Mama, I’m not black!

I thought that eventually I would gently introduce my children to the issue of racial and ethnic prejudice, which we live with here in the Czech Republic. I had this plan to introduce the story of Ruby Bridges to them with a picture book, sometime next summer or next year (mainly sometime later… not now. 🙂 ).

But the Gods and children never do what you want. Over the past month, Shaye has become increasingly concerned about the color black and particularly people with dark skin. She started to get angry every time Dusan or I read one of our many children’s books with diversely colored people in them. Then, one day she came out with it and shouted, “I’m not black! I don’t want to be black!”

I felt near to panic. How could this happen? Our children have been as sheltered as it is possible to be in a country that is wracked with interethnic animosity. They only go to preschool two days a week and the preschool director has shown through her actions to be particularly kind and open-minded. Where could she have heard something negative about dark skin color? Where could she have heard any reference to her being black? My American neice Ember pointed out that the comment that started it all may have actually come from Romani kids at our monthly meetings with foster and adoptive families. It might not have been a negative comment, simply a question, “Are you black too?”

I can see it. Romani kids growing up in this country often refer to themselves as “Gypsies” or “blacks” because they have never been given any other vocabulary for their identity. They might easily ask that question because Shaye is definitely tan enough to not fit into the very pale Czech norm. So, it would be a natural and innocent question from a Romani child.

Two days later, Shaye was in the bathtub and a very dark purple… well, black bruise that had been on her fingernail for nearly two months, ever since she slammed her finger in the door finally broke and drained. She was elated. “Mama, look! I’m not black!” Oh, so was it an ethnic comment or was she just afraid, in that way of children that the strangely persistant bruise would stay there forever or even grow to cover more of her. She is very vain about her fingernails and was very said that one of them had this unsightly bruise on it.

For awhile, I thought that was all it was, but her protests over books with children of different colors continued. Shaye has particularly serious taste in childrens books. She would rather here about real kids than Dr. Seuss much of the time. We were reading a story about a little girl in South Africa. The story went something like this: “This little girl goes to the Number 6 primary school. Here are her friends. They are very happy to go to their school. A few years ago, there was a rule that said that they couldn’t go to the same school. All the white children had to go to one school and the black children had to go to a different school and the Indian children had to go to yet another school. It was a silly rule because the color of someone’s skin is not that important. The children are very happy now that they can all go to the same school and be friends.”

Shaye stopped me, “Ï don’t want her to go to my school.”

Me: “Why not?”

Shaye: “I don’t like black people.”

Me, trying not to sound TOO distressed: “Oh, why don’t you?”

Shaye: “They look like monsters.”

Me, grasping for straws: “Well, I think she’s pretty. She can go to my school.”

Shaye: “I’m not black.”

Me: “No, you’re not black. You’re kind of cinnamon colored. Look, what color is my hand and what color is your hand?”

Shaye: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, look at the picture. Does the little girl look really black? Her shirt is black but her face isn’t really black. It is brown.”

Shaye, noncommitally, “Hmmmm…”

Me: “And look, the paper is white. Is my hand the same color as the paper?”

Shaye: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, people call me white, just like they call that girl black but i’m not really white. I’m more like bread-colored (if you are talking about our whole grain bread) and that girl is more like chocolate colored.”

Shaye: “I’m white.”

Oh, for crying out loud, what do I say now? They did not teach you this kind of stuff in token multiculturalism classes at my university. Do I ägree and let her sayu she’s white because she is close enough to white that, at least in the winter, no one in America would argue with her? Would that not cheapen her Romani identity and teach her that I agree that white is preferable? Do I argue with her and try to persuade her that she is Romani and that Roma are supposed to have darker skin, even though some are much lighter-skinned than her and I have known completely culturally competent Roma who were as pale as me? Judge the response I chose if you will, but nothing is simple about this.

Me: “Well, you’re colored like bread with cinnamon in it.”

Shaye: “Hmmmm…”

Me: “Do you think we are really very different from that little girl who has dark skin?”

Shaye silent.

Me: “Let’s see. You know how some apples are red and some are green on the outside?”

Shaye: “Hmmm…””

Me: “Well, when you open them up they are all just apples on the inside and they are all sweet. People are like that. On the outside people are different colors and speak different languages but we’re all pretty much the same on the inside. Just like I’m American and Papa is Czech and you and Marik are Roma. But we’re all pretty much the same and we make our family with lots of good food and music and people from three different cultures.”

