Hand-Foot-Mouth is about as literal an illness name as one can get. Imagine a world so literal that pregnancy is called ‘baby-in-belly’ or (less reliably, these days), ‘I-got-f$@ked’.
I almost prefer the poetry of pneumonia to hand-foot-mouth disease. Alls I know is trick-or-treating with a little girl with a fever and mouth ulcers, in a cootie-ridden, strangely smelling Batman Returns costume, while telling all her friends and their parents to please not touch Grace on account of her highly contagious disease is the opposite of fun. It’s almost as NOT fun as having your sick/contagious child insist on trick or treating because you’ve been beating the drum that Halloween is FUN and not at all SCARY for months and she’s only been sick for less than 24 hours. And since it’s opposite day, I feel like the opposite of a decent parent for letting her go.
She was so sick that I didn’t even care that this is the 3rd year in a row that she’s gone as a male character. Grace’s first Halloween, we capitalized on her persistent baldness by dressing her up as Ceelo Green, and since many girl products helped to make that happen, it was like a girl-ish costume. Please take note of the parrot on her shoulder. Proud of that. The drawn on soul patch and mutton chops drooled off, sadly.
Due to LA’s current weather policy of zero moisture, Grace’s Batman costume was so full of static electricity, I feared spontaneous combustion was imminent when my corduroys rubbed touched her cape. The lone upside is she was so covered in toxic costume that she couldn’t easily spread her cooties far and wide.
Also, as a constantly recovering hypochondriac (who hates myself for typing this), but I didn’t want my sick kid to touch me. Because if I caught her Hand-Mouth-Foot, I’d have turned into all three major characters in Ethan Frome.
While trick or treating we ran into her BFF Marty who was trick-or-treating as Jake-the-medically-compromised-Pirate due to a brand spanking new case of strep throat.
Again, who does this with sick children? Well, who doesn’t, is my response, especially if everyone else in humanity is trick or treating on your actual block. I just stood over them, exhausted from pulling them apart.
ME: Marty. Pirate mask on. Grace, Batman mask on. No booger sharing, no hugging, no kissing. Just for today.
The day after Halloween she was so sick she didn’t want any of the Halloween candy we took elaborate pains to hide from her. After a failed frozen yogurt trip- she managed one bite before dissolving in tears —a Black man walked by our car and she muttered, to herself, staring at her hands.
GRACE: Brown man. Brown skin. I don’t want brown skin. I want to be white. Brown skin looks like mud. Brown people are mud people. I don’t want to look like mud.
Shocked, I felt her forehead. She didn’t even flinch like she usually does when I suddenly clap a chilly hand on her forehead. She just kept staring at her long elegant fingers.
She looked like she was carrying the sorrow of a heavy soul fully deformed by racism. Like she already knew about the newly orphaned teenage girl who was flipped across a classroom by a school police officer, or the man shot to death by a plains clothes cop as the man stood beside his broken down car, or Sandra Bland, who was arrested and held in jail for three days until she died– for the unforgivable crime of not signalling a lane change. I could go on but honestly, I can’t.
Staring at Grace in speechless horror, my heart ached until the ache was replaced with sudden fury: a raging hot flash with steroid injected-booster rockets. Proponents of eugenics, like Hitler and his minions, used terms like ‘mud people’ to label the ‘sub-races’ of people who were considered degenerate human species, worthy of eradication in a brutal attempt to protect the purity of the ‘master race’.
ME: (hysterically trying to not sound hysterical) Brown skin doesn’t look like mud. Brown skin is beautiful. Did someone say ‘mud people’ to you? Where did you hear that? Did someone call YOU MUD????
She didn’t reply. Her birth mother’s beautiful soulful face and her birth grandmother’s strong, smart face simply stared back at me. Grace just held out her arms for me to carry her. Carrying her to her bedroom, my heart cracked, as I felt her forehead again. No fever. Just mine.
Grace wanted a Band-Aid (she didn’t have a cut, she just believes Band Aids have magical powers to erase pain). When this Old Mom found herself automatically slapping a ‘flesh’ colored band aid on Grace’s brown arm, it hit me. And it hit hard.
If a huge company like Johnson & Johnson produces Band-Aids only in whatever that awful ‘flesh’ shade is, then my child believes her skin doesn’t count or matter. Based on what she sees in picture books, in cartoons, TV and movies, and advertising, she can only conclude that she is less than me and all the happy white people everywhere around her. So are Band-Aids Grace’s attempt to give herself white skin?
That night, Canada and I lamented over what to do. Clearly, simply being old liberal-free-to-be-you-and-me doting white parents who gently promote her loving her Black Self isn’t cutting it. Reading books, websites, visiting adoption shrinks, and soliciting miles of advice for how to instill in Grace a firmly rooted love of self and love of race is not enough. But where does self-hatred COME FROM if a child hasn’t experienced racism?
