Looking through the viewing window the first day of my daughters’ ballet class, I’m trying to remember everything I’ve ever told them about race. That time in bed when I explained where skin color comes from to my oldest, then 3, comes to mind first. “Can you say “Melanin?” I asked. “May-lay-ninnnn,” she said, elongating the last “n.” And there was that other time at the playground when a 5-year old tried (and failed) to create a tan-skinned-only friend club. “We are all the same on the inside,” I told her that night. There were, surely, other conversations. But for some reason, I can’t remember them.
There are 10 girls in the class. They’re dressed in oversized tutus with sequined trim, baggy pink tights, and pink ballet slippers. Watching my daughters, I take in these small details. But my thoughts are stuck on something else: Eight of the 10 girls, including the teacher, are white. My daughters (ages 3 and 5) are black.
I keep telling myself that this tiny thing shouldn’t be the thing that bothers me. But, as I analyze my daughters’ facial expressions, count the minutes, and stand among the other (white) moms in the viewing room, it’s the only thing that does.
I’m reminded of my own show-and-tell day back in kindergarten. I’m playing on an alphabet rug with the Holiday Barbie doll. In a poll of hands, she was voted “most beautiful” by every girl in class, so I was happy to be able to comb her hair. But I still felt something about the fact that her hair and skin (like every other dolls brought in that day by classmates) looked nothing like my own. I didn’t have a name for what I felt at 5. But decades later, watching my daughters, with the same heavy feeling in my chest, I wondered if it was sadness.
I wondered, recalling that memory from kindergarten and never saying anything to my parents about it, if sometimes when it comes to how young children experience race (or racism), looks and words (or a lack thereof) can be deceiving. I said I’d talk to them on the car ride home.
“How was your class?” I asked first.
“We loved it!” they said, almost in unison.
“Why?” I asked, hoping to dig deeper. They said it was the snowflakes and tiaras from the “Frozen” dance, the glitter, the tutus and princess music. The conversation stalled on talk of rhinestones.
As the experts’ recommended, I could (and did) talk to my daughters about race in the past. But since feelings never came up in the books we read, they didn’t come up in our house. Truthfully, I avoided talking about feelings in our conversations on race not because I had nothing to say. I just didn’t know how to say it.
That night, I went to the library and online in search of anything about how to talk to young children, generally about harder feelings and, specifically about race. I learned this: Even if younger children say nothing at all about their experiences with race, they don’t stop feeling. Without the words or help from an adult, they’ll act out or internalize what they feel. Children can’t make sense of racism (particularly subvert racism) or discrimination. They just see what they see. They can only say they feel what they have the words to feel.
It’s up to parents (and caregivers) to give children words. It’s our job to create safe spaces for our children to feel and talk out loud about their feelings and to really listen to what they have to say. If you’ve never done this before, it will feel awkward initially. But as I learned, it will make sense in time.
“There aren’t many black students in your dance class…” I said one night before dinner. “Does that… bother you?”
“No, mommy,” my 5-year old said. “We like white, black people — everybody.” The look on her face made me feel ashamed for assuming otherwise.
We didn’t talk about their class for weeks. But we did keep talking about race (and racism), and our feelings in discussing books, social interactions, TV shows, and almost everything else. Then one day the dance class came up again.
“Mommy…” my 5-year old said one evening after we’d just finished a book on Marianne Anderson, “I like our dance class…but when it’s time to get in line to do our princess dances, the teacher only picks white girls to be line leader.”
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions in my head, but the heaviness in my heart made that hard. “Surely after nine weeks, they were called to lead once, right?” I asked myself, while trying to replay every class in my head.
“Are you sure?” I said, not remembering them ever leading.
I wanted to hold their tiny hands, cry, and vow to never take them back to that dance class, again. But given all I learned, I knew this wasn’t the answer.
When it comes to real (or perceived) racial injustices, the experts say it’s up to parents to inspire children to believe their feelings and words matter. When this happens, the intensity of their feelings lessens, and children are more likely to feel empowered to speak up against racism rather than stay silent and feel powerless against its weight.
“It doesn’t feel good to be left out, does it?” I asked, trying to get her to name and acknowledge her feelings (and perhaps my own?).
“I’m sure that made you feel sad,” I said, holding her reluctant eye contact.
“Yeah,” she said, “sad and…maybe…angry.” She frowned.
“It’s okay. I feel that way, too.”
“Maybe she just doesn’t like our brown skin,” she reasoned.
“No,” I said, trying not to hesitate. “Even if it seems that way, we don’t know that. I don’t know how she chooses line leader. But next class, we will talk to her.”
I can’t remember the first question I asked the teacher the next class. But I remember the second one: “How do you choose line leader?”
“Oh, well, it’s random,” she said.
Wanting to take her at her word, I almost left it at that. But I briefly looked at my daughters who were looking at me and stood firm. “My daughters told me that they have never been line leader…they…and I… were saddened by this because they would like to be line leader.”
“I’m so sorry. Next class, you will be line leader, okay?” she said, looking at both my daughters. It felt genuine.
I can’t say for sure that race or racism was why my daughters weren’t called to lead. But I can say that our words made a difference. The next (and final) class, my daughters were called to lead. Seeing their smiles in that moment, I knew they were happy and (and proud), and so was I. In the end, they found their words. And with their help, I did, too.
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