Our daughter’s start in the world was less than traditional–conceived with donor sperm and born to lesbian parents. Then, when Jane was 4, her Bobby (Jane’s non-biological parent), transitioned from female to male. Que the crash course in gender, acceptance, and celebrating who we are—even if who we are makes us a little different.
Teaching Jane about diversity hasn’t been without challenges. Take, for instance, the day we were walking through our neighborhood, admiring the pride flags fluttering in the breeze. “Do we know anyone that’s gay?” she asked earnestly. Um…
So, we started back at square one about what being gay means, what being trans means, and what it means to identify as queer. Just a typical, everyday conversation with the 7 year old. As laborious as it can be to explain concepts like gender and sexual orientation to a very curious and analytical kid, I’m grateful that she asks questions (and asks, and asks, and asks…) until I offer up a nugget of truth that resonates with her. I want to help her understand and connect with the world whenever I can. Even if that means I’m stuck in a never-ending round of 21 Questions.
Moving into a Broader World-View
The open, frank way that we dealt with her Bobby’s transition has bled into the way our family discusses almost everything. No question is off limits. Which is good, because our move from suburban Tampa, Florida, to intown Atlanta during Jane’s fifth year of life led to A LOT of questions.
Moving from the suburbs to a markedly more urban area looks and feels different. We no longer have to take the car everywhere. Transit is an option. So is walking (which I do a lot more of than Jane would prefer). We can see the Atlanta skyline from our neighborhood. And, perhaps most notably, we left an almost entirely white suburb and moved to Atlanta, which has a rich Civil Rights history and a vibrant black population.
We live in Southeast Atlanta; it’s not uncommon for us to walk into a restaurant and be one of only a handful of white people. This is different—for us and for her. And we never hesitated to say so.
We also identified that feeling of “differentness” as something black people experience more often, as they navigate predominantly white spaces that insist on assimilation. I mean, that was the idea, but the actual wording was more like: “How would you feel if people looked at you funny because you looked different than they do?”
Her empathy radar went off. “Bad,” she said, looking puzzled and a bit put out.
“And what if they felt that way just because you had brown skin?”
Now she was mad: “That’s stupid,” she sputtered.
I saved the lecture about calling things stupid for another day. Because racism is stupid. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.
Living Life in Vivid Color—and Picking Your Battles
My generation often likes to claim “colorblindness.” But studies show that kids notice racial differences early on. They also quickly identify things we refuse to talk about or name as “bad.” When we wanted to avoid negative, shameful feelings around her Bobby’s transition, we gave Jane the language to discuss it. When we enrolled Jane in our local public school, which is both racially and economically diverse, we took a similar approach. We wanted her to celebrate the diversity of her school, not ignore it. So we never shied away from her copious observations about, well, everything.
For example, Jane’s always been quick to notice and admire different hairstyles, especially if they include braids, bright hair bows or beads that clickity-clack. She noticed and started talking about other kids’ hair long before she seemed to notice their skin color. In Kindergarten, she asked me to buy hair ties to go in the top and bottom of her two braids, like her black friends. While we picked out new hair ties with brightly colored, interlocking balls, she chattered on about who has super-cool braids and pretty beads.
Next came the most obvious request ever: she wanted braids like her friends at school. I felt panicked for a minute—because cultural appropriation. But I circumvented that whole conversation by reminding her that she becomes a teary mess in the time it takes me to pull her hair back into ONE ponytail. Which, incidentally, takes no longer than 120 seconds. Cool braids take intense fortitude and patience, I informed her. One day, she and I will talk about cultural appropriation and the problem with being white and “borrowing” bits of black culture while systemic racism and white supremacy run rampant. But, right now, she’s 7. Cultural appropriation is a bit nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the joyous noise hair beads make when they clickity-clack together—and how amazingly cool it is to enjoy that at school every day.
Confronting Racism Wherever It Crops Up
Raising a kid to think critically sometimes means even the easy things aren’t so easy anymore. Take, for example, reading Little House on the Prairie. I figured Jane and I would read the books together, then watch the television show –a nostalgic passing on of tradition between mother and daughter.
But these things so rarely go as planned.
Seems I’d forgotten a little bit of the story. Like when Laura and her family move to “Indian country.” When I ran across the reference to Indian country, I stopped, reminded Jane that while people used to refer to Native Americans as Indians, we know better and do better now. Because Jane’s a curious kid, I anticipated she’d have more questions.
She did not disappoint: “Why did they go into the country if it was Indian Country?”
Ah, yes. The perfect late afternoon conversation: manifest destiny. But, because we’d already talked about judging people on the color of their skin—and about some white people thinking they are better simply because they are white—it was relatively easy to explain that, white people thought they deserved the land the Indians were on.
I won’t lie—I wondered whether it wouldn’t just be easier to dismiss the book as racist and move on. But if I did that, wouldn’t that be teaching her to just ignore racism instead of confronting it?
I kept reading Jane Little House on the Prairie because I don’t want her to think that when she encounters ideas that run counter to her own, she should dismiss them without critical thought. Turns out, scholars support the need for critical inquiry (even in kids’ lit): “…racism exists in the world. Children are going to encounter it, and a safer way to learn how to encounter it is via fiction. If you’re reading a racist children’s book with a child, you can help them read it critically, you can help them learn that it’s okay to be angry at a book.”
Topics like white supremacy and manifest destiny are big topics. But the principles that underlie them are accessible to kids. They see injustice unfold around them. But they often don’t have the words to give voice to what they see. Talking about racism and injustice is hard work. But it’s work worth doing.