I was looking at Eryn in the rearview mirror, when she suddenly took her fingers and slanted her eyes. We were singing “Old MacDonald” while driving to school and her shocking non sequitur gesture was horribly out of place. Like a game of “one of these things is not like the other” in the Twilight Zone: Cheerios, children’s rhymes and creeping racism.
Stunned into silence, she spoke before I could even think about what to say: “Why did he do that mommy?” — and that’s when, much to my relief, I knew my little girl wasn’t trading racist jokes with her friends during recess.
While watching coverage of the 2012 Olympics this past August, a one-minute segment was aired recapping the career of Brazilian swimmer Cesar Cielo — and showed video footage when he slanted his eyes for the cameras after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It’s amazing that a two second scene from two months ago made such a lasting impression on her. And makes me wonder what the daily exposure to subtle racism, or skin colour and body preference is doing to form her worldview.
So I told her what he did was wrong and that it’s not something we should do. It’s not a joke. It’s not funny. What he did was rude and racist. Now, Eryn knows what rude means. She knows it’s rude to spit half chewed carrots and hummus onto the floor. She knows it’s rude to ignore her Opa. She knows it’s rude to put her feet on Ivy’s head. But she has no idea what racist means.
We simply haven’t discussed it yet. In appropriate, pre-school ways we’ve talked about different religious traditions, gender stereotypes and diversity in body types and abilities, and how these differences don’t make one better than another. But the appropriate teaching moment on Racism 101 hasn’t come up before.
Perhaps it’s because she’s never questioned our fantastically blended family. Or because she has a wildly diverse set of friends and counts Kenyan, Chinese and Latin American folktales among her favourite books. But I’ve always known that living diversity won’t help her understand the causes of racism or even help her avoid participating in it — intentionally or unintentionally.
And maybe we haven’t discussed it in part, because I’ve wanted to shield her for just a bit longer. Because eventually, I know she’s going to be dealing with hatred against her. Or me. Or her Baba. Or her religion.
As a Muslim woman with an inter racial family, she has to learn how to identify hate and announce that it makes her uncomfortable, and know when it’s appropriate to call someone out on their prejudices, how not to be hateful against others, and how best to arm herself against those who may attack her.
She’s already overheard people asking what she’s mixed with. And people LOVE commenting on the colour of her skin — wondering in one breath if it’s natural or does she spend too much time in the sun. You know, because she’s too dark. Sometimes she’s a beautiful, rich colour and sometimes an “exotic beauty” — as she was recently labeled by a school teacher. People ask if I’m going to put her in hijab — as if I have any say in the matter. As if it’s going to be a bad thing.
Eryn is only three, and already strangers and people in positions of authority are judging, categorizing and othering her.
So I need to teach her to stand up for what’s right and to speak out against hatred and prejudice. Because unless the world radically changes, she will experience racism and Islamophobia. Even though she’s a fourth generation Canadian, she will be told to “go back home.” She will be judged on the colour of her skin — being too dark for some and too light for others. And if she’s not judged on the colour of her skin, she will certainly be judged on her name. Her very Muslim, Indian sounding name.
The Qur’an tells us:
“O people! Behold, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes to that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” [Qur'an 49:13]
Eryn is growing up in an amazingly diverse and small world. Her generation has a mind-blowing opportunity to really “come to know one another.” Twitter, blogs and viral K-pop videos will open her mind to the lived experience of the world.
But that alone won’t end racism. Ignoring racist actions, speech, jokes, children’s rhymes and games helps perpetuate hatred and deems it okay for others to use. I hope and pray that I’m successful in teaching her that to be Divinely conscious — being noble in the sight of God — means knowing others. And this means learning about people’s struggles and achievements — and that the best way to learn is to work together by promoting goodness, beauty and justice.