As a white mom of a bi-racial child, I wonder about what to tell my daughter (who is 4) about race and racism. Up until now, I’ve done a few low-key things, such as making sure her dolls look like children of a variety of backgrounds, providing books with lots of different-skin-colored children in them, and most importantly, leading by example. Her dad is, as I may have mentioned before, a stunningly handsome man — whose family comes from India, but was born elsewhere. He’s an immigrant to the U.S., speaks accented English, and still struggles to read and write in English but is literate in his second language, his first being the Indian dialect his parents spoke. He’s amazing with spoken languages, and has been able to converse, at various times, in no less than six languages. Since both he and I are Jewish, I sometimes momentarily forget we aren’t the same “race” as defined in the U.S., because we are both results of the Diaspora and while we have different ethnic backgrounds, we share much of the same culture. I used to joke that I found a way to marry someone as different as possible from my own background, but still Jewish. There are some differences we are aware of that are cultural, some that are because we grew up with different class backgrounds, and some because of racism and anti-immigrantism that my husband experiences first hand, and I don’t.
As a person with dark skin and accented English, my husband has experienced his share of racism and anti-immigrant discrimination (and the overlap). When we were younger, and he would go out with a guy friend, I would express concern (okay, maybe it was jealousy) that he would be hit on and he would say, “don’t worry about it, no women start up with me because I’m dark skinned.”
I know that as our daughter gets older, she’ll start to get the question, “what are you?” Not long ago, when I was with superhero princess without her dad, and was talking with an acquaintance who said “she looks like she has an Indian background” I felt a little uncomfortable, like the acquaintance was proud of her ability to identify a specific “breed.”
This week superhero princess said something at the pediatrician’s office to the nurse practitioner who was about to examine her ear that there was a girl at school who was mean to her. This particular girl is white, blond, and a bit precocious, and tends to point out whatever differences she notices. I asked superhero princess for more information about the “meanness” and talked with the assistant director immediately. I was impressed with the response they gave, and I was careful to say that I knew my little one is “quirky” and I don’t expect every child to adore her the way we do, but that I told my daughter that not everyone likes each other, but everyone needs to treat each other with respect.
And I realize, that part of what is “quirky” about her, in this largely white town, is that she isn’t white. Her dad speaks English with an accent and doesn’t read books to her. There aren’t many other Jewish people around here, either (although we have a great small community). She insists on wearing a crown much of the time these days (right now it’s broken but that doesn’t stop her). She often wants to wear the same falling-apart princess dress for several days in a row. If I want to try to make her more “acceptable,” I can tell her not to wear the same dress two days in a row, or buy her a new, unbroken crown, or insist that she wear play clothes instead of fancy dresses (although that may make both of us miserable) — but I can’t make her white. And, G-d forbid, I wouldn’t want to — she is perfect. But I also can’t control the reaction she gets from the world.
I can help her grow strong. Give her a foundation of love. Lead by example. Treat everyone with respect. Give people room to improve when they are making an effort to change. Allow her to be who she needs to be. Invite friends from all different backgrounds over to play. Give her a solid foundation of her own cultures — Indian Jewish, American Jewish, Pacific Northwestern. The photo above shows in the background a needlepoint her great-grandmother made (sideways) and photos of her grandparents. (The “princess” culture she’s adopted on her own.) Talk about social justice, and engage with the community around us.
Any bi-racial people out there with advice for me in what to tell superhero princess about race and racism at this age, I would appreciate it. I am going to be on the lookout for more books that might help, we read a great one, An African Princess. In the meantime, I can lead by example in another way, by celebrating what is different about me from the majority of those around us, including my Jewishness and my fat body.