Recently, 2-year-old Debbie has gotten very interested in skin color. Standing at the bathroom mirror, she’s liable to make the declaration, “I am brown!!!” This is used followed by observations about her parents: “Daddy, you are brown, too! Mommy, are you white? I think you’re white! Are you sure?”
We never told Debbie that she is “brown” or that I’m “white.” To avoid pinning labels on her that she didn’t need or want, when she initially asked, “What color is Debbie Joy? What color is Daddy? What color is Mommy?” we responded, “What do you think?” She’s always been very certain she was “brown! Yay, Debbie Joy!” but she was very tentative in ascribing a color to me. While she told us that she and Will were “brown,” she then announced, “Mommy, your name is Susannah!” instead of telling us what color I am. Then, she suggested that my whiteness was “an accident, a mistake?” to which I replied that God doesn’t make mistakes when he’s making people. Finally, she concluded, “I think you’re white, Mommy!” but qualified, “It’s okay, Mommy. One day you be brown like Debbie Joy.”
I may be reading too much into her toddler-speak, but it seemed like she was reluctant to label my color because she didn’t want to acknowledge any difference between her and myself. Over the course of her life, she has identified primarily with me. Much of her play imitates the housework and childcare that I do daily. I think she was hesitant to introduce language to describe me that introduced any sense of gap, even if just semantic, between us.
To be honest, I’ve felt much the same way. Sometimes being the white mother of a brown child feels like a daunting task. There’s so much that Will and I have to teach our daughter of which I have no personal experience. How am I supposed to explain to her how to act if/when she gets pulled over by the police to increase the odds she’ll survive the encounter? How am I am supposed to tell her what to do if someone yells the N-word at her from a car window? Truth is, I can only teach her, in so far as I know, how to be a good person, fair, compassionate, brave, wise, and strong. There are lessons that others will have teach her from their experience. Sometimes, that makes me feel a little inadequate.
Yesterday, we took a family trip to Bicentennial Park in downtown Nashville, where in the summer there’s a lovely splash pad where children shriek and romp. While we were there, a pre-teen girl approached Debbie. “You mixed?” she asked Debbie, holding out her arm beside Debbie’s to compare their brown skin tones. “YOU’RE BROWN LIKE ME!” Debbie yelled, delighted. She was so excited to have a “big friend” who shared her skin color. The two girls played together for almost an hour. Debbie’s friend taught her how to jump clean through the fountains without getting scared.
This beautiful interaction reminded me the importance of finding mentors for Debbie, big sisters, really, who can model for her life as a woman of color, who can teach her the lessons where I will certainly fall far short.
And yet the interaction also reminded me that I don’t have to be afraid of being “found out” as a fraudulent mother for her because I am white. At one point when the girls were playing together, Debbie slipped on the slick pavement and hit her head, hard. “MOMMY!!!” she yelled, and I came to her rescue. Through God’s grace and mercy, he has seen fit to make me mother to children of a different skin color than my own, and I believe that, in spite of my personal limitations, I am enough for the path that is ahead of us.