Mama, They’re not like us
By Paget Norton
We’re in the girls’ locker room at the YMCA. I feel uncomfortable. My five-year old son is staring at the bottom of a ten-ish year old girl standing close to us. At his height, his nose is pretty much ass-level to most older kids and adults, so he has developed a fascination for butts. At the same time, I want to be respectful and continually call his attention back to me. The locker room is fairly quiet, and I don’t feel up for getting into a conversation about staring at that moment.
My son turns to me and says, “Mama, they’re not like us.” He’s referring to the girl he’s been staring at and her mother. While the locker room is filled with adults and kids of all colors, these two are the darkest ones there. I flush.
“What are you talking about?” I say. “We’re all humans.” The locker room is quiet, equipped with acoustically perfect tiles: easy to clean, easy to magnify sound. His tinny voice fills the air. I try to brush it off but inside I’m thinking, Where do these comments come from? They’re not from me. Not from my husband.
“No, Mama. They’re not humans like us.” I want to die. No one talks. I feel all of my communications tools gone. Whatever I have learned about racism, allies, whatever I have learned about anything. Gone.
I look at the girl’s mother, hoping to catch her eye and apologize. She is in the throes of getting her daughter ready or ignoring me, or tired of being subject of this conversation.
I shove my son’s swim trunks into his hands and tell him to go dry them out. I shove our stuff into our bags. I shove my feet into my shoes, just hoping to go go go. Finally we are ready and leaving.
Outside the YMCA, I find my breath.
“What did you mean, that the girl and her mother weren’t like us?”
“Her bottom was so smooth.” I realize he’s still fixated there. “And their skin is different.”
“Darker,” I say.
“Yes.” He shrugs it off.
“When you said they’re not human like us, you meant their skin is just a different color?”
And I am reminded of my own baggage around race. I’ve spent years working on unwind the racism of being “colorblind.” In truth, we notice difference. All humans do. All babies do. In fact, they notice contrasts in black and white first. Early on, they can differentiate amongst races. It’s what we do with that difference which creates oppression and racism. It’s living under a system that wants to whitewash as opposed to recognize the strengths of our differences (a mosaic culture, which recognizes and honors differences, something like Canada has). And so I head back into these conversations with my son.
- I lean into the uncomfortable. I make mistakes. I forget my tools. I return back to the discomfort.
- I resist the impulse to lecture and get curious instead. By asking my son questions, I’m able to figure out what he’s actually noticing instead of projecting my own history and racism on to him.
- I notice differences. So does my son. We talk about it, but we don’t judge it.
- I don’t shy away from the difficult conversations. We talk about race. We talk about privilege. We talk about who police officers pull over.
- I continue to read and learn. In this awesome and practical article about racism, I learned about how I describe people around me – to myself and to my son. Is race a defining factor? Is it defining when I speak of white people? I observe myself and make changes.
- I look at the privilege I have and how I can be an ally. Who is safe? How can I be an ally and teach my son to be one? How do I stand up for injustice?
And then I’m reminded of a time a few months ago when we were in a cafe. My son turned to me and a white guy we were sitting next to.
“Look at those guys over there.” He nods to two black guys at a table. “Do you know how I know they’re friends?”
The breath sticks in my throat.
“How?” I say.
“Because they’re sitting across from each other, talking.”
I heave a sigh of relief.
It is a continual reminder that I must face more of my own baggage. Whatever I bring to the table. My own failings. The way I pick myself up off the ground and how I return to these conversations. My discomfort. My son’s innocent curiosity. My knowledge and privilege. His privilege, naivete, and learning. It is humbling, and it is ongoing.
Paget Norton is the mother of a 6 year-old spark of a son. When she’s not teaching, rock climbing, and cultivating relationships, she enjoys reflecting on this multi-layered complexity we call “parenting” on her blog (www.pagetnorton.com), Facebook page, and Twitter (@pagetn). She’s been published in Elephant Journal, The Good Men Project, and Parent.co amongst others.