Written by Liz Rose-Cohen; Originally published at Kveller
[Editor's note: The follow-up to this piece ran at LIE in October 2011; due to copyright restrictions, we were unable to run this part until now. Please forgive the reverse-chronological ordering and enjoy!]
My son started preschool last Spring, and the more we learned the more we couldn’t believe our luck.
One of his teachers is an African American woman. That wasn’t luck. That was planning. Like we moved 700 miles so we could live in a town with a significant African American population and then chose a Montessori preschool with a significant number of African American teachers. That kind of planning. But the fact that she has dark skin was luck. Because my kids have fairly dark skin. And I know you don’t have to have dark skin to be African American. But my boys are still little; they don’t have it all figured out yet. And now that we moved all this way so we could live among their people, I want them to know we made it.
Anyway, his teacher’s a middle-aged, black woman with dark brown skin. Already scoring tons of points, but then it turns out she has a gay son. And not just any gay son. He’s a professional ballet dancer. (My son, I’ll call him Moon Boy, loves to dance). And he has the same birthday as Moon Boy. And, she’s the co-chair of Columbus PFLAG. So she reeeally likes Moon Boy. And we are feeling pretty proud of ourselves for facilitating all this good luck.
So the day Moon Boy came home saying he doesn’t like it when his friends laugh at his pink sandals, I knew I didn’t have to worry about finding support for him in his classroom. This was not the first time I’d heard of other kids commenting on Moon Boy’s pink shoes. But it was the first time I’d heard him tell about it. “They say I’m tricking,” he told me, all angry and pouty. “They say they’re not really my sandals.”
“Do they think your sandals belong to a girl?” I asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed, head down.
It surprised me to hear how clearly he understood the meaning of his friends words and to see how they had affected him. By the time our first child, Hot Shot, was Moon Boy’s age, she was well studied in the manifestations of sexism, but somehow I hadn’t thought Moon Boy was intellectually ready for these lessons yet. So when the pack of little girls at the end of our alley always asks me why he has on “girl shoes,” I answer for him.
“Oh, do you think pink is only for girls?” I ask them. “I know there are people who think that. But we don’t,” I say, rubbing my little guy’s head. “We think anybody can wear whatever color they want.”
I asked Moon Boy if he’d like help talking to his friends about how their words made him feel. He said he would. We made a plan to talk with her the next morning.
But when I told his teacher what happened, her response surprised me. She didn’t ask how long this had been going on and how Moon Boy was feeling about it. She didn’t offer to help him talk to his friends. Instead she reminded me that my son is an African American male.
“He can get shot for standing in the wrong place,” she said. “You can’t go with him everywhere,” she said. “You have to teach him what people are going to say, and how to respond, and let him chose when he feels like taking that risk.” Her son can be very flamboyant, she told me. But he decides where and when.
I wanted to hate her. I was mad, for sure. I thought I was mad at her. For not saying, first and foremost, that her classroom should be a place free of bigotry. For not hugging my little boy and squeezing out all those yucky, betrayed feelings. And I wanted to write off her advice. To say, fine, she’s a dark skinned, middle aged, African American woman who co-chairs PFLAG, but I don’t have to listen to her.
Except I’d moved 700 miles so that I could listen to her. That was the problem. Of course I knew I didn’t have to follow every bit of parenting advice that came from a black person’s mouth. But I couldn’t deny I’d gone through a lot of trouble to put myself in a position to receive this advice. I had to at least consider it.
I wondered if maybe this was internalized racism. Black boys being taught to sit and obey, blend in or disappear. And if maybe my own white privilege might rub off a little on my guys, might allow them to feel entitled to a little more freedom. But entitled or not, I couldn’t deny they are less free.
So I realized it was me I was mad at, for not getting it. And her too, for having to tell me what I didn’t get. That the rules are different for my boys. And the consequences more severe. It doesn’t matter how much Moon Boy likes his pink sandals, I shouldn’t send him out in them if I haven’t warned him he will be teased, and taught him how to handle it himself.
So now Moon Boy has a new pair of sandals. They’re black. And they’re a little big. But he’ll grow into them. And when he goes to school, or to the park, or to the Y, he chooses thoughtfully which pair he wants to wear.