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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.