Shaye: “Mama, they have to let you go to school even if you are American.”

Me, trying to keep up: “Well, yes, I can go to school too. But do you know what? When I was a little girl, there were some people who didn’t want me to go to the school in our town, just like that little girl in the book couldn’t go to school with the kids who are different colors from her.”

Shaye: “Why?”

Me, carefully keeping my voice light and without emotion: “You know how my eyes are different from other people’s and I can’t see ver good? Well, when I was a little girl, some teachers and other people didn’t want me to go to school just because of that. That is just as silly as saying someone can’t go to school because their skin is a different color.”

Shaye, vehemently angry: “Those are mean, yucky teachers! I’m going to get my sword and hit them until they’re dead!”

Me, trying not to show that I am shocked by the intensity of her outburst: “Honey, that kind of thing really makes you angry and it makes me angry too but we can’t hurt people, even when we’re angry.”

Ï’ve known since the beginning that there would come a day where I would have to say something like, “Honey, you know, most Romani children in this country are not allowed to go to good schools either, just because they are Roma. That is really wrong. It is a terrible thing and it hurts Romani kids in our country. There are lots of people who think that Roma are bad. They don’t understand and they are mixed up in their heads. They need to learn that Roma are the same as Czechs inside.” Was this the day? It seems far too soon for that. She’s only just turned four. How can a child that young possibly cope with such terrible things so close to home and not be hurt by it? And yet, she’d better hear the facts from me first with my interpretation, rather than the way she’ll hear them out there or even in preschool. Even well meaning Czechs will put it in ways that are unacceptable by my standards, such as “Roma just don’t know how to behave right, so they have to get speciaql education, but we feel sorry for them and we’ll help them. And you’re not like them. You’re a special good Romani girl.” Grrrr….

So, I opened my mouth to say it. To try, to strike a blow against the beast of racism with my puny little fists, to fight the battle… I said the first three words, and then…

Shaye: “Mama, I want a book about fairies.”

Me, finally checking my watch, “Oh my! it is suddenly an hour passed your bedtime! How time flies.”

I’m still not sure if I did well or not. I’m sure I messed something up in there. But hopefully, she’ll take the good average of my comments over the years, rather than the screw ups.

On the positive side, in the morning in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, Shaye declared, “I’m the same and Mama is the same and Marik is the same and Papa is the same even though they are boys and Eliska is not the same because she is a cat.”

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie Farnam
    Mar 09, 2013 @ 16:53:46

    THIS IS WONDERFUL WONDERFUL WONDERFUL. I know it is really hard and you are really doing a good job of handling such a sensitive topic. I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts, especially ideas of how to handle it differently. I have none…well, just one idea. From a therapeutic standpoint, Shaye’s request for a story about fairies was perfect. With tough stuff we dip in and we put it aside — until something brings it up again. We need to put it aside to let our brains integrate it. And going to bed thinking about fairies is way better than going to bed thinking about the meanness of some people who don’t understand or know how to think about differences. I would recommend following any tough story with something light and kid-like…a song or a story or a fantasy, completely unrelated. Of course, as you were, following her lead in terms of where to go. Anyway, I hope you keep writing this stuff. I am interested in every detail of it.

    Reply

  2. anne
    Mar 10, 2013 @ 14:07:54

    I just love this post – it made me laugh and want to hug you. It’s such a wonderful illustration of how children defy our expectations and come at us out of left field in ways we never expected. I am now braced for talks like this with our son in the years to come. For the record, I think you did a terrific job – I hope I can do half as well when the time comes.

    Reply

  3. Kathy
    Mar 10, 2013 @ 14:21:45

    I agree with Julie about the heavy stuff and the light stuff. She will remember the discussion but it will not leave a heavy feeling behind it. I giggled though when I read you looked at your watch. You did fine… When encouraging friends, or colleagues, I believe in the value of a nudge in education and counseling. I think you did well… there will be other times and you are sensitive to when those will be. She is being raised in a house full of love. That is the important thing. She will pull her strength knowing that she has your hugs to support her.

    Reply

    • ariefarnam
      Mar 10, 2013 @ 17:57:00

      🙂 I really did look at my watch just because she broke the spell of the intense conversation and then I realized it was an hour past her bedtime. I can’t imagine how it got that late, although she was getting to stay up a bit late anyway because it was a Friday night. I take note of the bit about ending on a light note.

      Reply

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