Thing
It’s a catch-22 thing because if we can’t talk about these differences, how can we ever hope to move past stereotypes and judgements, and playing this ridiculous game? And when will we understand that there is such extravagant beauty in differences, even if some of those differences do not gel with our own? I find myself thanking God that there are not 6 billion people on this planet like me!
Raising my biracial daughter, I have been convicted of my ignorance. I have seen first-hand the pain this inflicts on her. She has continuously been made to feel “less than” in most circles. You see, when we put on the colorblind goggles, we are essentially putting ourselves above others, we are allowing them to rise to our “level” or “standard” so long as they don’t bring their culture and unique perspectives, etc. with them. It’s not like Meg wants people to come up to her and say, “Well, I see you’re black; talk to me about that”. No, what she’d like is to be treated as if her opinion, her perspective is valued. She wants feel as if she belongs. Don’t we all?
In preschool, Meg would come home sobbing because she was continuously forced by her peers to play the dog during playtime because she was brown and dogs are brown— this in itself is not racism; that’s simply four year olds leaning their colors and making age-appropriate associations/classifications. They are taught to distinguish differences—and their minds are so eager to keep doing so, they take this new skill and apply it to everything and everyone. #nocolorblindness
Though I could share my opinion about how the teacher could have stepped in and altered this play sometimes or had an impromptu lesson about the value of diversity, I cannot dwell on the should haves. Instead, I’ll confess that this situation led our family into one of our first conversations about race, the value of diversity, and just how extravagantly Meg was made. “Made on purpose and for a purpose” we told her repeatedly and even purchased framed art that shared the same message. But you see, we did it wrong. We waited to have the diversity conversation until a situation had already arisen. In sharing these thoughts with a friend this week, she remarked, “We never have conversations about race in our home”. And it’s true—generally. We don’t talk about it. And I think it’s because we don’t know how.
There’s a fear of saying the wrong thing. I mean, I have a black daughter and still, I don’t know if when I am talking about parts of her culture/heritage if it’s OK to say “black” or if “African American” is the more PC term. I’ve asked my daughter, who is now 16, and she replies by saying, “I don’t know either”.
The truth of the matter is that whatever word(s) we use, it does not/will not change the circumstances; they do not atone for the injustices and downright evil that our community of people have long suffered. It’s not the words that matter most; it’s our behavior! Behavior begins with our beliefs. We need to come to the root of our beliefs and question if they are based on fact, fear, or ignorance and then take steps toward living uncomfortably in truth until it becomes comfortable.
Meg came home from her first day of second or third grade with crocodile tears in her eyes as her quivering chin tried with all its might to keep them from falling. She sat silent for several moments while I waited for her to lead the conversation. After a few more moments, my mama heart couldn’t wait a second longer, so kneeling down, hugging my precious girl, I asked what happened. Between heavy sobs, she said, “Nothing, mama! Nothing! It’s the same this year”. When I asked what she meant, she shared that wherever she goes, she is always looking for someone like her, another black girl her age. There are not many that look like her in our small community. This has left her feeling exposed, feeling like all eyes are on her; feeling like she’s standing naked on stage at Century Link Field.
For lack of a better analogy, but maybe one we all can better grasp, is to picture yourself as the only female everywhere you go. You’d feel all eyes are on you. Your every move is critiqued, your motives evaluated, your thoughts, opinions, perspectives discounted because they’re the minority’s views—And don’t forget about your appearance, that too, is under watchful eyes. You get questions about your hair constantly, people touching it—without asking, your ringlets sprung by grown adults in the grocery store. People noticing if you moisturized that morning, because if not, your ashy skin will tell them you didn’t take the time—and they may jump to conclusions that your overall hygiene is subpar. Then imagine the name calling. Names like “afro-naut”, “sausage lips”, and “thug” —names my own girl has been called. People assume the worst of you because what they have learned in school, the media, and textbooks has not depicted your community accurately. You are not like the majority of people in your circle, and there is fear and the feeling of being unsafe when we encounter things that are different and/or we don’t understand. So people don’t get too close. It’s lonely. It’s forced isolation.
As a white mama, I have felt stuck, because here I am trying to teach my girls that all lives matter, but the world makes me out to be a liar. With all my heart, I desire for my girl to embrace the fact that she belongs to two cultures, but people continuously point out that she is either not black enough or white enough to fit anywhere. She is not a misfit. She is a human being—a beautiful, unique human being, like you; like me. As a society, we have to be willing to talk about the hard things, the uncomfortable things. We need to exhibit grace and show mercy and forgiveness for our ignorance. We can never hope to heal if we don’t start talking!