“That lady has a baby in her belly!” Max exclaims, pointing at the building employee walking by.
I’m 14-years-old, volunteering at a camp with my best friend. We are sitting with 4-year-old Max, whose mom is late to pick him up. My friend and I meet eyes and swallow our uncomfortable grins in response to how awkward the situation is. The lady isn’t pregnant, she’s in a larger body.
“Shhh, no she doesn’t, Max,” the camp director says. She laughs out of her own discomfort and everyone moves on.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this with regard to many differences we recognize in people. One of my graduate school professors told this story that, to this day, has never left my mind. He was teaching Multicultural Issues, a core class for my degree. He explained how so often, at the grocery store, mall, or other public place, a child will make an observation, and, as many children do, he or she will announce it as loudly as possible: “Mommy, that man is BLACK!!”
And what does the parent usually say in response?
“Shhh, don’t say that!” … and then pushes the shopping cart away as quickly as possible to escape the now uncomfortable situation.
“Why do we shush them?” my professor asked us. “What do we teach them by shushing them in response to them noticing a difference?”
I think a light bulb may have literally appeared above my head.
I hadn’t realized how – unfortunately – normal it is to respond in that way to that situation. I hate to admit it, but, prior to this professor’s lecture, I may not have thought twice if I saw someone shushing their child for announcing that someone was black. Or a minority in any other way. Or maybe-pregnant. We as a society struggle to accept differences. I think we have somehow been trained to combat racism by being colorblind AKA not acknowledging differences, when in reality, that is not effective at all.
Shushing a child – or anyone – in a situation like this teaches them that what they observed (because truly, that’s all they did: observe) is shameful. Shhh, skin color is private, so don’t announce it! Shhh, it’s bad to be in a larger body, keep that to yourself! And in addition to that – imagine how it makes the observed person feel! Should they feel bad for the way they look?
Imagine what it would be like to normalize – or celebrate – these difference.
“You’re right, honey, that man is black. People have all kinds of different skin colors!”
“Actually, Max, that woman is not pregnant. People come in all shapes and sizes.”
These responses acknowledge differences in a non-shaming way (especially because shame is not warranted in this situation).
I’ve done a mindfulness activity with some of the kids I see in which I ask them to describe different celebrities using only facts (e.g. his shirt is blue, she has glasses), rather than judgments (e.g. she is pretty, he has a good singing voice). More than once, when describing President Obama, someone has said, “Not to be racist, but he is black.”
But that isn’t racist! It is true! I wish there were more clarity in our society around when something is racist versus when it is a simple observation, an adjective. (This, of course, is not the fault of the kid I am working with. It is a product of this lack of clarity.)
The same summer that I took that Multicultural Issues class, I remember reading to a group of 3 & 4-year-old children at another camp where I worked. The book featured children of different ethnicities. One of the black children in the group sat up really tall, smiled the widest grin I’d ever seen, pointed to the book, and said “Hey! He has black skin and so do I!!”
Some of the other counselors instantly appeared very uncomfortable, unsure of how to manage the situation.
… But nothing needed to be managed! It was the coolest, most progressive thing I have seen among preschoolers. All of the kids got involved. One girl looked at him and pointed to her arm, “I have white skin!” Another: “And mine is brown!” Suddenly the discomfort faded from my co-counselors’ faces. These children were so much more comfortable with differences than many adults!
This can be applied to so many other things – race, physical ability, sexual orientation, the list goes on. At some point in history, people of color have been (and sadly, far too often still are) marginalized and oppressed. The same is true for those with disabilities. And for people of different body sizes.
While going up to someone and calling them ‘fat’ is not necessarily the nicest thing given the way our society views issues of weight, when a child makes a comment about body size, they likely are not saying it with the same judgment that we as adults have developed over time.
I realize that with body image, we as a society are not there yet. Unfortunately, if someone were to say, “That lady is fat!” – even a child – the person they were describing would likely be offended. ‘Fat’ is still a word we use as an insult, in some ways similarly to when we used to use other words that I will not dignify here by listing them (however if you’re reading this and still using those words, please remember that there are so many other words that you can use to express yourself and your feelings). Perhaps someday, as I have written in a previous blog, we will be able to accept that ‘fat’ is just an adjective just like skinny, black, white, tall. It is an adjective that does describe some people, and does not have to be a negative thing. Truly, the only negative thing about it is the other adjectives (lazy, bad, less than) with which we, unfortunately, have come to associate it. (I could write an entire separate post about this.)
Differences are normal. They make us who we are, and they make us unique. Sometimes, they tell a story. We have the ability to make sure every new generation knows and appreciates that. Let’s embrace differences with the excitement of a child, and not make differences taboo.