My mom always likes to tell me about how she taught me about race.
I come from an extremely liberal family as it is and my mom was a 19-year-old studying anthropology when she had me so her views on raising a child always kind of fascinated me.
Her favorite story is this: One time we were walking down the street, (I was about 4 years old at the time) across the street I noticed a black girl around my same age. I pointed her out to my mom “Mom, Do you see that girl?” My mom who did see the girl wanted to see how well she had raised me to not define people by the color of their skin. “No,” she said, “what girl are you talking about?” She held her breath, waiting for me to point out some kind of physical feature of the girl to clarify who I was talking about. “The girl in the yellow dress!” I replied, clearly frustrated at my mom’s inability to see this girl I was talking about. My mom said at that moment she knew she had raised me right.
My first defining moment about race, that I can remember, didn’t come until a year later. I was reluctantly in gymnastics class. Most days that I attended I would either cry hysterically in the parking lot or I would say I had to use the bathroom and sort of dawdle around in there. Singing to myself, dancing alone in a stall, pretty much anything to get me out of doing whatever physical activity I was about to have to do. This one afternoon I started reading the sloppy carvings in the stall. I remember seeing the “N” word (Sorry. Never typing that word out, let alone saying it out loud ever) scrawled in big block lettering on the door. I sat there for a minute, sounding every single letter out, trying to understand what this word was. Maybe they tried to write something else? Maybe this was just letters mixed together? I was really confused so I ran out to my mom and asked in a loud voice “what’s N***** mean?!?”
The look on my moms face is a look that will haunt me for a while. It went white, you could see the disappointment in her eyes, but it wasn’t with me. It’s like telling someone Santa isn’t real, or that you will never be able to be an artist when all you want to do is paint. The truth is what I saw on her face was her realizing that no matter how much she tried to shelter me of the evils of the outside world, the evils would find a way to sneak into my little life and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She grabbed me by the arm and said: “You are never allowed to say that word as long as you live, you understand me, that is the worst word you could ever say and I will explain why after class”.
Ok, now I was really confused. Before this, the only really really bad word I knew of was “fuck”. That was supposed to be the one word I wasn’t allowed to say. I remember being so distracted in class that day wondering if “n*****” was just another way to say “making love” like the other word was. I remember thinking about how it was used in a sentence, like if someone cut you off in traffic, would you scream “N*****!” at them like my mom used the F-word? By the time we got in the car, my head was swimming with questions and theories of what this could all mean.
That night I got my first black history lesson.
We talked about slavery, the underground railroad. I was first introduced to heroes like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. I was opened up to a whole new world of prejudice and hate. While traumatizing, it was the one defining moment that lit that fire in me to do better and be better than some of the monsters before me.
After that my racial education grew. I was given books to learn about Africa including “Learning To Swim In Swaziland” which I can’t recommend enough. My mom got me a drum and took me to see Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian musician who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
Looking at the world today and seeing what I am bringing my own daughter into is pretty terrifying. There’s a lot of children out there that are never taught that the n-word is the worst word in the world you can say. There are still black people being bought like cattle in the world and there are still people that consider those with darker skin somehow lesser than they are. I can’t say I was raised not to see color because I wasn’t. I was raised to respect color, everyone’s color. I was taught that different skin colors come with different stories and history and rich culture.
The more I’ve grown up the more I realize how privileged I am not to be followed in a store, or targeted for what shade I am or even shot out of fear. Wrapping your head around parenting is learning to undo so much of the damage that society has shoved down our throats for generations – and even after that just praying that what you did was enough to teach your child to be a good human.
So until I too have to teach my own daughter about the evils that walk this earth with us, I will fill her room with pictures of heroes that don’t necessarily look like her, and shelves full of books about cultures that are not her own and dolls that don’t share her same skin tone and celebrate the diversity that is this world we have brought her into.