Thursday, November 20, 2008

Brown Eye-YAH-Voes Are Beautiful, Too

Mitike and I just had our first mother-daughter talk about skin color. I know -- she's only 2. And I know -- research shows that children do not begin noticing skin color until about age 3, and that they do not possess an awareness of "race" as an idea until 4 or 5. But there we were -- TK perched on the potty, me sitting across from her on the step-stool -- talking about how brown skin is just as beautiful as peach-colored skin.

It's Disney's fault, of course -- and Costco's. In an attempt to save money on diapers, I purchased an enormous cost-saver box of toddler pull-ups, only to open the box at home and find that half the diapers had blonde-haired, blue-eyed, peach-skinned Cinderella plastered across their fronts. The other half of the diapers -- in a Disney attempt to be more multicultural, I suppose -- placed red-haired Ariel and black-haired, brown-skinned Jasmine just behind Cinderella. English-major Mommy read this message: Cinderella is still the one to which you should all aspire, little diaper-wearing girls, but we suppose these girls are okay, too.

I opened the box with TK standing right next to me -- clapping her hands with joy to see all the beautiful princesses. "Pretty!" she exclaimed. "Pretty!" My heart sank. I had already screwed up! I had unwittingly opened the door to a world I didn't want my beautiful little girl to encounter until she firmly and ardently believed that her brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair were unquestioningly, undoubtedly beautiful. I bit my lip, watching TK joyfully pull princess diapers from the box.

"TK," I said suddenly. "I'm going downstairs for a sec. I'll be right back."

She barely heard me. Cinderella's blue-eyed gaze had already begun to work its spell. I had to move fast. I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, where we keep two tubs of markers and crayons. TK calls them "eye-YAH-voes". I grabbed all the brown ones I could find, and then dashed back upstairs.

TK's eyebrows went up at the sight of the eye-YAH-voes. She knew the rule was to keep them in the kitchen. "Mama?" she asked. I smiled and then scooped her up -- she clutched a Cinderella diaper in her hands -- and set her gently on the potty.

"Let's make Cinderella beautiful," I said, and handed TK a brown crayon. I picked up a brown permanent marker, and proceeded to draw swirly brown curls over Cinderella's blonde hair. TK giggled and began to scribble all over Cinderella's face. "More, Mama, more!" she laughed. We scribbled all over the diaper, making it -- well -- ugly.

THIS was how I was going to teach my daughter that her skin color -- the loveliest color of coffee with a bit of milk -- was beautiful? This was more of a lesson in graffiti, or in modern art. Or worse, this was calling too much attention to an issue of which she would not be aware for years.

I looked down at the diaper that lay stretched between my lap and TK's. It was almost completely brown now -- an unfortunate color for a diaper. I took a deep breath, dismayed at my first failure as a "white" momma to give my "black" child a healthy racial identity.

"All done eye-YAH-voe!" TK handed me the crayon and then held the diaper up proudly, tilting it at different angles, as if she were studying it. "Beautiful!" she proclaimed finally, and I started to laugh. I touched her hands and her face and her little feet and murmured, "Beautiful, too." She nodded seriously, then parroted, "Beautiful, too."

The Cinderella diapers are gone, now -- peed into, pooped on, thrown in a plastic bag and then hurled into the Juneau landfill. Now TK wears diapers with pink and green dragons on them -- and she still insists on coloring the dragons brown while she sits on the potty. My Costco purchase seems only to have increased TK's range of artistic mediums.

But the other night at bedtime, as we read the book "Amazing Grace", TK gently touched the page where the 11-year-old African American protagonist stands up in class to volunteer to be Peter Pan. "Beautiful," TK murmured. "Beautiful." And although my little girl applies that new-found adjective to chalkboards and the sides of buses and restaurant menus and the swirly design seagull droppings make on the dock, she means it when she uses it.

