Fighting the Shadows: Learning and Fearing Other
By Jody Gerbig
Juvenile male birds have been attacking my windows recently, or rather they have been attacking their own reflections in the windows. Feeling threatened, they flutter into and peck at the clear panes until are stunned and fall to the ground. Every afternoon I hear the thump, thump of their heads hitting and feel an urgency to do something about it, more something than leaning stuffed-animal scarecrows against the sills.
At the advice of some friends, I purchased black-sparrow silhouettes and stuck them to the outsides—decoys which would ward off the protective juveniles. But they didn’t work. The birds still attacked, still fluttered, not at all frightened by the black birds now impeding my view of the fall foliage surrounding us.
“The bad birdies aren’t keeping them away,” my two-year-old daughter said of the silhouettes one morning, watching a young cardinal bang his head against the glass.
“Bad birdie? Why do you say that?”
“It’s black. It’s a bad birdie.”
“Oh, no, honey,” I said anxiously, suddenly aware of the importance of every parenting moment.
On some level, I appreciated my daughter’s nascent insight into symbolism. The color black is presented in countless stories (especially Disney movies and fairy tales about witches) as a symbol of evil. Black’s association with evil makes sense: darkness means that we cannot see, which means we cannot protect ourselves from unknown predators potentially lurking in the shadows; therefore, darkness is scary, ominous. Black is also what we see when we shut our eyes or become unconscious, when we lack control. The recognition of black as foreboding is archetypal, and therefore, supposedly, primordial, meaning we know its meanings inherently, suggesting that no one had taught my daughter about black at all. She had simply recognized the concept already existing in the world.
This kind of association might seem harmless, and in many ways intuitive. In fact, several socially aware online acquaintances told me “not to worry,” that she “is only two!” However, I knew from prior reading that cultural and racial bias develops as young as six months, and that social preferences can form as young as three years. My daughter was at the age when she would begin making deductive conclusions about the world, such as, “The witch is bad, and the witch wears black; therefore, black is bad.” When she inevitably hears a person referred to as “black” (even if she had previously assumed his skin was not black at all, but brown, or purple, or “human colored”), she may also form the deduction, “Black is bad, and he was called ‘black’; therefore, he is bad.”
Not that I have reason to think she has made this leap yet. As a two-year-old, she treats everyone as a potential friend, waving wildly and flirting with the African-American behind us in the grocery store or asking the little Middle-eastern girl on the playground to play with her. Still, she has already applied the color symbolism to a real living thing, the bird. What next? A child? I knew such categorical thinking could become problematic if I and the world ignored it. I knew I shouldn’t just brush off the fact that my child assumes a bird is bad because it’s black—that she often wants to shoo black birds in our yard away because they are “bad.”
The other day, a man walking his dogs in my neighborhood, probably enjoying the quiet of the walk and the safety of his surroundings, was stopped by another man, who said to him, “I don’t trust black people with dogs.” The man with the dogs was rightfully distraught by the comment, surprised, even, considering how normally inclusive our community tends to be. Not surprisingly, the community rallied behind him, sending him supportive messages, posting our concerns about racism in a community forum, even making yard signs about equality. We all agreed that such bigotry had no place in our otherwise peaceful neighborhood and couldn’t believe it had been lurking in its corners, only to emerge, like an angry bird, banging its head into our windows.
But my two-year-old daughter can’t read yard signs.
“Sweetie, black isn’t always bad,” I told my daughter. “Not with people or animals. In real life, a black bird isn’t bad. He’s just a bird.”
“Okay, the just birdie isn’t chasing the other birds away,” my daughter said. I smiled, her innocence so simple, so heartening, so full of potential for both good and bad.
I don’t feel qualified to write about race and racism, much less teach my toddler-aged children about it. But as parents we are forced to address race regardless of our expertise, just as we must address topics like death, religion, and sharing. I knew this one-time conversation wouldn’t suffice, just as I knew the yard signs all over my community would not be enough. Racial bias develops early, usually when we assume it is not taking root, in the most innocent of the young whom we underestimate, saying simply, “I wouldn’t worry. She’s only two. Two-year-olds think in binaries.”
I don’t know what my daughter will become, whom she will love, fear, loathe. But I do want her aware of the details in life and people—the differences that make us impossible to categorize so easily as “black” or “white.” This Christmas, I will give books about skin and race and dolls of color. We will sit in the afternoon sunlight, read Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, and talk about head scarves, eye shapes, and what it means to be a “freedom fighter.” We will look up videos of Misty Copeland dancing, and my daughters will ask, “Is she a princess?” I will say, “Kind of. Isn’t she beautiful?” And I will hope that my neighbor, who saw only a bad black man with scary dogs, will notice all our well-meaning signs and realize he’s been attacking a shadow, a perceived threat that doesn’t exist at all.
I live in Columbus, Ohio, with my husband, triplet toddlers, and dog. My recent work appears in Yellowbrick.me, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and LITRO Magazine.