Gustafson: Do you see what I see?
Moments after my daughter was born I discovered that a good friend of mine had also given birth to her daughter only a few minutes before my new baby was born at Aspen Valley Hospital.
To celebrate, the next morning we brought our two 6-hour-old girls together and placed them on a tiny blanket. We watched the infants jerking about on the blanket, discovering all the newness of their own unfamiliar bodies and watched their eyes widen with wonder upon becoming aware of one another. My little girl with skin so pale it looked almost transparent, without a hair on her wrinkled newborn head, and my Ethiopian friend’s daughter with very much deeper brown skin and tiny delicate curls all over her head. They were so new and beautiful.
The photo that I took to remember that moment, eventually ended up framed in my daughter’s room. When they had their first same-day birthday, we once again celebrated together with a beautiful feast provided by my friend, an accomplished local chef, who had brought from her home in Ethiopia an expertise in preparing a rich and unique cuisine. We let our now 1-year-olds crawl around with each other enjoying giggles, some tumbles and a few tears. And like all new mothers I snapped photos all afternoon. And looking through my lens at the other new babies we had invited to join us, I admired how much more diverse this valley has become over the decades.
Fast forward a few years and my daughter and I were going through the photos. She was 5 at the time, and we found the pictures of her and her little friend on their first birthday and at that first birthday party. With a degree in cultural anthropology, I began to wonder, what does my daughter see when she looks at a still photograph of two tiny babies in only their diapers with such dramatically different colored skin tones? Would she notice the same physical differences adults do, or would she perhaps pick up more on similarities?
Curiosity got the better of me. Up to that point, in our little Roaring Fork Valley bubble, I had had little need to point out physical differences or to highlight our appearances much with my little kids. I felt we have so much to share in our common experiences, why focus on inconsequential differences, or things that seem inconsequential for little children, that would potentially start to set us apart. I’m not trying to pretend to be color-blind, but when I described someone to my kids, I often tried to avoid too much physical description, making an effort to try to think of things about a friend or teacher that could help me explain who I was discussing, without describing their looks. It seemed like a healthy approach, or experiment at any rate, for reasons beyond skin color, including body image.
So finally I asked my daughter what she and her friend have in common in the pictures and what, if anything, might be different. She looked for a while and then described their diapers and clothing, observing that they both wore pink to their first birthday party. Then she said “And, she is a lot taller than me,” and that was it. Fascinating — she really didn’t notice or make note of what most adults seem to notice right away, the very different skin tones. Sure, height is a physical description, but given the current national-level political climate, I was happy to think I’m doing my part to nurture more harmony than polarization.
What makes a person who they are? Our personal histories are part genetic, part culture, part life experiences, but I certainly didn’t see any benefit in pointing out physical differences, not yet at any rate. They will learn that soon enough, I thought, and I was right.
In kindergarten my daughter came home devastated when she learned details of why we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It didn’t make sense to her. “But why mommy” she just kept asking me. I can explain that he was a great leader, but I still don’t have a really good explanation that I feel I can articulate to little minds, about how significant the civil rights movement was only one generation ago. How do you explain why anyone should be treated differently based on skin tone, something naturally arbitrary? Our body’s features and where we were born seem so completely left to chance. We are not just the vessel of our body: It may dramatically affect our experiences, but it shouldn’t define who we are. Prior to learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the significant and confusing historical events that led to MLK Day, she hadn’t had any reason to consider skin much, and I had never heard her describe anyone by the color of their skin. I still haven’t.
Then recently she heard on the news that there is a man who wants to “get rid of people because they have different skin,” as she explained it to me. And she cried and said, “that would mean my best friend.”
It tugged at my heart. If only children could remain so blissfully accepting. Will the state of current political rhetoric set us back once more, forcing that innocence to be a thing of our future past?
Our children know so much until we teach them otherwise.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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