Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Color blind and socially oblivious

I met E in her classroom today after school so that we could check out a potential new aftercare place since her current aftercare has abruptly decided to close (more on that in a few weeks, once we've finished scrambling together our new plan). I loved picking her up in the classroom last year in kindergarten but this was the first time I've picked her up in the classroom this year.

Her school, demographically, is mostly white. Her class is 100% white. Her class last year included one girl of Chinese descent and there are a few kids in the halls who are darker than my Eastern European mutt girl: maybe biracial, Hispanic, African American. E's never particularly noticed. She doesn't even have the words to talk about it. "Which boy was it who helped you with your bag?" I asked once. It would have been so easy for her to answer with "the black one," as he was the only such boy in the room. The one with glasses? And a red shirt? He has the brownish skin, Mama, see him? I noticed that day that she used his skin color as the third descriptor. Maybe she's part of the first post-racial generation, I wondered in my head.

As the kids gathered today in the doorframe, waiting for dismissal, they turned to the teacher-supply-store cut-outs that adorn their classroom door. Their teacher had written their names on the paper dolls, and in what sounds like a daily conversation, the kids compared their bodies to their avatars. "You don't really have black hair!" "And you don't really have dark skin at all - I can see your veins!" "And that's silly. You're not blonde!" "And you definitely don't have curls!" First graders, these bright kids, but they didn't say "that's the Asian cookie cutter and that's the white girl cookie cutter." They just noticed individual characteristics, both on the door and on themselves. They didn't have the cookie cutter words.

We left her school and walked across the street to the potential new aftercare program and stopped at a specialty running store, because per her pediatrician's advice for some foot pain she's been experiencing, we were there to have her feet measured for a high instep so we can figure out what kind of shoes will best suit her. She had run her full gamut this afternoon, wired and exhausted from a full day of school to clingy and anxious at the aftercare program to slowly giggly as we toured around to exuberant and sassy as we left. She was in full-blown silly mode as we got out of our car. The store our doctor had recommended is on the second floor of the plaza and as we climbed the metal stairs, silly turned to imaginative play. Suddenly we were spies (more on that tomorrow). By the time we got to the store, I was a spy, but she had become a princess.

I was a member of her royal court, I soon learned, and as I divided my attention between keeping her cheery by playing along and explaining to a clerk what we needed, all her pent-up quiet from checking out the possible aftercare place was bursting out wildly. I helped her remove her shoes and the elderly shoe fitter helped her don a test pair. They weren't right, and as we went through several pairs she grew sillier and simultaneously increasingly frustrated. Princesses don't suffer frustration well, as I"m sure you know.

She had trouble removing another shoe and stopped trying. I tried to swing her legs around from where she had flopped. "Let's make this easier on this nice man, ok?" Since we've had kids I've called every service person who's helped us the "nice man" or "nice lady." But she was tired, and frustrated, and emotionally spent, and hiding in the safety of her game.

Well, since I'm a princess, he's my servant. He'll get them off for me.

She meant no particular amount of disrespect beyond general boundary testing. But the whole room lost its oxygen. The gentleman who had been helping us, white haired, African American, stiffened visibly. He retracted his hands before he composed himself and removed her shoe. He was no longer smiling.

Of course he wasn't. And I apologized profusely and he accepted graciously and E noticed the change in the room and dropped her game. And the moment ended as quick as it came but that's not really true, is it? It's replaying in my mind and it's likely replayed in his and there's no such thing as post-racial, I decided. So we'll have to give her the words and crack her innocence and explain the legacy of injustices she can't comprehend from before she was even born because she can't perpetuate a hurt, even if she never knew about it.


This post was brought to you by:

1) the biography The Black Count, in which author Tom Reiss tells how Alexandre Dumas, father of the author you know, went from slavery to become the equivalent of a five star general in the French military. Join From Left to Write on October 11 as we discuss the The Black Count. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


2) my terribly awkward afternoon. Parenting is acutely uncomfortable sometimes.

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