Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mama, They're Not Like Us

We're in the girls' locker room at the YMCA.  I feel uncomfortable. My five-year old son is staring at the bottom of a ten-ish year old girl standing close to us.  At his height, his nose is pretty much ass-level to most older kids and adults, so he has developed a fascination for butts.  At the same time, I want to be respectful and continually call his attention back to me.  The locker room is fairly quiet, and I don't feel up for getting into a conversation about staring at that moment.

My son turns to me and says, "Mama, they're not like us." He's referring to the girl he's been staring at and her mother.  While the locker room is filled with adults and kids of all colors, these two are the darkest ones there.  I flush.

"What are you talking about?" I say.  "We're all humans."  The locker room is quiet, equipped with acoustically perfect tiles: easy to clean, easy to magnify sound.  His tinny voice fills the air.  I try to brush it off but inside I'm thinking, Where do these comments come from?  They're not from me.  Not from my husband.

"No, Mama.  They're not humans like us."  I want to die.  No one talks. I feel all of my communications tools gone.   Whatever I have learned about racism, allies, whatever I have learned about anything.  Gone.

 I look at the girl's mother, hoping to catch her eye and apologize.  She is in the throes of getting her daughter ready or ignoring me, or perhaps wishing I would die, too.

I shove my son's swim trunks into his hands and tell him to go dry them out.  I shove our stuff into our bags.  I shove my feet into my shoes, just hoping to go go go.  Finally we are ready and leaving.

Outside the YMCA, I find my breath.

"What did you mean, that the girl and her mother weren't like us?"
"Her bottom was so smooth."  I realize he's still fixated there.  "And their skin is different."

"Darker," I say.
"Yes."  He shrugs it off.
"When you said they're not human like us, you meant their skin is just a different color?"
 "Yes."

And I am reminded of my own baggage around trying to be colorblind.  I'm not colorblind and neither is my son.  We notice difference.  It's what we do with that difference which creates oppression and racism. And so I head back into these conversations with my son.  He notices differences, I work and figuring out what that means to him. We talk about race.  We talk about slavery.  We talk about how people of color are oppressed and how to be allies.  We talk about his friends of different colors.

I continue to read and learn.  In this awesome and practical article about racism, I look at the way I describe people around me.  I look at the privilege I have.  I notice when a person of color is being talked to by police.  Who is safe?  How do we treat others around us?  How do I stand up for injustice?  How can I teach my son to be part of a multicultural society - mosaic, as Canada does it - and not a "colorblind" society?

And then I'm reminded of a time a few months ago when we were in a cafe.  My son turned to me and a white guy we were sitting next to.
"Look at those guys over there."  He nods to two black guys at a table.  "Do you know how I know they're friends?"
The breath sticks in my throat.
"How?" I say.
"Because they're sitting across from each other, talking."
I heave a sigh of relief.

It is a continual reminder that I must face more of my own baggage. Whatever I bring to the table.  My own failings.  The way I pick  myself up off the ground and how I return to these conversations.  My discomfort.  My son's innocent curiosity.  My knowledge and privilege.  My son's naivete and learning.  And it is humbling.

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