“When you suddenly see tears welling up in… your six year old daughter’s eyes and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky… when you are forever fighting a degenerative sense of ‘nobodiness’- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail
Watching Grace exuberantly devour her life with absolutely zero distinction of skin color is simultaneously fascinating and heartrending. It’s also the biggest privilege of my life, if not astonishing and something everyone should see: what a child is truly like when they don’t know what color they are. I feel so lucky to see my daughter be devoid of self-consciousness. For right now, she is free and powerful, no one has distorted her world view with careless little comments or looks.
Someday her vision of herself will cloud because of a careless, passively racist comment someone will make, whether in school, in a store, on the street, or even in her large extended (mostly white) family. Someday she will learn about racism and slavery in school, books, movies and TV. Someday she will be confused and startled by negative racial stereotypes in books, movies and TV. But not yet.
Right now she doesn’t perceive any difference between herself and her parents, who are whitey mcwhite whites. Of course, Grace is purely and utterly herself because she is three and because my husband and I fought so hard and long to become parents that we love her without bounds.
But the questions are coming. One morning I walk in her room to find her staring at her hand. She smiles and asks, “Why am I orange?” I stammer that she isn’t orange, and she starts laughing. I spent the rest of the day wondering if she was fucking with me or trying to name her skin color. Another day she asked when she was going to get my hair. I told her she didn’t want my lame limp straight ass hair (I didn’t say ass) and that I wish I had her hair. Then I called a therapist, who helped… a little.
So, tonight I read her a book with a black girl protagonist. Based on six seconds of research (Google) I think there are maybe two picture books in all existence with black girl protagonists. And we were gifted both of them constantly from well meaning white people who probably are so excited and proud to find one of the only books (ok, maybe there’s three) where our child can see a girl who is the same color as her.
Of course it’s wonderful that my friends and family endeavor to find integration stories for our daughter. But what I see in I LOVE MY HAIR and I KNOW A LOT is all these well meaning whities determined to TELL MY KID SHE’S BLACK. SEE, IT’S RIGHT HERE, the books seems to holler, THESE GIRLS HAVE BEADED HAIR AND JUMP ROPE. JUST LIKE YOU WILL. BECAUSE YOU’RE BLACK. Don’t get me started on how many copies of A SNOWY DAY we have. And I’m not knocking these books. They are exceedingly beautiful. Really sweet and gorgeous and repeat-reading-worthy. And why should our kid only read book after book about white girls and boys?
So tonight we read I KNOW A LOT. The first page has the adorable black protagonist playing with a rock and flowers. Next page she’s bouncing a basketball with a white girl (and should I be worried that I’m becoming the white mom thinking, HM, wonder why the black girl is playing BASKETBALL??? Is it because she’s BLACK?) And while that’s ripping through my mind, Grace’s jabbing at the white girl with pigtails in the illustration.
GRACE: That’s Maddie.
Impressed because she does look a lot like Maddie, who is tiny and shimmering and half Chinese, I see this as an opportunity to see how much Grace actually sees. Grace also has a girl friend named Hopper, who the illustration also resembles. So I point at the girl.
ME: She does look like Maddie but she also could be Hopper.
Tempting fate, and Grace’s current color blindness, I go further.
ME: She could also be Lena (who is Chinese). Lena has pigtails. She could also be Zaria (who is Latina). Doesn’t she look like she could be any of them?
GRACE: No. No. That’s Maddie.
Moving on to the next page where a few kids play outside with kites. I ask, “Who are all these kids?” A variety of races are elegantly represented. Grace studies the illustrations. Center page is a white girl. Grace jabs her in the face, quite brutally. “That’s Marty.” Since Marty is a boy, and I’m clearly feeling literal, I point to a brownish boy in the upper right hand corner of the page.
ME: Maybe that’s Marty?
She shakes her head no.
ME: It could be Diego. Or Felix. Or Wyatt, maybe?
She won’t hear of it.
GRACE:Nah, that’s Lucas.
She jabs a stubby finger at a a girl with long brown hair jumping rope.
GRACE: That’s DIEGO.
She jabs again, for emphasis. She will not be deterred. Gender apparently means nothing to her either, which I’m down with. I watch her name all the characters after her friends at school. Then I quietly ask,
ME: Where are you?
GRACE: Where am I?
She says it under her breath, without a trace of reflection, but it tugs my heart downward. She seriously studies all the faces of the characters. I point back at the page with the white and black girl and the basketball.
ME: Maybe you are on this page?
She points at the white girl again.
GRACE: That’s Maddie. I’m not here.
She concludes, which devastates me. Pushing it, I know, and scared because if something does actually ignite in her brain, and she suddenly sees us with different skin colors, I hope I’m the person who will explain it all perfectly but truth is, I have no idea what to say and I’m terrified what I will say will screw her up. But I push it. I point to the black girl, who is ADORABLE, like a Crewcuts model, her outfit is so sharp. As my face flushes and my heart races, I point to the black girl.
ME: What about her? Does she look like you?
She stares at the girl for a moment.
GRACE: Nah. That’s not me.
Feels like my heart is breaking in twain. One twain thinks I’m horrible for what I’ve done. It’s my fault she thinks she’s white and that is unacceptable. I have got to get her black ‘grandparents’ like one adoptive mother advised me. I need more black friends and black art in our house, like our social worker told us back at Transracial Parenting workshop. I do not want my daughter to be culturally homogenized or treated as a token, the only black girl in a sea of white. I went to an all girls Catholic school on Long Island and there were two black girls in the whole school of four hundred students. And in looking back, it never occurred to any of us to hang out with either of them, so they just hung out together. It must have been so hard to be so socially acceptably invisible.
The other twain of my heart breaks because it’s so beautiful that she exists above identity. It’s exquisite for her not to see herself limited in any one specific way. She has not experienced being reacted to on account of what she looks like, or doesn’t look like- so she’s full wattage- she is a being facing outward, absorbing the world without self reflection or self awareness. It’s almost too pure to look at head on. She casually rends my heart just by being her inexpressibly pure self.
While I’m flushing myself down the mental toilet of how well or badly I will endeavor to integrate her race into her life, Grace jabs her finger at the black girl, startling me out of my panic attack.
GRACE: I know who that is. That’s Momma.
She beams her blindingly adorable smile at me.
GRACE: You her.
And I smile back.
ME: OK. I her.
So grateful for one more day where she doesn’t think we are different. After she falls asleep, I lie in bed and read Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. I was seven months old when he wrote it. It took me 52 years to read it. And while it broke my heart it also made me aware that I need to be vigilant for when that first cloud enters her sky. Waiting for her to learn all of who she is and what that means in this crazy scary world is the gnarliest emotional roller coaster I’ve ever been on. I have the adoption-specialist therapist on standby. For the both of us.