I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is like for my youngest as he has started seeing his brownness. I mean, of course he has always been brown, has always known he is brown. But in the past year I’ve watched as he has started to see his color relative to the world around him, which is a different thing entirely.
It isn’t something I really expected yet.
It isn’t something I’ve read about (or written about). And I’m not quite sure how to put it into words, but I wanted to try so I’ll just give it my best shot. (A long-winded shot. Bear with me.)
For the past few years – since Zip was born – I’ve thought about getting a new Christmas tree topper. Specifically, an African-American angel.
But I haven’t. Mostly because I never see any in the stores. Which is ridiculous but it’s also a lame reason not to buy something because – Hello! – the internet.
This year was the year though. We set up the fake tree I bought when Zip was a baby – the one we’ve only ever used once – in our basement and put a real tree in the sunroom, and even my mathematician of an 8-year-old couldn’t figure out how to split one tree topper between two trees.
I knew that the new topper, the one that would adorn the main tree, the real tree, needed to be an angel and she needed to be Black. I knew this because the more my boys notice color, the more important it feels to ensure they see themselves reflected in the world around them and in our home.
So I buy a brown-skinned angel. I order it on-line (of course) and, when we decorate our tree, it hasn’t yet arrived.“Mommy, I want a star on top of the real tree. Use the star instead,” Bee says.
“But I got us an angel, Bee. Just wait.”
He tells me several times he wants the star on the tree. I hope he changes his mind.
As Bee gets older, things evolve in ways I didn’t predict. I read (and wrote about) how preschoolers and early elementary age kids will notice skin color and may be curious about it, but don’t assign social meaning to it the way adults do. I read about the importance of exposing children of color to diversity, to their own cultures, to their people. But there are things that I didn’t read about in books – or maybe they didn’t really register for me until now.
What is it like for a brown child in a predominantly white community?
What is it like when they realize – as little ones – that they are different in some way?
What is it like when others point out that difference, implying that it matters?
Like when a playmate told Bee he couldn’t be Harry Potter for Halloween because “You don’t look like him. You don’t have the same…skin.”
Or when classmates told Bee they couldn’t see the scratch on his knee “because of your brown.”
Now and then, Bee mentions these things. He seems to be processing what it all means.
These are things that books don’t always describe so well.
Or maybe it’s just that reading about something is so different from living it, watching how it unfolds with your own child, day to day, and wondering what is going on inside of them.
And it is different than my experience with Bee’s older brother, when he was four and five. Zip began to grasp the idea of being African-American and being mixed, but it seemed to be a more internal experience than a social one and without the sense of being different (most likely because his skin isn’t brown, so physically he looked very much like his mostly-white peers).
I noticed, after we pulled the holiday books out of boxes for December, how Bee gravitated to the books when brown families on the covers. Maybe it was coincidence. But maybe not.
He is happy and well-adjusted. His teachers adore him. One asks if they can clone him. We run into his classmates parents at the store and they tell us how their children talk about Bee all the time, how they love playing with him at school. He is a sweet boy who fits in so well. On the whole, I don’t worry about him. But I wonder: How does he feel when he notices this difference, a difference that is so much a part of him?
This was what I didn’t read about in the books: The noticing. The recognition, at age four, of being different, and making sense of that.
I am white. I have no idea what it is like. If it matters. How much it matters. Lots of kids experience being different – they notice they are the tallest, the smallest, the only one with red hair or glasses or freckles. Does my preschooler noticing he is “the only brown one” carry a different weight? The experience of coming into one’s self, of developing identity, is the result of so many moving parts. Some people embrace their differences – whatever they might be – weave them into their story, grow strong and proud around them. Some feel separate, disconnected, confused, angry. Others are somewhere in between. I don’t know how to ensure my children fall into the first category – they are going to have experiences over which I have no control. I know only how to make it more likely.
As much as I am aware of the importance of ensuring my boys see brown people around them – and we even moved homes to help make that happen – when push comes to shove, day to day, they are surrounded by whole a lot of white.
I have to admit that while we have plenty of children’s books with diverse characters, most of the photos in our house are of my family (white). And most of the action figure and dolls in their playroom are the ones I find on the shelves at Target (white). And the kids they play with are our friends’ kids or the kids in the neighborhood (white). The television shows they watch are the ones their friends are watching (mostly white). Last winter, when we went to Bee’s preschool Christmas pageant, his was the only brown face in a sea of 20 or so white kids. (I was so glad that changed this year and there are now several other brown kids in his class.)
I am grateful that Bee has his dark-skinned Daddy and his uncle and cousins who can give him a sense of pride in his brownness in a way that I might not be able to. His Daddy is amazing, and Bee is brown like Daddy. His Daddy tells him that they have “super-skin” that won’t burn like Momma’s and protects them better from the sun (and then I insist Bee put on sunscreen). His Daddy reads to him about Rosa Parks and other courageous African-Americans, and when Daddy talks to him about race, he hears something different than when I talk – he hears an “us.” When it comes to his Daddy, his isn’t different – he is the same.
I have a part to play too. I tell him his brown skin is beautiful and give it a hundred kisses and I show him how much I love that amazing Daddy of his and I find diversity for him where I can. I do this so his brown – which sometimes makes him different – will be a source of pride.
Our new angel arrives while the boys are at school, and I place her on top of the tree. “Check out our new angel,” I say, when the boys get home. “What do you think?”
Bee smiles and nods his approval.
He doesn’t mention the star again.
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