Blame the Parents

15 03 2012

On Sunday morning, we sat down at a restaurant for breakfast.

PJ and I were on one side of the table.  SAG and Little Dude sat facing us.  PJ looked beyond her father’s and brother’s shoulders at the family that sat behind them and announced, “Look, Mom, that is a table of ALL brown people.”

The mother looked up at me, caught my eye and smiled.

I simply said, “Yes, yes it is.”

I was thankful for the fact that Little Dude was with us.  Because that could have been much more awkward then it already was.

My children, of both shades, happily played with the darling brown children until it was time for us to leave.

My daughter is at that age where she is constantly noticing similarities and differences.

I can accept this.  We are okay.

Yesterday, at the park, a young girl came over to share our sand toys.  Viola was brown, like Little Dude.  Her mother was peachy/pale/white-ish, like me.  At some point PJ was playing next to Viola.  Her mother had been encouraging Viola to join in the games PJ was playing with another little girl.  But Viola wasn’t interested.  Now that PJ’s friend had left, I hoped to encourage PJ to play with Viola.  I said, “PJ,  that new friend is named Viola.  Why don’t you play with her?”

And my daughter answered, “But she is brown.”

My shock came out in a half-laugh, half scoff.  I replied, “Yeah, and so is your brother.”

Viola’s mother looked at me and giggled.  We were both at a loss.

I think PJ and Viola then did some interacting.  Honestly, I can’t remember.

I was stupefied.  I was horrified.  I was mortified.  I was trying to figure out what just happened.

I wanted to talk to PJ about it.  But I didn’t want to do it in front of Little Dude.  I was praying there had been a misunderstanding.

Viola and her mother eventually left and PJ joined Little Dude and me where we were playing.  I couldn’t wait any longer.  I asked PJ, “Did you think I said that Viola’s name was violet?”  Please, say yes.  Please, PLEASE, say yes.  Then this is just a conversation about the difference between violet and brown.  Ha, ha, ha.

PJ looked sheepish.  I am not sure she has ever looked quite that way before.  She mumbled yes.  But I didn’t quite believe her.

I asked a few more questions and PJ confessed that she had not misunderstood me.

The conversation went on and PJ said that Little Dude should have played with Viola because they were the same color.

Another little girl arrived where we were playing  and PJ announced she wanted to play with her because, “She looks like me.”


I can not accept THIS.  I don’t feel like we are okay.

I know noticing color is not the same as racism.  But deciding who should play with whom based on color – that feels completely different.

I know PJ felt bad at the park when I talked to her.  On some level she understood we were in murky water and it wasn’t good.  I didn’t lecture or call her naughty.    I did point out that her brother and she were different shades and played together all the time.  Maybe in my effort not to over-react, I under reacted.  But I needed time to think.

My mind is spinning and I am coming up with lots of theories.

First theory; she is getting this from school.  The school we picked out primarily for its diversity.  She is certainly getting other things at school, like the sentence, “If you don’t come here right now I am going to smack you.”  I promise this is nothing she has ever heard at home.

Second theory;  it is just an adaptation of other categorizations.  Noticing similarities and differences is big at age four.  Frankly, grouping things and people in categories is something we never outgrow.  Last week, while at playgroup, another mother commented how Little Dude must have been happy to have Charlie there since everyone else was a girl.  It struck me as a little strange and made me think about how even the most educated of us often defer to simple classification by gender.  If this woman who I respect and love simplifies in this way, is it that strange that my daughter would be trying out other simplifications?

At bedtime the kids each get to pick out one book to read.  Last night I added a “Mother’s Choice Bonus Book.”  I, of course, picked, “Shades of People.”   I tried to let what is a favorite book for all of us drive home the message of equality, while I resisted the urge to pontificate.

When we read the book, the book I love and naively thought of as a vaccine against skin color becoming an issue, I didn’t try to make her uncomfortable. I was hoping that light bulb would go off in her head all by itself.

If my child, being raised in our multi-cultural household, where we take very conscious steps to honor diversity, can say something so potentially hurtful in front of another kid, what about children growing up in racist households?  Or households that are neutral?

How about the reverse scenario that so many of my liberal, white friends learned to embrace; raising your kids to be color-blind.  Would this event have occurred if we were “color-blind”?  If I taught my kids to never mention color and that it was wrong to even notice it, could I ensure this will never happen again?

I am taking some solace in the fact that her issue was strictly based on color and not at all based on race.  At this point, I don’t think my kids know anything about the concept of race.  And I am comfortable with that.  I don’t think there is an age appropriate way to randomly bring up “race” with pre-schoolers.  Diversity, yes; race, not yet.

Of course, after yesterday’s debacle, the only thing I know is I don’t know a thing.

I scheduled an appointment to meet with her teacher just to make sure those lines of communication are open and she is listening for the same sentiments being expressed on the playground – by the other children and (it kills me to type this) my child.

And you can bet that we will ramp up reading of all our favorite diversity books.  Unfortunately,  there is an obvious gap between what we are reading and what we are living.

My reality… yesterday, at the park, I overheard a white girl tell her mother she didn’t want to play with another child because the child was brown.  In this case, I was the mother of the white child.  Next week, it is just as likely that I will be the mother of the brown child.  I’ve worked hard to prepare for the situation where it is my brown child being excluded.  I was completely unprepared to be the parent of the white child doing the excluding.




13 responses

15 03 2012

My brown child refuses to play with other brown kids. Because they are “dirty” or “they smell.” Other than his cousins, who he just loves to pieces. The books I’ve gotten to try to read to him — he wants no part of any books with brown kids in them. He came home with a scholastic book once and threw it at me. “Why you get this one?” It was called “Brown Skin, Bright Eyes.” I’m at a loss. He’s in a diverse daycare setting. We have a multi-cultural extended family. We talk all the time about what a beautiful color he is. I was hoping it was a phase, but it’s gone on for a year and a half now.

