I had been out of town for a short work trip when my daughter, Shaila, told me what was upsetting her. I could hear that something was bothering my seven year old as she told me the details of her school day. Yes, her teacher had liked her Christmas present. Yes, she was being a good girl. Yes, she was excited about Winter break.
It was only after a little more prodding and handing off the phone to my husband, who was also accompanying me on this trip, that we were able to get at what was really bothering her.
“Um, well, today at school? My friend, Kylie* told me she doesn’t like brown people.”
John looked up at me and I could hear him weighing his words as he chose carefully what to say to our daughter, next.
“Yeah. She said she doesn’t like brown people. And she especially doesn’t like Nico because he is REALLY dark.”
Shaila’s five year old younger brother, Nico, is certainly a darker shade of brown than my daughter, but I so rarely think about it that it made me catch my breath to hear of someone’s distaste for my sweet, little son.
Because he is too brown. Too dark. Not white enough.
My heart caught in my chest and shortened my breath. I am not an idiot. I knew this day was coming at some point. I knew that one day my kids would be told, however innocently, that they were not good enough or on the other side of right, because of their skin.
When I got back on the phone with Shaila, I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Honey, you know that no matter what color a person’s skin is, we are all equal.”
“I know that, Mommy,” she said.
“And no matter what someone might say to you, you can never judge anybody based on the color of their skin.” I said this absolutely, allowing no room for argument.
“I know that too, Mommy. I’m just really sad,” she said, despondently.
My heart broke for her as I thought about the weight of those words on her little shoulders. Words that made her feel inferior. Words about her brother that made her confused and hurt.
“No matter what anyone ever says to you, you have to know that the color of your skin doesn’t mean anything about what kind of person you are. And I want you to know that no matter what you might feel, and what Kylie’s words made you feel, she is the one with the problem. Not you. NOT you.”
I couldn’t see her over the phone but I imagined her resigned nod.
“When I get home, we’ll talk more about this, ok? I know that you know this, but you should never like someone or dislike someone because of what they look like or because they are different from you.”
“I know that, Mommy,” she sounded stronger when she said it this time.
I wanted to say more, but I could feel my voice cracking and my composure going a little. We hung up with me assuring her that I loved her. But I wished that I had been there on this day to help her through this experience alongside her.
My kids are five and seven years old. Sadly, this isn’t the first time they have even heard words of prejudice or intolerance. Less than two years ago, while they had been playing in our front yard, a group of young boys walked up to both of my children mocking them with the words in a mangled Indian accent, “Hurry, hurry – get your curry!” Both of my kids had just looked confused, but unbeknownst to the boys, I had heard their words and their laughter as they continued down the street.
At the time, my son was three and my daughter was five. The dagger in my heart didn’t draw blood, though it felt like it had.
I had to think carefully about the words my husband and I say to our daughter about this situation. The same way I am going to think carefully about how I might approach this with my daughter’s teacher, to make her aware of the words that were used in her classroom a few days ago and how they dampened my daughter’s spirit. I know the school already messages very strongly about inclusion and embracing differences, and I am certain she would want to know that this took place.
This wasn’t the first time and I am fairly certain this won’t be the last time that my children encounter words of intolerance and ignorance. At the same time though, the world can be a brutal place and I know I would have to teach them this lesson at some point. I just wish that Shaila could have worn her rose-tinted glasses for a little longer.
I try to explain to my kids how boring this world would be if we all were the same. I am happy to say that I think they get that. You don’t have to be brown to understand what I felt that day my daughter related what happened to her at school. All the unique things we love about our children can also be the target of someone else’s disdain.
It’s up to us to remember as parents that we have to make them love and embrace those very differences which make them stand out today. For those differences are exceptional and need to be accepted, explored and held up proudly by our children. While they hurt, these character building experiences have to be handled in a way which won’t cause shame to our children, but makes them proud. In a way that makes them hold their heads up a little higher and backs a little straighter.
The world may not always give our children what we think they need, but we can always take what the world gives them and shape that experience for them so they can learn from it.
So bring it, world. We’re ready.
* Names have been changed to protect the young child that said this to my daughter.