Q & J 3 years old
Y and I were together for 14 years before we became parents. White woman, black man living in the US. In those 14 years race rarely entered our conversations. There were many ‘incidents’ but they didn’t cause much angst or need for conversation. We work hard to change what we can and don’t waste much time on what we cannot. When I became pregnant I was thrilled. It was a long, medically intense time and Q is alive because of the amazing doctors and hospital staff that cared for us. During that time I never considered how having a child would bring race into our lives in a way it had never been while we were a couple. I look back now and wonder at my innocence. There are some lessons, however, that we cannot learn from books, movies, or seminars. There are some lessons that come only on the backs of our children. This, I was unprepared for.
The photo above is of Q and J at the time everything began to change. Look at them. Look at how small, how innocent. Q and J started as infants in the same daycare class two days a week. They loved each other almost from the first. Before they could speak they were friends. J would arrive first, grab two fire trucks and sit next to the door until Q showed up. He would then hand a fire truck to Q who might have said thank-you if only he could speak, but he was about a year old and J a year and a half so instead they giggled and played and squabbled all day long, no words necessary.
When we would show up at the end of the day neither of them were ready to come home. One look at us and they would run laughing in the other direction. On the five days Q didn’t go to daycare he would wake up and say the name of the daycare hopefully and when I would say brightly “no, it’s a mommy/daddy & Q day!” he would look faintly disappointed but always try to cover it up with a shy smile as though he didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
One day when they were three years old (as they are in the photo,) Y arrived to pick up Q. They were running in circles when J ran up to Y and said “Y, how come your skin is brown?” Y looked at him and said, “J, how come your skin isn’t?” J raised his little eyebrows, smiled and went back to running in circles with Q. J had already internalized the fact that in his world, white was the ‘norm’ and brown was ‘different.’ Q began to feel this too and began to talk about it. He was three years old when he first told me that he wanted to have my color skin. Once he said he was angry at God for giving him brown skin.
One afternoon as we drove home from the daycare I noticed he was unusually quiet and had a serious look on his face. He was 3 ½ at the time. When I asked what he was thinking about he said that one of the children had asked something about why Q’s skin was brown and that one of the teachers had said because we were all made different to make the world a more beautiful place (or something like that. I cannot remember exactly but it was a very positive message.) “Oh that’s nice sweetheart.” I said. He turned away from the window he had been looking out of and with real frustration he said as he looked at me in the rear view mirror “No it’s not Mommy. It’s stupid. I’m different, they’re all the same.”
That was my different/same turning point. I realized in that moment that being white and never having suffered from being ‘different’ I always looked at it as a positive. But if you are a young preschooler and all you want to do is fit in or feel at home when you are with your friends or in school or your place of worship and you are the one that stands out, then different is not nice. Different is something you want to shed so that others can begin to look at you just for you. You want to belong and be noticed for something like singing or building blocks, something you can feel proud of because you can control it. You want to feel as comfortable in your own skin when you leave home as you do when you are home. Positive messages of difference are lost on you.
I understood that I was oblivious to what he was experiencing and that I would have to catch up very quickly. I knew too that it would be our responsibility to help his current and future preschool teachers learn some of the lessons that Q was teaching us. There is a time and a place for learning about what makes us individuals and unique but I now believe that in the early years we need to start building on a foundation of what we have in common. We are all family to each other, we are all related. That’s lesson number one.