15 03 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

Oh, Karen, I wish I had a teeny-tiny piece of useful advice. Instead I offer you empathy. You will work through this. We will all work through this.

15 03 2012

My Asian DD had the same reaction as your previous commentor Karen’s child had but for different reasons. That is, she refused to identify with other Asian children and still refuses to “group” herself with other Asians. Not because she doesn’t like them for any reason, I think hers is more a question of insecure attachment to us. She will only “sort” herself into the “white” category. Me thinks I have a whole different problem than you do SF.

Still and all, I think it is an issue of sorting, grouping and colors at this age. It’s not yet race. Not yet, anyway. I think her reaction was age appropriate even if a little un-“pc”-ish. 😉

15 03 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

Find your daughter an Asian Shoe Designer she can look up to and she will dump her white mother-who-does-not-understand-the-importance-of-foot-fashion in a second.

15 03 2012

I feel for you, but since we’re all being honest right now, I confess I was also laughing while I read of your plight. Laughing at the irony (not AT you). Know that you really are OK. PJ is OK. Better than OK.

(still chuckling about Life’s silly curve balls)

15 03 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

You know I am laughing, too. Only I am laughing at myself for preparing for the wrong thing.

15 03 2012
The Lost Planetista

I think it’s a sorting thing, too. That said, it may be the preliminary understanding of race. Kids sponge up all kinds of things from their surroundings. In our case, Dew Drop will sponge something up , then play act it out later- as if seeing our reaction to whatever it is is paramount to her own understanding. And we know these racist messages are all around us- so maybe she’s trying to work through what some of that means.
The reason why I know you’re ok is because you’re focused and deliberate as a parent. The other parents of kids who sort, who don’t know how to talk about it or why it’s so important, they’re the ones I stay up at night worrying about.

15 03 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

The acting it out later to see how we react is something I am starting to see from both of my kids. It is very interesting. Especially because I am so naturally reactive. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

15 03 2012

Yikes. That must have been pretty confronting.


I can’t help thinking that actually, it’s pretty normal to be drawn to people who are ‘like’ us. I think it’s instinctual. I think that for a lot of people (of all colours) our natural bent is to be with the people who remind us of us (and I do think that includes gender as well as shade of skin). I think that feeling that way is pretty normal for a kid – I think it’s understandable that it’s her instinct, and she’s more likely to be able to overcome that instinct to stick with the people who are like her if you are open about the fact that it is real. Well, it’s real for me, anyway.

15 03 2012
Scooping it up

I have a response post coming. Because you are not alone. But it will have to wait a week. But my heart goes out to you. UG.

16 03 2012

I was watching my black daughter at the children’s museum last weekend and when there were girls in her general age range, she played with them. When the girls left, she went to the boy who seemed slightly older but was also non-white. I think age, gender, and race all go into how kids sort themselves.

I also always recommend Debra Van Ausdale’s book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism (and I probably have the subtitle slightly wrong) where she spent significant time observing a preschool and learning what kids actually said about race and how clear it was that they knew it was taboo to talk about it with grownups. At least your daughter knows she can talk to you about skin color!

The last tiny comment is that the “like your brother” bit stuck out as maybe not a selling point for a new playmate. I had a neighbor growing up whose younge sister was born a month after I was. The older sister would come knock on our door from the time I was a baby and ask to play with me. When it wasn’t convenient and my mom asked her why she didn’t just go play with her own sister, she immediately whined, “But she’s my siiiister and I HAVE to play with her all the time!” Maybe if she’s associating brown skin too closely with playing-with-my-brother it’ll be hard for her to figure out that she can play differently with someone else who also has brown skin. Kid have to make rules about how they think the world works, but it doesn’t mean the rules make sense from outside.

I hope none of this comes out as assvice. I’m just thinking about these kinds of issues a lot, as are most transracial parents, I hope.

16 03 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

Thanks, Thorn. I really appreciate your input. You have given me about five new things to think about.
For sure I already know that trying to encourage PJ to play with the other girl was stupid. I felt some weird pressure because the mother was trying to do the same earlier. When she did it I thought, “Why doesn’t she just let them figure it out.” Then I went and did the same thing. Ridiculous.
I also have a tendency to monitor everything kids say to each other and the way they play. My need to control the world is hard to keep in check. I am like a border collie in a field of sheep – on high alert.
Maybe I need to start drinking earlier in the day… just kidding, future employers who might someday read my blog.

17 03 2012

Having things be the, “same” IS really big during those years (2-6). Kennedy is always trying to dress her and Reagan as, “twins.” And, yet when they get dolls, as much as I try to make many multiple colors and races available; the brown-skinned dolls with curly hair usually go to Reagan, and the beige-skinned dolls with straight brown hair usually go to Kennedy. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired dolls sit all lonely and sad because no one wants to play with them. When my 6-year-old gets together with her 7-year-old cousin–their *favorite* game is to run around screaming every time a boy comes into the room and to lock my 4-year-old son in the bathroom if he tries to play with them. *cough* I hate it. I was a big tom boy and loved playing with my older brother! I don’t get it. I’ve noticed the exact opposite tendency with my older boys. Last year when they were going to public school–I would find out after *months* of one of them talking about a friend–that the person was *gasp* a GIRL. Many of their friends had a different color of skin than they did. I *never* heard them mention skin color. Ever. Only character traits. Anyway, as far as I can tell–my kids are both sexist and racist. But not really.

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