Looking through the viewing window the first day of my daughters’ ballet class, I’m trying to remember everything I’ve ever told them about race. That time in bed when I explained where skin color comes from to my oldest, then 3, comes to mind first. “Can you say “Melanin?” I asked. “May-lay-ninnnn,” she said, elongating the last “n.” And there was that other time at the playground when a 5-year old tried (and failed) to create a tan-skinned-only friend club. “We are all the same on the inside,” I told her that night. There were, surely, other conversations. But for some reason, I can’t remember them.
There are 10 girls in the class. They’re dressed in oversized tutus with sequined trim, baggy pink tights, and pink ballet slippers. Watching my daughters, I take in these small details. But my thoughts are stuck on something else: Eight of the 10 girls, including the teacher, are white. My daughters (ages 3 and 5) are black.
I keep telling myself that this tiny thing shouldn’t be the thing that bothers me. But, as I analyze my daughters’ facial expressions, count the minutes, and stand among the other (white) moms in the viewing room, it’s the only thing that does.
I’m reminded of my own show-and-tell day back in kindergarten. I’m playing on an alphabet rug with the Holiday Barbie doll. In a poll of hands, she was voted “most beautiful” by every girl in class, so I was happy to be able to comb her hair. But I still felt something about the fact that her hair and skin (like every other dolls brought in that day by classmates) looked nothing like my own. I didn’t have a name for what I felt at 5. But decades later, watching my daughters, with the same heavy feeling in my chest, I wondered if it was sadness.
I wondered, recalling that memory from kindergarten and never saying anything to my parents about it, if sometimes when it comes to how young children experience race (or racism), looks and words (or a lack thereof) can be deceiving. I said I’d talk to them on the car ride home.
You can read the rest of this essay here, on Washington Post’s On Parenting.