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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This Is Where It Starts.

"Look, Mom!" Her tiny voice rang pure with confidence and certainty. "My baby has a black face!"

She gestured a circle around the head of her new baby doll, a Disney Princess Tiana (from The Princess and The Frog) that my mom had moments earlier given to her as an early birthday present. She had called me from the store, asking me which one to get. Tova had been talking for weeks about wanting a Princess Baby ever since a fateful trip to Target where they sat on the lowest shelf, right in full preschooler view.

The options before my mother were Tiana, Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel. Ideally, Tova would want all of them, and had talked of each character fondly. And a few months ago, my pick would have been Ariel because red hair and because at her age, The Little Mermaid captured a sacred place in my heart I still haven't challenged.

But my girl, when you ask her who her favorite Disney Princesses are, will tell you two: Tiana and Jasmine. She's never seen The Princess and The Frog, and Aladdin isn't one that's been on heavy repeat in our home. Of course, if you ask again, she'll adjust and say Ariel and Merida, or perhaps Anna and Elsa, but the first two, she knows, bear a slight resemblance to her, and the second two, well, Frozen is everywhere so I understand.

It took me a while to be able to place why these two specific princesses -- the singular African American and Arabian characters, respectively -- struck my daughter's fancy. As a white, middle-class, suburban-raised woman, I didn't see a lot of diversity growing up. I still don't, as a grown up around those same places. And she, my fair-skinned redheaded child, is close to the epitome of Anglo-Saxon whiteness that dominates so much of our culture.

But last year, she was one of maybe five white kids in her preschool class, the other students primarily being black or Turkish immigrant, among some other less-prevalent populations.

She likes the princesses that look like her friends and classmates.

And this, I think, is where it starts.
This Is Where It Starts.

I still struggle every day with recognizing my privilege and how it has benefited me throughout my life in ways I have completely taken for granted. I struggle with the lessons about race and gender and socioeconomics I have both been directly and indirectly taught by every agent of socialization throughout my thirty years.

I am watching the happenings in Ferguson ... and New York, and my own hometown, with my heart broken wide and my hands open, empty, not fully knowing what to do with them. I read about the experiences of my friends whose skin happens to be darker than mine, raising their children in a culture of fear that I think I may only vaguely be able to empathize with with some thin parallels to rape culture and being a woman and I feel helpless, enraged, and despondent. Yet I soak it all in, in to my bones and I try to make sense of it all quietly, while trying to hold them up and use my privilege and my whiteness to validate their experiences to others who probably would ignore them otherwise.

I look at the faces of my children's classmates -- all of them -- and I want better for them. I want better than to be aghast when I hear my son angrily repeat something about being bad and being put in a police car and furious that someone would have told him that such a thing was ever a possibility for him and then the sad shock of knowing that for the boy next to him on the bus, it will be a perverse right of passage when -- not if, when -- it happens because that boy is black and my child is white. There lies my privilege, that my son may never see the back of a police car for being brazen enough to exist. I listen to a coworker older than my parents tell other coworkers only slightly younger than my parents to "stay safe out there" in a way that sounds so familiar, so commonplace, but yet is a chilling reminder of the double standards of our society, of the othered-ness and second-class citizenship that so undeservedly has been placed upon the shoulders of a people who do not deserve it, have never deserved it.

And for all my education, for all my want to be of help with things I can't possibly fully comprehend because that is not a life I've remotely had to think about living, I am at a loss at what, tangibly, I can do besides raise my voice into the fray.

I look at Tova as she expects me to validate her statement about her doll, seeing in the periphery the slightly startled and tensely inquisitive face of my mother.

"No, honey. Her face is brown, kind of like chocolate. Like yours is pink, like a peach." I quickly blurt in my mom's direction that she's been confusing black and brown in her colors, which is true, while hoping that my child is still too young, too fresh in this world, to understand the implied weight of her statement.
This Is Where It Starts.

She looks down at her doll and gives a long, over-dramatic ohhhhh as she is wont to to as of late. I try not to let my nervous discomfort show as I tell her that everybody has different skin colors, just like hair and eyes, but that doesn't really make us any different from one another.

I just want to do this right, this one thing, right by them. Better than it was done for me.

The next day, Tova is still cuddling her doll, tossing aside her blonde baby doll to put Tiana in the coveted locations of the stroller and the high chair, even taking her outside as we wait for Kiedis' bus to arrive.
This Is Where It Starts.

I catch her studying the doll's face intently.

"Hey Mom!" The same tone of confidence fills the rounded edges of her child's lilt. "My baby has brown eyes, and I have brown eyes! See, they're the same! It matches!"

She turns the doll to show me, pointing to it's eyes and then her own, a version of my own.
This Is Where It Starts.

"Yes, honey, you're absolutely right. You match."

She proudly hugs her doll, then scampers off to play in the yard, doll tightly clutched to her side.

The first agent of socialization is the family.
This Is Where It Starts.
This is where it -- change -- starts.

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Towards Kindergarten.

I called him over to my usual perch on the couch, motioning him to look at the screen of my phone. He gleefully ran over and plopped down next to me, repeating "I lookit, I lookit" because generally me calling him over to look at my phone meant pictures of himself or his sister from a recent event.

"Okay, buddy, now you're going to be starting kindergarten when school starts soon, like a big boy," I began to explain to him, hoping something I said would click and help ease the impending transition.

"Yeah, Kiedis go kindergarten. Kiedis go big boy kindergarten!" he said excitedly, bouncing up and down on the couch cushion he was barely perched upon.

"Yep, that's right. But Kiedis, hey calm down a minute and listen, okay?" He nodded and stopped bouncing, leaning into my right side and obstructing my view of my phone. "In order to go to kindergarten, you have to wear special clothes, okay? And they're going to look exactly like everyone else's clothes." 

