Published on April 22nd, 2016 | by Rhea St. Julien3
RHEA ST. JULIEN Talks With Her 4-Year-Old About Race
I’ve been with my husband, who is Black, for 15 years, but I have been white all my life. I still get things wrong, I still miss racist stuff, and I still don’t always know what I’m doing as I seek to raise our race-conscious biracial child.
I’m going to tell you a story about living on our block, in the Mission District of San Francisco, a city whose Black population has dwindled to 6%. There is a smoke shop on the corner, which has always had a sort of shady energy. Across the street is the Vietnamese grocery store where we do all our shopping, and whose owner gives our daughter presents every time she enters. The smoke shop is like the negative ion poised opposite the positive ion that is the grocery store—they are held in orbit, but sometimes the pull comes harder on one side of the charge.
A few months ago, the smoke shop got a face-lift. They had a local artist paint a colorful mural, they added “vape” to their name, and they featured new statues for sale in their windows, which were also now decorated with ads of scantily clad women. The statues were of grinning Black men with dreadlocks, joints lodged between their teeth and weed paraphernalia adorning their base. One of the statues depicted a Black man sitting on a toilet whilst smoking. Another had both their hands in the air, holding a bowl aloft that said “GRASS,” clearly meant for people to set on their coffee table.
My husband and I were walking to the bus together one evening and as we passed the store, he said, “I really, really hate that place.”
“Oh yeah? It has always seemed a little off, but pretty benign to me,” I replied. I’d chalked it up to immature stoner culture.
“Didn’t you see those horrible racist statues they have in the window? It’s so messed up!”
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t immediately noticed the racist display, or thought about how it would affect my husband to walk by them every day. I had been too busy being annoyed with the ads of almost-naked women selling e-cigarettes. My husband just shook his head.
A few days later, I was passing by again, this time taking our 4-year-old daughter to dance class. She laughed and pointed to the window. “I like that place! Those statues are so funny!”
I took a breath. I didn’t want to shame our daughter, but I needed some more information.
“What do you like about them?”
“I like them because they remind me of Daddy!” Her father is a dreadlocked Black man, who often smiles, but does not smoke.
“Hmm, yes, I guess they do resemble Daddy, but you know what? Daddy doesn’t like those statues, and neither do I, because we think they could be making fun of people who look like Daddy.”
“Yes, really.” I felt so sad to be introducing this reality to my daughter’s life—that there are people who seek to shame her father’s body just for existing, to dehumanize people who look like him into some kind of joke.
My daughter took my hand. “Well, I still think the statues are funny. But they also make me sad. Sad for daddy.”
I was really proud of my daughter. She was achieving a pretty complicated psychological feat. Being a biracial child means holding opposing emotions and experiences quite often. My hope is that having that experience early will make my daughter resilient, mentally sophisticated, and able to provide empathy for a wide range of people. In the meantime, I am committed to giving her space to have all of her feelings and responses to things, while helping to guide her through this world, where racism can arise on every street corner.
As a mixed race family, we are often pointed out as a “surprising” combination. The other day at school pick-up, an older child said, “Isn’t it FUNNY that she doesn’t look anything like her mom?” I turned to the child and said, “Families come in all shapes, sizes and skin tones!” But my daughter was more inclined to hear the older child’s message than mine. While I didn’t want to invalidate my daughter’s experience, which is that she often wishes we resembled each other more, I felt desperate to impart my message. I talked it over with her teacher, who was very receptive to adding stories to the curriculum that reflect a variety of family combinations in a positive light. I want to keep giving my daughter experiences that it is not only “okay” to be different—it’s awesome.
A few weeks later, we attended a #BlackLivesMatter protest as a family with Jidenna, Janelle Monae, and the Wondaland crew. We marched through the streets of our neighborhood with them, singing their protest anthem, Hell You Talmbout. Our daughter was aloft on her father’s shoulders, singing along and taking it all in. She pointed to a sign with a picture of Oscar Grant, the unarmed man killed by BART police in 2009.
“That looks like you, Daddy!”
Her father and I choked back tears. “Yeah, sweetie, it does,” he responded. It was a reminder of our connection with the lives lost to state-sanctioned violence, and to her powers of observation. Children are looking for depictions of their family in the world around them. At this point in time, for our family, that means our daughter finds her father’s likeness in racist statues and in the faces of the dead. That’s our reality, and we’ll be there to help her sort through what that means, as she finds her place in this world.