Tuesday, July 15, 2008

skin again

Most of the books we've read about it say kids don't really notice skin color until the age of five or so. And Adinah is five.

* * *

One of my secondary missions on my recent blitz trip to New York was to find some "magazines about black princesses," which was a request from Adinah and Anette. If such magazines exist, I didn't find 'em at the two large magazine stores I visited, so I got Adinah some books about powerful black girls instead. One of them, Skin Again, by bell hooks, is really more about prejudice and racism in the abstract. But I hesitated before buying it. Adinah's aware that people have different colors, but she doesn't yet know that some poo poo heads don't like people of another color. Put another way, we've talked about race, but not about racism.

I wonder when we should have that conversation.

Naturally, I'm afraid of it. Five is a tender age. What if it breaks Adinah's heart to find out just how hateful and stupid human beings can be?

She's a curious kid, though, and she's starting to ask questions. She went to a birthday party recently with her Ethiopian friend Teresa, and a couple of the other girls there laughed at them because they both have brown skin. Adinah didn't understand why anyone would laugh about brown skin.

She's mentioned it several times since then. And both Anette and I have, perhaps presumptuously, understood her to be asking a question. I told her that maybe those girls laughed because they've never seen little brown girls before. Which, in Vienna, may be true. (Of course, what I really want to say to Adinah is, 'Tell me those girls' names, and I will open up a can of whup-ass on the rednecks what raised 'em.)

But that's not even close to the whole answer to the question Adinah is asking me.

As is too often the case, I get some small inspiration from...Hollywood. I only just recently saw To Kill a Mockingbird. And when his daughter asks Atticus Finch, world's best father and all-around-too-good-to-be-true-hero, a similar question about racism, Atticus says something like, "There's a lot of bad things in the world, Scout. I wish I could protect you from all of them, but I can't."

I know it's not a perfect answer, but maybe that'll have to do for now.


cliff1976 said...

Adinah didn't understand why anyone would laugh about brown skin.

Of course, her confusion is warranted. What's funny about brown skin?

I told her that maybe those girls laughed because they've never seen little brown girls before.

But this is also difficult to swallow. They've never seen little brown girls before and that's why it's funny? Other things they've never seen before aren't funny &mdash why does the novelty of me result in laughing?

It'll take a long time for her to realize that's not about anything funny at all. It's about being different and the nastiness that can arise from the exploitation of that difference — whether directly (on the playground in group dynamics) or indirectly (because mom and dad say things about brown people and then laugh, so..."ha!").

I don't envy having to help kids learn those lessons. There's a lot of heartbreak waiting to happen as part of the learning process.

Anonymous said...

...alot of heartbreak but you can start by making yourself aware of your own good intentions that can slide into a subconscious racism, that cliff1976 pointed out.

Is she aware that there are places beyond Africa where brown people and white people can see each other everyday on the street - like New York or Paris? I do sense that your daughter doesn't 'see' herself in her environment in Vienna. I'm not saying that racism doesn't exist in those other cities , but
I lived in Vienna and there aren't many brown people to see on a daily route - not a great way to raise a kid, as her desire to be blond revealed in one of your earlier posts.

I don't envy you having this responsibility but I think you ought to face it dead on and not make the same (unintentional) racist insinuations in your explanations to your daughter that the little girls made in laughing at her skin.

She needs to be able to have you defend her and to learn how to defend herself - not with hostility but with conviction and a deep belief in the rightness and fineness of her brown skin. Maybe you or your wife ought to talk with the parents of the girls who said it. Your daughter needs your protection, support and awareness.


Tricia Mitchell said...

There are several life lessons here. Among them:
1. little kids can be mean
2. little girls can be mean
3. people sometimes laugh when they feel uncomfortable
4. people of all ages can be mean, and they will find an infinite number of things to put their meanness into.

At my house, I pretend that I'm the Orientation committee for the planet Earth. So I say things to my kids like, "Here on the planet Earth, people do funny things. Like some people think that boys should like pink, or that girls can't like to shoot off rockets. Isn't that so funny?"

It's hard to be very honest about the yucky parts of people, but I find that kids really can handle the truth. Especially if you focus on letting them have all of their feelings about their experiences. I think what confuses and screws people up is not getting permission to have a normal reaction.

I didn't like having to teach my son, when he was two, about his classmate's mom who died. But I took a deep breath and made the words come out. He seemed so very relieved, because it was obvious at school that something was wrong. And then he just moved on and started talking about something else.

pat said...

People: Thank you for three very thoughtful, insightful comments.
Good points, Cliff. As a stranger we once met told us, this adoption is a super-project. A life work.
Macvee: Yes, Adinah is aware that Vienna isn't like other cities and there are places where people mix more. She also has five brown friends whom she sees every day in her kindergarten here.
Trish: Thanks for those words. When Marvin the Martian lands, I'm sending him your way.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I thought that the perspective of a black female who grew up in the West might be helpful.

Those books are incorrect. I noticed skin colour before the age of five. I noticed being treated different because I was different when I was at most three. I noticed the pattern of racism at age four. Perhaps I was just observant, but these things differ from child to child. A child who is different and most likely to be on the receiving end of discrimination notices these things more acutely and earlier than children who are not "different". We don't have the privilege of being "colour blind" because we are always reminded of race.

As a black little girl, I was very aware that all of the pretty, desirable heroines and princesses were not black. Black girls were always the forgettable sidekicks or were only a caricature/stereotype or dealt only with racism. As if black people cannot exist as main characters in a story unless there is some lesson to be learned about racism or poverty.

I've read your other posts and you seem like a very loving, intelligent father. She is blessed to have you in her life. Just always remember to take every opportunity to show her the beauty of her skin and hair, to collect stories, books, films, cartoons, comics, and anything else that shows her someone she can identify with, to show her that she's not alone.

pat said...

Wow, thank you for your insights, A. This is indeed an old post, but it's of course a continuing theme in our lives. Our daughters (we have two now) are strong, smart and beautiful, but you're right: we will try to take every opportunity to point that out to them with our words.