In a bright and colorful classroom, several toddlers busily moved about from toy to toy with their watchful mothers following close behind to insure safety and protection. Some mothers were able to sit and chat together, still watchful, as their little sons and daughters found activities that kept them in one place for longer than a moment or two. At Stepping Stones, parents, mostly stay-at-home moms, enjoyed the opportunity to be alongside their children in a structured setting while they learned to socialize, play, and follow their curiosities. It was a space of beginnings and hope.
On one particular morning, I sat next to my son, nearly 3 years old at the time, while he focused on fitting chunky wooden puzzle pieces into matching spaces. A little girl, soon to be starting kindergarten, came along to play and took the role of teaching him as children tend to do when they recognize the other child is “just a baby.” Then in the most innocent and enthusiastic manner, she (I’ll call her Laura.) blurted her thought out loud. “Malik has weird hair!”
Suddenly, the once boisterous room seemed to become deafly silent and the air was sucked out of the room. I felt the weight of all eyes on me and time appeared to pause. The pause allowed me to understand that the other moms had no intention of getting involved, not even Laura’s mom. The pause also let me know that the responsibility rested completely on my shoulders of how this moment will inform future similar moments for Laura, Malik, the other mothers, and me. What you must understand is, at the time, Malik and I were the only African-Americans in the room, or the only chips in the cookie, as I like to say. Laura’s declaration dramatically highlighted that fact.
Time stood still long enough for my feelings to travel across a full range of reactions. Initially offended by Laura’s critique of my son, my thoughts leaped to judging her parents for not being conscious enough to teach her better. Now disgusted and irritated, I revisit the many times I had been a victim of such insults about my own hair, my skin, my biracial and bicultural existence. These painful memories moved me to feel anger that someone was trying to put on my child the label of otherness and diminish his freedom to be. How dare someone attempt to inflict that pain on my son? And that someone…oh my goodness…was herself just a child not yet old enough for kindergarten. Just like that, I returned to the present moment. I took a breath. Now, with clarity and warmth, I was able to tell her:
Malik’s hair is not weird, Sweetheart. His hair is just different from yours. Your hair is long. His hair is short. Your hair is light brown. His hair is black. Your hair is thin. His hair is thick. Your hair is straight and a little wavy around your face. His hair is curly. Laura, you have hair that is beautiful and perfect for you. Malik has hair that is beautiful and perfect for him.
Laura listened carefully, looked carefully, and cheerfully replied, “Oh,” in agreement. My response seemed to bring her satisfaction. Malik and Laura continued to happily play together. Without knowing it, she taught me how to respond, not react.
In the stillness of a single breath, where it was just me and my thoughts, I realized that Laura was not intending to cause harm to Malik nor was she responsible for the pain I felt due to past experiences with bigotry and insensitivity. She made a statement from a place of curiosity based on something she noticed. My past experiences and those of the other moms in the room made it more than a child’s curiosity.
Clearly the heavy weight I felt at Stepping Stones on that morning was burden. This burden wasn’t felt by just me. The other mothers in the room buckled under the same cumbersome and uncomfortable weight. However, in Laura’s 5 years on this planet, she had not yet learned to bear a burden like so many adults are conditioned to carry around in our work and social circles. This unspoken burden is brought on by generations of Americans not willing to be curious enough to ask; courageous enough to answer; vulnerable enough to engage; and compassionate enough to accept the reality of others.
Well, it’s time, Readers. The only way to dispel stereotypes and misunderstandings is to open our minds and hearts to truth. Let’s share a willingness to suspend our beliefs long enough to possibly change the ones that no longer serve us. With benevolence, may we all learn to accept others and be bravely curious.