We think we are vigilant in what she reads and watches, but since I am white, I am auto-privileged and have no idea how subversive passive racism can be. Growing up I automatically placed myself inside every book, movie or TV show– and I never really thought twice about that because almost every single protagonist I was exposed to was white. I could be Beezus, Ramona, Margaret, Juliet, Madeline, Eloise, Scout, Jane Eyre, and just about anyone on TV or in movies.
But what if I was born a black girl? Either I wouldn’t see a representation of myself to lose myself in, or I’d just pretend to be white in order to escape myself and imagine other possibilities.
Sure, there were black characters in ” I Spy”, “Mission Impossible” and “Sesame Street”- which was a huge advance over preceding decades. Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Lesley Uggams, Diahann Carroll, and Sammy Davis Jr. all had TV shows in the 60s and 70s. I wondered if “Julia” and “The Jeffersons” were the shows that made white people think, “Oh, black people might be just like us.” “Good Times” and “Sanford & Son” were pretty much the only options for black actors and comedians not portraying criminals on TV.
Researching ensued. Crayola changed the name of their ‘flesh’ crayon to ‘peach’ back in 1962. But did Johnson & Johnson create a Band-Aid that reflects the difference of their consumers’ collective skins? Nope. Not ever.
In the past, other companies have tried to sell the Band-aid for people of color. Amazon.com stocks a few brands promising coverage and healing through diversity, but I’ll wear duct tape on my face before I buy or wear Johnson & Johnson or any ‘flesh’ colored Band-Aids again.
Now, I’m not about to blame my daughter’s self worth on Johnson & Johnson’s glaring omission.
Next was figuring out if a classmate or a teacher said something to Grace.
When we were both more relaxed and healthy a few days later, I casually asked her if anyone had told her that she looked like mud. She shook her head no. Based on just how much Grace currently adores telling on people, I had no choice but to believe her.
Which brings the challenge back to Canada and me. We’ve given Grace or been gifted books, toys and dolls that are Black-centric. A drawing my nephew made of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in her bedroom. Grace is exposed to steady doses of Doc McStuffins. We have friends of color and close family members of color as a result of adoption.
We can tell ourselves we are a transracial family who seek diversity and self-acceptance opportunities for Grace. But the fact is, it simply didn’t occur to me that treating her equally and smothering her with love wasn’t going to stop her from differentiating herself based on what she perceives as beautiful- ‘long flat yellow hair and pretty blue eyes and white-pink skin.’
I don’t want her to be a self-hating Black woman even more than I don’t want her to think I’m a self-hating White woman, so I tell her constantly how gorgeous, capable, brave, smart and fierce and funny she is. I even go so far as to tell her that her skin is much better than my old ezcema-ridden pale white skin. I’ll happily throw myself under the bus if it makes Grace feel better about who she is.
I keep thinking if I can find out HOW self-loathing seeped into her, that it can be fixed. Not that Grace would want them or that I would buy them, but I looked up Black Barbies and this is what I found. Black dolls with predominantly white features and pretty much white versions of ‘Black’ hair. This is the best we can do?
How can racism and self-loathing-due-to-skin-color be repaired without further demonstrating my white privilege? I will never truly understand what it feels like to be her. Just as she will never know what white privilege truly feels like, despite receiving certain advantages due to being raised by us.
I don’t like even typing this, but Grace will experience an easier first part of her life, because we are escorting her safely through it, but when she’s grown, learned the ugly truth about race in American history, and when she meets her birth family- Grace will have a LOT to say about race and her culture. And if learning about the Two Americas doesn’t fill her with bitterness, and possibly resentful towards us, her adoptive parents, I’ll be amazed.
But since This Old Mom’s a list-making knee-jerk Virgo who needs to have something to DO, I bought brown band-aids, then showed Grace videos of Esperanza Spalding, Nina Simone, Beyonce, and Mo’ne Davis. Grace was enthralled with all of them, but the coin really dropped when she watched Esperanza Spalding perform at the White House Stevie Wonder tribute.
GRACE: She’s beautiful. Look at her BIG bass guitar.
It’s not just my job to raise Grace as well as I can, it’s my slightly overwhelming duty to raise her to LOVE her culture, her race and most importantly, herself.
I don’t know what this hating-one’s-skin-disease is called, but it’s the worst illness I’ve never heard of, and like hand-foot-mouth, there is no cure. You just have to be sick and feel awful until (hopefully) you don’t anymore.
If you just want to feel a little bit more educated about the struggles of some of the people you share the planet with, click on the links below.