Inspired to endure less bullshit…
I had a great conversation with A. yesterday, talking about the assumptions that people make about children’s gender and race. I’m so inspired by how she doesn’t tolerate it. Not that I believe that less tolerance is necessarily the solution to our problems, but I have to admit that I wish I could draw the line the way she does about certain things.
I’ll back up a bit, give some context: A is my friend who provides excellent care for my daughter 3 days/week. She’s an outstanding care provider and a supercool ladygirl. So while I’m downtown shaping curricula and hanging out with other people’s children, A. is at my place, or in my neighborhood, guiding Babygirl through all kinds of journeys and adventures.
Stella is one of the sweetest-faced children you’ll ever live to meet, and leaving the house with her means hearing a lot of comments about said sweetness. Really, it’s like being with a celebrity sometimes. Of course, due to the rampantly huge-to-the-point-of-invisibility racism in this country, coupled with people’s natural curiosity, many comments that are essentially about her sweetness are mixed in with comments about her complexion, her hair texture and (if she’s with anyone but her father), tentative questions about her parentage (Babygirl’s skin is a nice honey brown, just like her Papa, whereas my skin is darker, like brownies and our nanny is white. I’m not sure what food to compare her to). She is also mistaken for a boy on a regular basis. This is mostly because we make no effort to put clear gender ID tags on her (e.g. barrettes, pink clothes, frilly whatnot). We seldom style her hair – it’s too short to bother, and I’m more concerned with it being clean than anything else. Though there have been times where she was wearing a pink dress and still was mistaken for a boy. I think it was lack of hair accessories.
I’ve long been decidedly against this society’s fetishistic gendering of small children through apparel. It’s not that I won’t dress Stella in pink, or put barrettes in her hair, etc. It’s more that I refuse to behave as though my daughter’s identity and well being are based on whether I adorn her with sexualized garments and accessories. I refuse to base her identity on something as changeable as colors and clothes. And I absolutely reject the idea that there’s something wrong with me as a parent for maintaining these ideals.
So yeah, back to the conversation with A: She described to me an incident where she encountered all of these issues at once in a woman who first complimented what a handsome boy Stella is, and then went on to bumble her way through comments on her possible biracial parentage. And A. had the wherewithall to just tell the woman to stop.
Now, I can’t say that I would choose to confront a well-meaning-but-clearly-inappropriate stranger in this way, but I do think that A. is pretty courageous in this. I’m more likely to either raise my eyebrows, smile stiffly and try to get away asap, then feel bad later for not giving the lady a verbal smack, OR I’ll posit a few gentle statements to challenge and discourage her assumptions and generalizations and offer a gentle lesson about race and gender. God – I hate being so gentle all the damn time!
But it’s the age-old question – Do you offer the lesson and possibly teach someone something they didn’t know (adding another brick to your tower of racism/whateverism-induced exhaustion), or do you react and leave them as ignorant as you found them (and possibly less open to learning due to embarrassment or anger)? Do you seize the teachable moment, or do you just go on with your day?
Many people of color take the stance that it’s not their job to teach ignorant people about race. My position is that whenever you are tired of ignorance, it becomes your job to do something about it. If you have knowledge, you have power and the associated responsibility.
I also believe that people of color (and any people who have knowledge that others do not have) are not “on-call teachers” as it were, meaning don’t think you’re entitled to a lesson on race, culture, whatever in the middle of the grocery store just ’cause you realized it’s time for you to learn something. That’s where the problem lies, I think – we have to be able to control when and how we respond to ignorance. Otherwise, it becomes another form of oppression. And we can only respond in the context of our own reality, i.e., it won’t be a universally applicable lesson.
This has got me to thinking that I need to be more in control of when and how I offer knowledge about my child and my self and my circumstances. Maybe that lets me off the hook for being so gentle all the time – it can be frustrating. I guess we’ll see. I’ve never been the kind of person to say “That’s none of your business.” Maybe I’ll try it – I don’t know. But A. has inspired me to consider that I don’t have to endure people making asses of themselves about my child’s race and gender every single time it happens. That’s kind of exciting.