Age six, first grade. We lived in Denver and I took the bus an hour and a half across the city to my elementary school. Most of the kids I spent time with were not white. I was not aware of this, being only six-years-old and not knowing yet. One day I asked my mom to braid my hair like my friend Shannon’s. She obliged, making a bunch of tiny braids held with barrettes at the ends.
That morning at school a girl came up to me and said, “Why don’t you paint your face brown, too?”
I didn’t know that girl, and I didn’t understand what she said or why she was upset. She wasn’t any older than me, but she was aware of her color in a way that I was not. I was white and never had to be told it.
I told my mom what happened and asked her why the girl had reacted that way. I don’t remember what my mom said, I wish I did. But I do know that I came out of that moment knowing that I was white and that girl was black, and my friend Shannon was black, and it wasn’t appropriate for me to copy her hairstyle.
A couple years later we moved to a suburb called Broomfield. Something felt strange about the town, an unsettling vibe. When I expressed to my mom that something felt “off” in this new town she said, “That’s because everyone is white.” There really was something unnerving about being surrounded by almost 100% white people, even being white myself. I was the only Jewish kid in my class and I remember one day a girl came up to me and said:
“Isn’t it weird not celebrating your birthday?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Because you’re not allowed to celebrate any holidays.” she said.
“Do you think I’m Jehovah’s Witness?” I said. “I’m Jewish.”
“Oh. Same thing. They both start with a J.”
The following year, fourth grade, a bully in my class called me a “dirty little Jewish girl.” One day that bully let me use her markers and gave them to me afterwards. I thought it was a kindness, but she told me, “I had to give them to you because once you touched them I didn’t want them anymore.”
What I’m thinking about as I write this, the reason I’m writing it, is trying to figure out how to teach my white male child about his own privilege, about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, how our government/society values certain people above others and how that is wrong. About police brutality. About Black Lives Matter. About speaking up. Using his own brain. Standing up for what is right, for other people, in situations that are not easy.
I’m trying to remember being a kid myself, and how I learned about these things. When did I fail? When did I not speak up? When was I aware and kind and brave? I’m trying to be my best self and set a good example and be aware of my words and listen and give him the tools to make things better. To be a better person. To be kind. To help. To be an activist/advocate/ally. To love. To be angry when bad things happen. To use that anger to make positive change. To vote. To live his life in a way that creates the world as it should be.