I just hope the understanding sticks.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Mitike: Remember Nov. 4, 2008

Dear Mitike,

On November 4, 2008, when you were almost 2, a man named Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America. You won't remember crowding into the polling booth with me, Tim, and Katie. You won't remember the anxiety that swirled around you all day from hopeful adults who stopped each other in school hallways, in the public library, in Marine Park, just to say, "Do you think he'll win?". You won't remember the way you chanted, "Obama! Obama! Obama!" with me as we walked down the sidewalk together at noon -- still hours before the first polls would close.

You won't remember the way we crowded into a neighbor's house that evening, shared chili and bread and lentil stew, and watched -- our breath held -- as Obama's electoral numbers creep up and up. And you won't remember the way we all counted down to the closing of the west coast polls, or the way everyone in the room threw their hands in the air and shouted joyfully, "Obama!", or the way we all ran out into the street with pots and pans and wooden spoons and drummed our happiness for the Alaskan night to hear. You ate your blue-frosted cupcake and smiled at everyone, happy everyone was happy, glad everyone loved the word you loved: "Obama, Obama, Obama."

But Mitike, my dear, happy daughter, you must remember this day. And because you will not, I will mold it into words for you -- I will give it to you here, the soft clay of a moment shaped and fired into a bowl that holds a future.

The others in the room last night watched you lovingly, Mitike, thinking -- as I was -- how particularly important this election was for you, a child of color adopted from the African country that neighbors Obama's father's own Kenya. This United States of America, Mitike, has a difficult and painful past when it comes to people of color -- a past that will anger and sadden you when you learn about it someday. You may never fully realize how fortunate you are to live now, instead of then. You may never fully appreciate just what it means that a country that once sanctioned slavery, that once claimed black people were merely 3/5 of a whole, that once prohibited black people from voting or even drinking out of certain water fountains, has just chosen a black man as its president.

As a white woman, Mitike, I cannot fully appreciate it myself. That's why I'll make sure I'm never the only one telling you these stories. But I will say: remember this election, Mitike, because -- for the first time in U.S. history -- we chose a person of color as our highest leader.

But remember this election, too, Mitike, because President-Elect Obama's mother had peachy-tan skin like mine, which matters because it means Obama has spent his life navigating both his "white" and "black" identities, like you will. Add "Kenya" to "black": another identity to navigate, as Ethiopia will be another for you. Add "Hawaii" and "Indonesia" for Obama -- you'll add "Alaska" and other places we'll live; add Obama's identities as politician and lawyer, as husband and father, now as president -- you'll add yours, and among them will be "woman", "daughter". Remember this election, Mitike, because we chose for our highest office a human being who has embraced all these layers of himself, who has sought to weave them together for a whole self -- who knows that to reject any one of those identities would be to be incomplete and a less than authentic participant in the world.

Most of all, my sweet daughter, remember this election because of the way it echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of a world in which his children were judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Remember this election, Mitike: while it is historically significant that Barack Obama is black, and while it is personally significant for you that Barack Obama is half Kenyan and half "white", it is most significant that our nation chose Obama for his ideas -- for his convincing message of hope and change -- and not for his skin color.

I hope that by the time you read this, Mitike, you will be surprised that Obama's election felt so monumental to me. I hope you will be accustomed to a country led by people of all ethnicities, by men and women, by members of many religions and backgrounds and preferences. I hope, by the time you read this, our country will be a global leader in peace and conservation, committed to working with other countries for the good of the world and not to serve power or greed. After yesterday's election, I even believe that hoped-for world is attainable.

Your eyes were drooping when Obama stood to give his acceptance speech at the podium in distant Chicago. While we all strained to hear Obama's words, you struggled in my arms, murmuring, "Upstairs, Mama. Milk." But you asked me to pin your Obama button to your pajamas, and your last words before sleep were "Obama, Obama, Obama." I think you understood, somehow, that this was an incredible day. Or maybe you were just excited about your first cupcake. What mattered, Mitike, was that, as your eyes closed and you fell into sweet sleep, your mama breathed more easily, feeling, for the first time in her life, like her country might be heading in the direction its ideals intend. Remember this election, Mitike -- it may mark a shifting tide, a change that will give you a better world in which to live -- as a woman of color, as a daughter of Africa, as an adopted person, as a human being.

I love you, TK. That is the reason this election matters most for me.