I met a little girl recently. She’s seven, the same age as my son. I spent the day with her and my son at the Pacific Science Center. She was openly curious about me and asked lots of questions. She also told me about herself, her school, her sisters, her friends.
My son, not used to having to share his mother’s attention with another child, interjected with an increasingly authoritative tone. I observed her defer to his judgement. I heard her say “I don’t get it” even when I suspected she did. I noticed this and said nothing. I thought about my female students in class. I thought about my male students always calling out the answers.
In the time we spent alone, she never said “I don’t get it,” only when boys were present. I made a point to ask her more questions. I pushed her to tell me why, to reach for the part she got, to build on it. I didn’t give her answers. I responded by asking her more questions and making observations with non-evaluative language.
As the day went on, I discovered that her favorite food is pizza, she can run really fast, loves to touch water and likes every color except brown. This last piece of information made my stomach flip over.
I immediately wanted to call all the beautiful, powerful, brilliantly smart women of color I know and surround her with them.
It made me want to point out everything that is beautiful about the color brown, to name everything that is brown as beautiful and important and wise.
It made me want to throw away all my pens and write only in brown, to cover all of these white pages in brown ink. And it made me question everything about my suddenly very white life.
It made me think of my about-to-be-teenage female students of color who look up at me adoringly, arms around my waist and say how beautiful and skinny I am.
It made me think of how I brush off their compliments, tell them they are beautiful too and worry about their body image, but what I wasn’t hearing them say was how beautiful, skinny and white I am. And how what I needed to be saying is how beautifully perfectly brown they are. That I must name what is unspoken. That I must do something.
Because at seven this little black girl whose smile lights up the room, who can easily run faster than any boy her age, who knows more about compassion and patience than she should probably have to, who is stunningly beautiful, likes every color except brown, and it keeps me awake at night.
I don’t know how to make it right, but I know I have to try. I know I have to do everything I can to be a part of the conversations that must take place in order to change that.