“Then she said she couldn’t play with me because I’m brown,” my 5-year-old daughter said to me one afternoon this past spring. With her face turned toward the passing traffic beyond the car window, she repeated the words of a white school friend.
Based on my own experience, I knew one day my daughter would encounter racial ignorance. Still, I was 10 years old when another fifth grader said to me, “Black people put all kinds of gross stuff in their hair.”
My daughter’s encounter with racial ignorance happened much earlier than I would have anticipated. Before that day, my daughter had spent many recesses playing with this little girl. They had laughed at jokes and turned the playground into an imaginary palace. Even now I am not sure what made the other child suddenly believe in segregated play. Maybe she overheard a comment from an adult. Or perhaps at the age of 5 or 6, she just didn’t want to play with my daughter that day and couldn’t figure out how to express that feeling.
Whatever the reason, that afternoon on the drive home from school, I fed my daughter true words to counteract the hurtful ones she had heard earlier that day.
“All people can play together,” I said. “Mommy has many friends who aren’t brown.” My daughter nodded her head and started naming some of my friends. By the time my daughter finished her list, a smile replaced her frown.
Then I added something I wished wasn’t true. “Sometimes in life people won’t want to be around you because of the color of your skin. And that’s wrong.” I sighed thinking this a heavy lesson for a 5-year-old. “Just remember if people don’t want to play with you, don’t try to stay. Just go find someone else to play with or play by yourself. You are a fun person to be around.”
My daughter nodded at me again. I hoped she understood that she could choose to leave situations where she didn’t feel safe from unkind words.
In a summer swirling with racial tensions, thoughtful discussions about eliminating overt and subtle racism flood the country’s current conversation. In the midst of this, I have thought again and again about my daughter’s incident. Despite telling her that she can leave situations, I don’t always heed my own advice.
In my adult relationships, I have never been friends or acquaintances with a person who said, “I can’t be around black people.” Instead the pain arrives in subtle forms. After helping a white friend’s parents prepare their home for a large event, my friend’s father quipped to me, “It’s like you’re our slave.” Another time a white work friend joked over a group lunch, “We keep Patrice around for the diversity.” In the first situation I followed my advice and avoided that home. I decided I didn’t need to remain in a place where I felt unwelcome and people’s words hurt. In the second situation I chose to stay and pointed out to my coworker that his comment was inappropriate.
The reality is that encounters with racial ignorance are not all the same. I treat scenarios differently based on a spectrum of issues such as my ongoing relationship with a person or even my current level of weariness from addressing issues of race. How I may deal with a situation today in one frame of mind may not mirror what I will do tomorrow.
This past spring, my daughter learned that she can choose to leave situations where she feels unwanted or others speak unkind words. As she matures and her interactions with people develop greater complexity, she will also learn that she can choose to stay. In the years to come I want to teach her that sometimes we push aside our desire to feel welcomed by others and safe from words that hurt. We remain in a situation in order speak out against racial ignorance. One day she will understand that choosing to stay is not always easy since people may not respond well. Still, as we bring truth, this choice can often change people and help change society.
I can’t transform the playground or later middle school or even later adult life into a place where my daughter never experiences pain related to race. However, I hope, in time, my daughter understands that she has choices about how she responds to racial ignorance in her relationships.
Sometimes we go. Sometimes we stay. Always we can choose.
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