Last night when Barack Obama was mentioned at the dinner table, Puddin jumped up and announced a new little nugget she had learned yesterday, “There’s going to be a little 7 year-old-girl, JUST LIKE ME, living in the White House now!”
Just like me.
I smiled and said, “Yes, she’s going to live there with her older sister and they are going to have a lot of fun. They are going to get a puppy.”
A Puppy! The subject quickly turned to puppies but my heart was still racing a little at that statement.
Just like me.
That one sentence, innocent and simple said so much.
Made me proud of her, proud of myself as a mother, as her mother.
My own mother and I recently had a
disagreement discussion about “The Way I Was Raised,” in regards to racism and I realized maybe for the first time just how far off our realities were on the topic. To set the stage – I was born in 1967 in Atlanta – SW Atlanta – which at that point was rapidly turning from working class white neighborhood to black. It was the beginning of what was then called The Great White Flight, as family after family sold their house and moved to the suburbs. We moved in 1970.
I was just three and I was excited to be moving to a great big house, 3 times bigger than the one we were leaving that was closer to my grandparents and the country club pool. But even at three I was not unaware of the things that I heard the adults whispering about. This move wasn’t just about a bigger house and golf and easy-grandparent-babysitting. It was about safety and security. I heard the hushed references to things “going black .. getting worse.” The older people, my grandparents and great-grandparents still used the termed “colored” but I wasn’t supposed to. “Granny is old and stuck in her ways but it isn’t polite” – anymore. (Notice I didn’t say “wrong” I wasn’t taught that it was wrong)
But because it was the late 60s, and Atlantians considered themselves much more metropolitan and progressive and enlightened and educated than the rest of The South it was never, ever, said out loud. Always whispered. This wasn’t Alabama or Mississippi, we aren’t like that. There was no overt outright racism being taught to us, just a silent quiet kind.
The children like myself were taught to be kind and polite towards people whose skin did not match ours… but we were not allowed to play with them or know them. Wait, I take that back, it’s not that we weren’t allowed – we were never given the opportunity.
We were taught, purposefully or not, silent racism. If you’re somewhere like the playground and a lot of “those people” start showing up – don’t complain, just leave. Don’t mix, don’t get to know them. Just quietly and politely remember that you have something else to do. When Mom says you need to go, don’t argue, just obey. The message was clear even if it was never spoken aloud.
So what I learned was this – I am different than them, and I should be nice but not get too close. Don’t seek to understand or relate. Be polite and kind at all times but never forget I am different. Better.
Yes, Better. Never said out loud but always there underneath, unsaid – better. Too good to live in this neighborhood anymore – We’re moving. It’s just a happy accident that everyone in the new place is white.
My elementary school had one black child. He went to school with us because his mother was our bus driver. He was in my grade, my age, but he was not just like me. Never jus like me.
Fast forward a generation later and this is one of those things that I list on the things “To Do Differently Than My Parents”
Do not teach unspoken racism.
My mother swears she never did it. Never implied those sorts of things. Her memory is selective, on this topic and a number of others. But she also doesn’t understand today why I give her a look when she talks about not going to Wal-Mart on Sunday mornings – because that’s when all the Mexicans go. I shake my head and ask her not to talk like that in front of the girls. If I think they heard, I say out loud, “It’s wrong.”
As a parent I had to come to terms with the fact that this tendency is in me too. It was ingrained in me at a young age and will always be a part of my upbringing and who I am. I look at a person of color and I see their color. And I automatically think of leaving. But I am a grown up now , and as an adult, I now know that the polite thing to do is not to excuse myself – even if it is automatic instinct. The right thing to do is stay.
I require myself to stay, to talk, to engage, and get to know. To form bonds and friendships. To be open and to love. It is what I want my children to see me doing. The example I seek to set for them. I see it is my obligation as a parent but in truth it makes my life so much richer than it’s ever been. So much more interesting.
A year or so ago Puddin’ was telling me a story of a classmate from school and I was confused about who the story was about. When she started to clarify for me who she was talking about by referring to the seating arrangement in class I realized quickly that she was talking about a African-American child who sat across from her but I didn’t let on that I knew who she meant. I pressed her for a physical description to see what it would be. “What does she look like?” I asked holding my breath. The answer, “She’s tall you know… The girl who lost her front teeth already Mom!”
It makes my heart swell with pride to know that Puddin’ looks at Sasha Obama and all she sees is a 7 year-old-girl, just like her. Just like her.
Just like her except that whole White House thing … oh and the Puppy, the Puppy…. Why oh why did I ever mention the Puppy to her?