Sunday, September 18, 2011

Facing Race

We are in the bathroom of a gourmet pizza restaurant—the kind that has offerings like shrimp and goat cheese and whole wheat crusts—in Atlanta, GA. We’re here for a family reunion on Kevin’s side, and tonight we’re visiting with some of his cousins he hasn’t seen in years.

Towards the end of the meal, Sophie announces her panicked, “Bathroom!” which she does every night at some point during dinner. Then she says, “Mommy, come with me.”

Looks like I’m up.

On the way to the bathroom, we pass some live music, two teenagers, one on keyboards, singing, and the other accompanying him on the base. Sophie pauses to stick out her butt and shake it a little before I remind her of where we were so desperately headed.

She reluctantly drags her feet toward the bathroom. Inside there is a full length mirror, and with the music loud enough to penetrate the door, Sophie breaks into a dance watching herself with delight. As she does, another little girl enters with her mother. She is slight—I take her to be newly three—with creamy coffee-colored skin, perfect tight, black braids, shining eyes, a purple tutu, and bejeweled, flashing sneakers. She sees Sophie, squeaks a greeting and immediately joins her. Sophie is charmed to have someone join her dance party and the two shake their tails and chatter away about the live music. The other mom and I exchange smiles, touched by the sight of our daughters dancing in the bathroom.

But, wary of an accident, I remind Sophie, once again, of the purpose of our trip. “Okay, okay, Mom,” she says. We are in the stall and Sophie announces, loud enough for the entire bathroom to hear, “That girl has brown skin, Mom!”

I wince, but say, “Yes, she does.” Pause, and then add matter-of-factly, “We all come in different colors.”

Of course, Sophie was just noting the difference. It was hardly a comment along the lines of, “Mommy, why is that woman’s stomach so big?” which she asked a couple weeks ago in the library, pointing to one of the librarians. I tried to hustle her out the door so I could talk to her in private about making comments about other people’s bodies, but thinking I hadn’t heard her she said it again only this time, MUCH LOUDER.

No, I was only embarrassed because I would have liked to respond to Sophie the way in which the other girl’s mother would want me to respond to Sophie, and I wasn’t sure what that was. There’s no playbook for this. No way to know if the other mother was annoyed that of all the observations my daughter could have made about hers (she’s friendly, a good dancer, adorable, had cool shoes), it had to be about skin color, and now she (and her child) were being subjected to a conversation about the color of their skin. Or, whether she appreciated what I had to say, and the casual tone with which I said it. Or was she in the other stall wondering about the expression my face wore, where the conversation would be headed, or how she would talk to her own daughter about this interaction.

Was it the first time that she was confronted by a comment made by a “white” child about her child, or the millionth? I note that I have never heard a black child say of Sophia, “Mommy, her skin is all pinky-orange!” and I wonder why not.

I was also taken a bit off guard by Sophia’s comment because she is frequently around people-of-color. It’s not like she’s never seen someone a different shade or hue. Her teacher is West Indian. My mother’s nursery school is very diverse. We have friends and, albeit a few, neighbors who are black. We have a bunch of books featuring characters of a variety of skin tones. And she’s frequently in Philly where we encounter people of all races.

I think perhaps she said it because I’ve tried to make race a part of the conversation. Early on I read a summary of the research on children and race in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock. One of the points the authors make is that white people who want their children to be raised without bias often make the mistake of not talking about race. They don’t want to draw attention to the difference, so they don’t mention the difference. This reticence has the effect of making it an uncomfortable topic. And, because children just tend to gravitate towards people who look similarly to themselves, children will start to divide themselves into subgroups by race very early on. What white parents should do, they posit, is talk to their children about the fact that people come in all different colors and that you can be friends with someone who is a different color from you as easily as someone who is the same color as you. So, though it has felt awkward to do it, I’ve talked about the color of her friends—hair, eyes and skin—and pointed out how mommy and daddy have friends of different colors too.

Hence the comment. Sophie was just doing what (I hope) I’ve made it okay to do. I realize that not everyone is going to react in the same way to her comments. As Kevin later said to me, part of why race is so hard to talk about is that when you don’t know someone, you don’t know what they do and don’t believe. A simple observation could be loaded with bias, or it could be just that, an innocent noticing of the difference. It is the thing that makes social space so charged.

The other mother emerged from the stall with her daughter, smiling. If she was offended, I could not read it on her face. We waved goodbye and headed back to our table. A moment later Sophie saw them moving towards the table next to ours, “Look, Mom, it’s my new friend. Can I go over and talk to her?” I wasn’t sure that it would be welcome, and I was aware that I agreed, in part, because I was overcompensating. I didn’t want the other mom to think ill of Sophie’s comment (or my response). So I followed her over to the table, where the girl was drawing. They had a happy reunion, exchanging names and ages. Sophie complimented her on her coloring. We returned to our table and moments later, Sophie’s friend appeared, her picture in hand. “It’s for you,” she said to Sophie, handing her a picture of a star and her name written in a colorful mix of capital and lower case letters. Sophie took the sheet of paper and beamed as if she had just been given one of the greatest gifts she had ever received.

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