Please help me make it better.


Originally, I was supposed to write a post about how to tone down the sexiness of Valentine’s cards for your little kid’s classmates – you know, a fish-themed “I’m glad you’re in my school” thing, or maybe an owl saying, “You’re a hoot.” Something like that, lightweight, helpful in a sort of low-impact way.

I’m not writing that now.

I can’t write that now. Because last week I heard my 4-year-old making unhappy sounds, and I stopped washing dishes to check out what was going on. I found my little girl weeping, trying to color herself pink with markers, saying, “I just don’t want to be brown anymore! I just want to be pink like all of my friends! I just don’t want to be different!”

This went on for an hour in the morning. And another hour at bedtime. And it didn’t matter that I told her that she was beautiful. It didn’t matter that I told her that the way she looks on the outside isn’t what makes her a good person. It didn’t matter that we did a tour of everyone in our family, from the darkest browns to the palest pinks, and talked about all the ways that each individual was beautiful and special. It didn’t even help when I showed her a picture of her daddy’s cousin, a biracial girl with skin tone and hair texture similar to my daughter’s, and explained that people actually pay this young woman, who is a model, just for the opportunity to take her picture. Nothing mattered. Somehow, my 4-year-old came to the conclusion that being brown is bad, and she spent an enormous portion of her waking hours mourning the inescapability of her own skin.

Never have I felt more sad, angry, and helpless in my role as a mother as I did in that moment.

And here’s the problem: normally, when she’s upset, it’s either something that I can teach her how to fix on her own, it’s something I can help her fix, or it’s something temporary. But when it comes to her budding realization that things aren’t the same for brown people as they are for pink people? That’s not something I can fix on my own, and while I pray to God that it’s temporary, I can’t say with confidence that it’s something that will change within her lifetime.

I’ll be the first to admit that the media has a vested interest in sensationalizing stories, whether that’s by featuring the most emotionally charged stories, by reporting those details that stand out the most, by breaking everything down into sound bites. I get that. I also get that there can be further biases about which stories are told, and how they are told, depending upon the race of the involved individuals, the gender of the involved individuals, the sexual orientation of the involved individuals, their political affiliation, and on, and on, and on. But still, even knowing that the media is biased, I am sick from it. I am heartbroken from it. I am exhausted from reading about the way people are treating each other. I am terrified from wondering whether my daughters will be the next news story, their bodies violated and broken. I am overwhelmed from trying to figure out how to cope if it turns out that I am slated to be the next grieving mother.

In the last few months, we’ve seen stories upon stories of unarmed black men, boys, little girls, mentally handicapped individuals, homeless, and mentally ill people killed by police, with those police officers going unpunished…and not after being found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, but rather by being given a pass on going through a criminal trial at all.

We’ve seen stories upon stories of women receiving rape threats and death threats for commenting publicly about being on the receiving end of misogynistic violence within the gamer community, the fraternity/sorority culture, various large organizations, all while purported rapists are left untroubled by their peers.

We’ve heard about children bullying children to the point where victims attempt or succeed at suicide.

I’ve personally been told by people that I know that I need to, “ease up,” because, “the fact that we elected a black President means that this is a post-racial society.”

Apparently, in a post-racial society, it’s still unacceptable to portray a mixed race family eating Cheerios. Apparently, in a post-racial society, we still think it’s okay to refer to Mattel’s darker-skinned doll as, “Black Barbie.” Apparently, in a post-racial society, no one is supposed to notice that the vast majority of kid’s books and toys – and especially science books and toys – portray white, male children almost to the exclusion of all others.

Apparently, in a post-racial society, a popular mixed-race 4-year-old in a loving and supportive family can still come to the conclusion that she is bad because of the color of her skin.

I’m done. I’m done with wondering who will be next. And so I am doing the only thing I can really do to try to make things better. I’m using my influence as a mother to teach my children that hatred and violence towards others is unacceptable.

Of course, part of this is teaching my daughters that it’s not okay for anyone to treat them disrespectfully. It’s okay for someone to disagree with them, but I have said, and will continue to say, that anyone who uses words or actions with the intent to hurt them is making a bad choice, and that they needn’t waste time trying to get a person who makes bad choices like that to be their friend.

But, you know, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and while the girls do need to know how to recognize and protect themselves from those who would diminish them because of the color of their skin, I also want them to know what they can do to treat others in a caring, kind, and loving way.

My kids are little, so as much as I would like to go into a long-winded philosophical debate with them, if I want them to remember the message, I have to keep it simple. So today I pulled my 4-year-old aside and asked her, “what does love look like? What do people do when they are trying to show love?” She said, “hugs and kisses and asking whether people are okay. Trying to make someone smile.” I asked, “and what do people do when they are angry?” “Yell and stomp and throw things.” “Baby, can you do something important? Even when you are mad, try to do the things that a loving person would do.”

It was a little harder to figure out the right message for the 18-month-old. I settled for, “gentle touches only, baby! Like when you pet the cat!”

And I’m going to revisit this. Every day, like a mantra, until it is second nature for my daughters to recognize that even the people they don’t like much are someone’s son or daughter, that they are human and real.

And I want you to do it, too. If you are a mother with living children, whether you are a biological mother, an adoptive mother, a stepmother, or a mother figure in someone’s life, you have power and influence. More than you realize, probably, and almost certainly more than you use. Use it now. Call your daughters, call your sons. Tell them that you don’t want them to leave someone else’s mother grieving because of a hurt that they created. Even if your child is grown. Even if your child is still an infant. Even if your child has never, would never, intentionally cause hurt to another person. Tell them, show them, teach them to take a deep breath and think before they say or do things out of anger.

It’s not too late, mamas. If we work together, we can save the world.

julia high - mom meet mom

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One Response

  1. Gillian Andrews

    Can you find a community-based African dance class, in the tradition of Chuck Davis? In NYC and maybe a handful of other cities, there are classes where everyone from babies to grandmas participate. They’re hugely body-positive, communicate history, and are places of great joy and warmth. In NYC we have a specifically youth-oriented troupe as well, Batoto Yetu: At their performance in NYC this past weekend they had a few children’s books and dance videos on offer. I can’t stress enough how much balm for the soul this community can offer.

    If you were still in DC it might be a little easier to find one… not sure about the PNW, and I’m aware that in Oakland all the African dance classes are more in an African than African-American tradition, and more oriented to grownups.

    Hugs to you and your beautiful daughter.

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