The other day, I saw a post on facebook that I decided to share with my daughter. Here is the picture.
I quickly noticed the issue and wanted to see if she did too. I showed her the picture and we talked through what it said. I asked her what she saw. She noticed that happy and proud seemed to be associated and that sad and angry were too. I asked her if she noticed the race of the kids in the picture and she said yes.
“What do you think about that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
So I offered her more, “What do you think about the fact that the black kids are angry and sad and the white kids are happy and proud?”
“I think that’s probably right,” she replied.
Patiently, I asked her why.
Her response, “White people don’t treat them so well, so I think they’d be angry and sad.”
Such a moment, in both validation, but also in missed teaching on my part. I told her that she is right, that they have every right to be angry and sad. And then I tried to explain to her that people already think black people are angry and sad, all the time. And if someone seeing this picture didn’t know so much about how black people are treated, then they might think that all black people are sad and angry for no reason at all.
I could see her confusion. And the complicated nature of trying to explain this was bouncing around in my brain.
I chose to simply say, “There are messages everywhere about how people are and this is an example of how we can pay attention to those.”
“Can I go play now?” she asked.
“Of course,” and she ran off.
I quickly realized an important piece of parenting that I am thinking about how to approach. I have taught her the reality, what exists. That is easy for her to grasp. In fact, she’s even pointed out things she sees as wrong or biased. But I haven’t taught her how to see it from a neutral perspective, or to see it in something that isn’t so obvious. And I’m wondering how to even do that. She is 6 years old. I cannot expect her to see this page in a book, raise her hand, and say “Um, teacher, this is racist.”
She actually encountered something similar recently when a book was read in class. It was “If I Ran the Zoo,” by Dr. Seuss. That book came into our house this part year because my parents brought a big pile of things from both mine and my siblings’ childhood. This book was included. When I read it with her, I pointed out all of the racism and stereotypes. We talked about what to do with the book. I wanted to throw it away. She wanted to give it away. I told her that if we gave it away, then the racism in the book would still be around and others might not recognize like we did.
We actually still have the book on our shelf. I’ve left it, it sits unread, for no reason other than we haven’t decided what to do with it. (Update, yesterday she brought me the book and asked me to throw it out. “It’s trash,” she said.)
Two days after they read this book in class for the celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday, she came to me and told me they did.
“Mom, we read the zoo book in school,” she said. She eyed me up, looking to see what I would do.
“Did you say anything?” I asked.
“No, we’re not supposed to talk during read aloud,” she said.
She waited two days to tell me because she was worried her teacher would get in trouble. With me, I presume. I told her I’d talk with her teacher and tell her that we think the book can be hurtful and that we want them to not read it again next year. That no one was meant to get into trouble. Instead, our goal is always to help other people sometimes.
So we reached out, and it all went well. I suspect the book won’t show up again for either teacher. I told my daughter the same and she seemed good with the outcome.
But in full honesty, I wish I pushed for a different outcome instead of just removing it. Because I actually think that this book is useful for a classroom full of nearly all white kids. It’s a teaching tool for anti-racism. But it’s not an easy request to ask a teacher to read the book and also point out the racism and harm. Without deep conversation and understanding between all of the parents and the kids. In this system anyway.
When my daughter saw that picture on facebook several months ago, I was worried about how to teach her to speak up. But now I’ve seen she has. She is still learning to find her own voice, and certainly under the thumb of authority in the systems she is now in. But she told me.
And I acted. As a parent, I am working to live as an example for her. A example of how we can make change in the world even in the small spaces we’re in like reading books in class or before bed. One thing I am learning is how going smaller can have a big impact. I’d like to think that her voice was maybe shared with a classmate, or that this post will make some of us check our bookshelves. Small ripples towards our freedom. And I’m also reminding myself that taking small steps also need to be steps towards the larger goal of liberation. For all of us.
*The picture at the top of the page was posted by a local Boston organization called Wee the People. They do such rad work and actually work with young kids to talk about racism. They also do parent workshops on how to take books and use them as learning tools even when we don’t like the content. Check them out, support them, and go to their workshops if you’re nearby.