It had to happen someday. It was naive to think it wouldn’t. Still, the day I stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper and found the n-word spray painted on my front doorstep, my first reaction was utter shock. As the parent of three Calcutta-born children, I had always toed the party line and acted as though I understood what it meant to raise children of color—especially in as diverse a place as northern New Jersey. Now I understood a little better, and it hurt.
Having read all the relevant literature, I had always given my children only brown dolls to play with. Lest you think this is intolerably hardcore, let me add that I encouraged my (Caucasian) friends and relatives to buy whatever dolls they wished to buy.
The Little Mermaid resides in a Barbie motor home next to three brown Barbies (one talking), a brown Skipper, and three brown babies in Skipper’s care. We definitely have an equal opportunity Barbie cupboard.
I honestly have to say that although my friends in other states have faced negative racial incidents, I truly did not expect to experience one in the summer of 1995. When we found the ugly n-word written right on our doorstep, I briefly went mad with grief. Then we called the police, took photographs, and looked for ways to take it off. Within hours, one of our neighbors phoned to say how saddened she was to hear what had happened and that the whole neighborhood really felt for us. My feelings now are a lot like the eight inch letters on the front steps: faded, but still readable. Try as we have, we can’t find any way to completely get rid of them.
Realistically, people who are very different from each other in a visual way will always be noticed more. A young, South Indian man I know was brought up in a Swedish town where, for years, he was the only brown person he knew. He had a happy childhood as a class clown and a passable adolescence as a snazzy dresser. Yet, when he visited New York City for the first time, he remarked that he could have walked up and down the streets forever—nobody gave him any notice. He just blended in, and he was enthralled. I had a similar experience, in reverse, when I went to live in South India in 1973 as a Rotary International foreign exchange student. After a few weeks, I came to loathe being out in the streets, where every eye was always fixed on me. I didn’t mind so much when the children touched my long blond hair and my pale skin to see if it felt the same as theirs. Much of the time, though, I felt like a complete spectacle. It certainly made for quite an adjustment.
My children are growing up in an area with many people of Asian and Hispanic descent. There are fewer African Americans, and most of the Asian Indians are a very light brown. So, although everyone is largely very politically correct about it, the bottom line is that each is often the only “brown person” (their label, not mine) in a particular group. And they notice it. In fact, the kids have been noticing it in different ways since they were quite small.
Leo, now eight, was three and a half years old when his sister, Annie, entered our lives. He quickly determined that whoever she was, he definitely did not like her. (Fortunately, he came to love her in time.) On the third night, at bedtime, he was quiet for a while. Then he said, “Mommy, thank you for my sister who’s brown like me.” That was the first nice thing he ever said about her. Around the same time, he turned to me while coloring one day and said, “Mommy? Why do they call people black and white? People aren’t black,” holding up the black crayon, “and they aren’t white either. People are . . . pink! And brown!” He was right. From that moment, the world’s people were classified as either pink (Mommy and Daddy) or brown (Leo and Annie). Sometimes we would hold our arms next to each other and exclaim at how different we looked. But when we turned our hands palm up, they were all the same color! Different . . . same!
I think it’s probably easier for our kids, coming to us as infants and growing up among us, to adjust to the concept of being visually different almost everywhere they go. Still, while I could forget all about it for long stretches of time, it’s not so clear they could. When we attended our first Navrati dance, they excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy! You’re the only pink person here!” Annie recently asked me, as cool as can be, “Mommy, when I get my next mommy, can I have a brown one?” Naturally, I informed her that, pink though I may be, I am her terminal mommy!
Despite my best efforts, Leo expressed negative feelings about being brown for a couple of years upon entering school. He still occasionally tries to blame his brownness for difficult relationships, and he recently said that his second grade teacher thinks he’s special because “I’m the only brown one.” Could it be true?
In my great-grandmother’s generation, there were only two kinds of people. To the day she died, she referred to my children as “Chrissie’s n-word babies” when someone reminded her of them. I had to stop sending her Christmas cards with photos because this epithet inflamed my grandmother who had long since found pleasure in the little brown faces. Move five generations forward and you hit my children.
A few years ago, I became aware that Leo had already learned very fine distinctions between different kinds of brown people. One evening, we were watching educational programming (Wheel of Fortune) and I pointed out a new contestant who was a brown, straight-haired woman. I remarked that she looked Asian Indian. He threw her a glance and said, “Nah, Mom, she’s not Indian. She’s Puerto Rican.” Sure enough, a closeup of her name tag revealed the name “Mercedes.”
Last year in first grade, Leo was occasionally called “Leroy n-word” on his school bus. Now, this was a special education bus and a hard-to-control bunch at the best of times. I was in a dilemma, and I chose the “school of hard knocks” approach to the problem. I told him that although it was hard now, he should practice his ignoring skills when people said things like that. I couldn’t be in his coat pocket all the time and even if their parents, as a result of my complaint, yelled at the kids, they would probably just whisper it so the bus driver wouldn’t hear.
After what happened that summer, I really wonder if that was the right approach. At the time, I wasn’t sure what else I should or could do. Now I have a folder containing materials presented at the 1995 NACAC conference, which a friend brought back for me in the nick of time. The materials included two superb handouts: The Guidelines for Assertive Expression When Dealing With Racist Remarks and Responding to Racism.
While better equipped for the next incident, I still wonder why this had to happen to us. It’s probably no accident that we were in the middle of the showy and acrimonious O.J. Simpson trial, with the n-word bandied over the airwaves on a daily basis. One of the cops who showed up to take the report at our house tried to console me by saying, “Oh, it was probably just some kid.” I definitely don’t feel better hearing that. Better some dried up, old Klansman than a kid from the next street over.
Fortunately, life is pretty correct around here. I truly believe that there are correct feelings behind correct behavior most of the time. But there are still some nasty currents seething under the surface.
In other words, color counts; just ask my kids.