When my son was four and daughter one, we invited Jebeh and her boys to the pool at the country club where we belong. As we were wading into the shallow end holding hands with the kiddos, my four year old turned to Jebeh, observing his hand in hers and the stark contrast and said loudly, “You’re black!”
The truth. Spoken. Loudly. As a parent a part of me cringed. I wanted to duck, hide, ignore and pretend “that didn’t just happen.” As parents, our initial reaction in these situations is often to back pedal, save face and find a way out of what we perceive as an embarrassing moment. This event, four years ago contributed to the work Jebeh and I are doing now.
My instant gut reaction was embarrassment. But for who? Hayden? No, he wasn’t embarrassed. Me? Why? Was it as a failure on my part? No, not really. He was observing. That’s what four year olds do. They learn about the world and everything in it by making observations. Jebeh? No. She rolled with it.
Ever the “teacher” Jebeh turned to Hayden and said, “Yes, I am, and isn’t that beautiful? And look, Max and Mateo are brown, and you’re white.” A validation of his observation and no assumed guilt or shame in making that observation. Done.
We see color. We all do. And to pretend that’s not the case just doesn’t do anyone any good.
I’m pretty sure I still followed Jebeh’s comments with something along these lines… “we have lots of friends with different color skin.” And proceeded to name the three children of color in his preschool class. The truth is, we don’t. We live in a middle to upper middle class neighborhood in east Duluth, MN. I could probably count on one hand the number of families or children of color that we see regularly.
My children aren’t exposed to a lot of diversity. So the struggle becomes, how do I teach my children to respect and value diversity if the opportunities in daily life are so few? My goal is to embrace each opportunity that does arise and to push for new opportunities. To speak it and not “shush” it. To be open and honest and welcoming of conversations and observations.
Why did Hayden feel the need to comment on black skin? Because it was different. Different than him. Different than everyone else at the pool and probably nearly everyone else he had ever seen at that pool. That’s another post.