I’ve been holding my breath and waiting for when, not if, my oldest would have her first racialized experience. I always figured that it would happen when she was in kindergarten, maybe first grade if we were “lucky.”
I remember becoming aware of racism in kindergarten myself when I saw the Klan on a talk show. In fact, the n-word was one of the first words I learned how to read. The first time someone called me the n-word was in first grade.
Even after having those experiences, I didn’t think I would have to address racial insensitivity with my child’s teacher and school administrators while she was still in preschool.
I’ve heard of the preschool-to-prison pipeline, and I am well aware of the biases that kids of color, especially black and black biracial kids, experience in the classroom. The culture and complexion of my daughter’s preschool is overwhelmingly white, and so I have been on guard. Up until a few weeks ago, nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Every day for nearly two weeks Alex made sure to remind me about the yearly “Mommy’s Day” that her preschool was having. The event had been saved in my phone and written in my planner since the beginning of school, but Alex, in true 4-year-old fashion, labored under the impression that she alone was keeping me from forgetting about our special day.
When I arrived at the school that afternoon, I received a sheet of paper that gave an overview of the day’s activities: Go to your child’s classroom, do a cute little craft with your child’s thumbprint on a ceramic tile, decorate a sugar-filled cookie with sugar-infused frosting and pure sugar sprinkles, and then go home with your child (who has had zero minutes of nap and 100,000 grams of sugar in their system) and try to cope until bedtime.
When I walked into Alex’s classroom, she ran to me and gave me a big hug. I smiled as she led her classmates in the performance of one of their daily activities. Miss Karen, the teacher, told the children it was time to show off the portraits they had each done of their moms.
I was not expecting photorealism from my 4-year-old’s crayon drawing of me, but I was surprised that she managed to get my hair and eye color right but not my skin color.
Alex took my hand and dragged me to where her portrait was hanging. “Mommy, I drew your curly black hair,” she said proudly. She had done a wonderful job of giving me a big black Afro and coloring my brown eyes.
“You did such a good job coloring my hair and eyes,” I said.
But there was something about her portrait that was off. I was not expecting photorealism from my 4-year-old’s crayon drawing of me, but I was surprised that she managed to get my hair and eye color right but not my skin color. She had rendered my face in the same peach color that her white classmates had colored their mommies.
I should say here that I was not at all upset or offended that my child had colored me peach. But my gut kept telling me something wasn’t right.
Less than a week before, Alex had told my mom that she loved my dark brown skin. My child knows her colors and she knows what color I am, yet she colored my skin inaccurately. I didn’t want to read too much into it, but I noticed that Alex’s portrait was very similar to the other portraits. The head, neck and shoulders were clearly from a template. Most of the other mommies were depicted wearing a purple shirt, and some of the children had drawn necklaces, similar to the one I was wearing in Alex’s portrait of me.
I started to wonder if, perhaps, the children were instructed to follow a template and if that template presumed whiteness.
After the day was over, Alex and I walked hand in hand to our car. “You made such a nice portrait of Mommy,” I began. “I was wondering why you didn’t color my skin brown.”
“I had to follow the teacher’s instructions,” she said. “But I could color the hair any way I wanted, so I did black.”
When Alex told me she’d had to follow the teacher’s instructions, I felt even more uneasy, but I tried to put on my best face because I didn’t want her to think she had done something wrong.
“Oh,” I said. “So did you choose what color to make the skin?”
“Miss Karen said that we had to use the flesh crayon, so that’s what I did.”
“Oh. So why didn’t you pick brown?”
“Because I didn’t think that it was something Miss Karen would want me to do.”
“Oh. So what color was it that you used?”
I wasn’t trying to interrogate my child, or make her feel bad for her artwork, but I wanted to make sure I was clear on how she understood the teacher’s instructions, because I found what she was telling me to be problematic.
I talked to my husband, my sister and a couple of friends with kids Alex’s age. I also talked to my mom, who has a Ph.D. in the area of multicultural education and has a good grasp on identity development in children. In chorus they said, “That’s not OK.”
I sent a handwritten letter to Miss Karen and emailed the program director about what had happened. I requested a meeting so my husband and I could more fully express our concerns. I received a call from the school early the next morning asking if we could come in to meet.
I admit I went into the meeting with low expectations. I have had these types of discussions with the administration at a predominantly white institution, and I know that such meetings are often long on platitudes about valuing diversity but short on institutional change.
The presence of black and brown bodies doesn’t automatically make a space diverse.
We met with Alex’s teacher and two other administrators. I shared what had happened and voiced my concerns about how the activity was conducted. I explained how the language that Miss Karen used confused Alex and resulted in the erasure of a fundamental part of my being and caused my child to think she would get in trouble for accurately representing me.
To be honest, my goal in this situation wasn’t to fight for cultural change in the institution; I simply want my child to feel like she has the ability to adequately self-represent and to draw the different shades of skin in our interracial family without white normativity telling her it is aberrant.
As expected, we received profuse apologies and declarations of the school’s commitment to valuing diversity. However, several things happened that I didn’t expect:
They listened to our concerns without defensiveness.
They trusted me to narrate my lived experience.
They trusted Alex to be able to narrate her lived experience (she wasn’t in the meeting, but I shared what she had told me).
They didn’t minimize the incident or trivialize our concerns.
They recognized where they failed to serve my child’s needs, and articulated what they would do to change.
I felt good about the outcome of the meeting. But I know that a single complaint won’t impact the white normativity that permeates the school’s culture. I’m not expecting the preschool to become super “woke,” but I am happy that they are open to purchasing multicultural art supplies so the students can accurately represent themselves and those in the world around them.
It is important that institutions, especially those that are white-run and white-cultured, examine the ways in which they are promoting white normativity. The presence of black and brown bodies doesn’t automatically make a space diverse. True diversity comes when people’s diverse cultures and perspectives are also welcome, and when those perspectives are welcome to challenge the status quo.
As people of color interact with predominantly white institutions, we shouldn’t accept whiteness as normative. We shouldn’t have to assimilate in order to belong. When we treat whiteness as normative and our cultures and ways as aberrant, we are bolstering white supremacy and teaching those around us, especially our children, that there is something wrong with us.
I realize that pushing back against white normativity is an uphill battle. Multicultural art supplies aren’t going to solve every problem. Representation doesn’t solve every problem. Parent-teacher conferences aren’t going to solve every problem.
But my daughters will know that they can carry their blackness into every space and every place without reservation.
Ally Henny is a full-time wife, mother and student. Her part-time “side hustle” is writing and speaking on issues of race, faith and culture. She is pursuing her Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary with an emphasis in race, cultural identity and reconciliation. She has a passion for racial healing and justice and seeks to heal our nation’s racial divide through truth-telling, education and compassion.
Names in this story have been changed.