Monday, August 6, 2012

She said what?

I had a moment today.  It one was of those terrifying mom moments when you frantically look around and silently hope and pray that nobody witnessed what your child just did.

The library had a small puppet theatre set up in the back of the children's section.  Various puppets of all shapes and sizes were strewn about in piles.  I found a Kermit the Frog puppet that was at least as old as me hidden behind a skunk and a raccoon.  Bean was amazed.  We'd seen the puppets before, but never the stage.  The stage lent a credibility to whatever puppet saga we were about to create.  I plunked myself down behind the curtain and popped an elephant puppet on one hand and a dragon puppet on the other.  I sat on the floor with knees curled to chest doing my best to act out a quiet little story about an elephant and an alligator.  I pulled back the curtains and saw that Bean's wide mouth toothy grin had grown to eclipse her whole face.  She was beside herself with the availability of stuffed animals that she can put on her hands and by the number of funny voices now coming from behind the curtain.  I ducked my head below the stage so that my fascinating tale of the displaced dragon could be told.  Bean's giggles carried across the stage and right into my heart.  

I  peaked around the curtain and found Bean tentatively stepping closer to the stage.  Her smile getting bigger with each step.  My one woman show is about to get an understudy.  In my deep elephant voice, I ask "And what do we have here?"  And Bean answered in her high-pitched sing song voice, "I have a monkey," proudly punctuating her declaration with her best monkey sounds.

At this point, I sat up because, quite frankly I was tired of sitting in this half hunched position and since we weren't going to have a proper puppet show I didn't see much point in my sitting in an uncomfortable yoga pose.  I sat up and saw that the puppet on Bean's hand was not a monkey, but a little black boy.

Oh my god.

I frantically looked around to make sure that no one else witnessed my child's racist remarks.  Of course, she's not racist.  I'm not racist.  I voted for Obama.  I have black friends.  Hell, my cousins are African American.  And here's where my sneaky white liberal guilt sets in...Should I be saying black or African American?  I never actually asked.  And if I'm to be perfectly honest, my cousins live a coast away and my friends are work friends and outside of Facebook and the occasional drink meet up, we don't see each other much.  Is this my fault?  Do I need to socialize more with people of various ethnicities?  Should I put up a craigslist ad that reads "White Liberal looking for multiracial friends for toddler.  Those of European Ancestry need not apply."  

We left the city, a place so mixed up that our neighborhood could have doubled as a Jackson Pollack painting to come to the suburbs where I don't think I've seen one person of color.  I left the urban landscape for better schools and space, but in doing so, I found myself in a neighborhood of whiteness.  Oh wait, I'm lying.  The nannies are black.  Wait.  I still don't know if I should say that.  The nannies appear to be from the Caribbean.  

The question of my toddler being racist was jokingly asked at my husband's company picnic last week.  Bean sat next to me shoveling her ice cream into her mouth.  Of course, she was only eating the vanilla.  We were sitting next to my husband's friend who happens to be black and she jokingly taunted us, "What?  She doesn't like chocolate!  Come on!  You've got to like chocolate."  Bean looked at her and said "I no like chocolate.  I like banilla."  Bean clearly didn't get the societal implications of only liking vanilla.  When her vanilla was all gone, she looked at me and asked me for more.  I told her that she had more in her bowl.  If she wanted more ice cream, she should just eat the chocolate.  And she did because ultimately, Bean likes any and all ice cream. 

Here's the thing; color doesn't matter to Bean.  She confuses hexagons with octagons and orange with yellow.  Her confusing a rather poorly made and old puppet with a monkey was not intentional.  Her little brain is simply trying to make connections and identify objects.  There was no hate in that statement, just wonder and curiosity.  Once I identified the puppet as a little boy, she called it Little Boy and hugged him and kissed him repeatedly.  My reaction was so visceral because as unintentional as Bean's slur was, that same slip was used and is used currently to marginalize and subjugate people. We should have moved beyond this and yet we still have political cartoons of our president drawn as a monkey.  Even as I type that, I feel guilty.  Guilty that I can't give my daughter a better world.  She deserves that.  We all do.