I tried to see his face, leaning way over to my left in order to see his face. His eyes were scanning the small screen, which had Old Navy's mobile site open to the uniform page. I tried to not let my tension show, my concern that this would be too big of a change for him, having been able to wear normal clothes to school up until this point. I watched him as he searched the page, expertly flicking the screen to scroll up and down, perusing the options.

"It's called a uniform," I said softly to him. "It means you're a big boy ready for kindergarten."

He looked thoughtfully at the miniature webpage, taking a full beat to consider his response.

"Hmmm, how 'bou dat one?" he said as he pointed to dark blue chinos. I cringed.

"Well, dude, those are great, but there are very specific clothes for your uniform you have to wear, okay?" I searched his face again as he began to chew on his bottom lip. "Remember the big kids in the hall at your old school, how they all wore khaki pants and dark blue shirts?"

He nodded.

"Well, you're going back to that school, and you get to wear the same thing now, because you're a big kid."

He continued to chew his lip, scanning the page open on the screen of the phone. He scrolls to where the section of khaki pants and shorts are. He points to a pair of plain, no-frills shorts.

"Hmm, dat one?" He turns to look straight at me, big green eyes searching my face for a social cue in reaction to his latest attempt.

I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and chest release.

"Yeah, buddy, like those. Do you want to get those?"

"Umm, YEAH!" He jumped up from the couch, fists pumping in the air above his head as he jumped up and down, triumphantly.

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and then we sat together and picked out polos and pants and shorts together. He spied red jeans he liked and I obliged because they were on sale and he's outgrown most of his jeans from last year as it stands.

Then, he gasped.

"Whaaaaaat is daaaaat?" he squealed in delight. "Is dat a bluuuue turdle backpack? YESSS, is Kiedis blue turdle backpack!!!!" 

I stared at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bookbag on the website, on sale with a matching lunchbox to boot. I had a quick decision to make -- spend more money on an unnecessary purchase when he has a perfectly good bookbag from last year and we haven't even bought school supplies yet, or indulge my sweet boy this one thing that may help him be excited for school after last year ending on such a terrible note.

I added the bookbag and lunchbox to my online cart and proceeded to check out.

I couldn't count the amount of times he asked about his new bookbag, telling me about how the brown truck would come with a box and then he'd have his new bookback and lunchbox. I was impressed by this, because he's merely observed that this is how it works -- that when we buy things we have to wait for UPS to bring them. 

And then I got notification that the bookbag and the red jeans were coming separate from everything else and my heart sank, because I doubted he'd understand why those two things weren't with everything else.

However, when the brown truck came with the box, I hoped against hope that the lunchbox and the "big boy clothes" would be enough to keep him excited about all of the changes he'll face in just a week.

And my boy shocked me.

He wanted to put the clothes on right away, stripping out of his pj's and pulling things out of protective bags. He pulled the lunchbox out of it's plastic envelope and jumped around excitedly, asking me over and over again the names of the Turtles by their mask colors, something I gratefully could easily remember from my own childhood.

And suddenly, I had a kindergartner in my living room.
On Towards Kindergarten.

On Towards Kindergarten.

On Towards Kindergarten.

On Towards Kindergarten.

On Towards Kindergarten.

On Towards Kindergarten.

He wanted to wait until his dad came home to show him his new big boy clothes and fancy lunchbox, only asking a couple of times where the bookbag was and seeming to understand it was still coming, that the brown truck would come again soon with another box for him.

As he sat on the couch, waiting, I caught him starting intently at his lunchbox, a tiny pinched smile on his face, a smile I know to be his quiet, private smile ... his real smile, not the one that he knows to make based on social cues. I stood in the doorway between the living room and foyer, watching him and realizing he was saying something very quietly to himself.

"I so happy," he murmured, his eyes lovingly locked on his new lunchbox, dressed head-to-toe in his new school uniform.

"I so happy."

I dove into the foyer and through the dining room to the kitchen before the sobs escaped me, relief washing over my tired frame in a giant unexpected wave. 

There is so much wrapped up in that tiny smile and quiet statement, so much more than I even know how to express. That he is identifying his feelings for himself and can verbilize them. That he is excited for school after the terrible year last year. That I did something right as his parent, however small, to ease this transition for him and make it something he wants to do instead of dread.

That he is happy, for however brief a moment.

I just pray, now, with every molecule of my being that someone, on that first day of school, also notices the new lunchbox and bookbag he's so proud of and acknowledges it, or tells him they think it's cool. Please, let some other child be kind to mine and validate his interests and choices so he doesn't feel alone. 

Please let him make friends, help him find a place in this new phase of his life.

Because I want him to continue to know what happy feels like, when he thinks no one is looking.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Just (More) Talking.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I made an internet friend.

We kept each other company at our then-(kind of soul sucking)jobs and virtually held each other's hands through some big lifestage kind of stuff.

And when my real life fell apart, all it took was one phone call to save my online life from a similar fate.

Years have passed since then, and we've both grown into our adulthoods and experienced more life changes and while we don't talk nearly as much as we used to, I'm glad to know I can still call him a friend.

And yesterday, I was on his podcast to talk about BlogHer (sorry Melisa!), blogging in general, my bathtub, being a parent, and living a public online life. Among other things.

So, if you wanted to know what my speaking voice sounds like (if you don't already) or maybe you just need a little fix of me in your life without having to use your eyeballs, well, here you go.

I'd also encourage you to go through his archives, because he's talked to a whole bunch of awesome people about a whole bunch of topics and you know, he's gotten quite good at it.

Thanks for letting me babble at you again, Christopher!