Once upon a time, in the Dark Filterless Ages, before people carried dual-camera 12 megapixel computers in their pockets...
...it was a Special Occasion to get a family photo taken at a department store.
Soon after the turn of the millenium, I chose to capture the moment with my young son and husband at Sears.
Carpeted half-wall? Check. Marble pull-down screen background? Check. Stiff pose? Check. Forced smile? Check.
Pretty much every family photo back then could make it into Awkward Family Photos.
The photographer took a few photos, then stopped and approached me with a cryptically amused expression.
Maybe she wanted a pose change? Or she was coming closer to get my kiddo to smile?
Nope, she addressed me:
“You might want to open your eyes more. I can’t really see them.”
Inward cringing. “Ummm….What do you mean?”
I knew this probably wasn’t headed somewhere good, but I needed to check.
“Well, why are you going all squinty when you smile?” she asked, demonstrating what my face looked like to her when I smile.
“That’s just the way my face is.” I replied flatly, and returned to the weird carpeted wall, deflated, resigned and now even more self-conscious.
The photographer meant no harm.
She wasn’t trying to say something rude.
She just wanted me to be happy with the photos, and she thought I didn’t know what I looked like.
The photos were taken; we have Every Single Detail captured for posterity (leave no blemish undocumented! Thank you, harsh, unnatural lighting). No big deal, really.
But the result of interactions like this - whether it's complimenting me on my English, asking me "what I am" or where I'm "really" from, or "just curious" about my ethnicity within the first minute of meeting me - is that I end up feeling not normal.
Different. Not fully accepted. “Other."
The thing is, no matter what your race, everyone has felt “other” at some point in their lives.
You can even feel “other” in your own family. I believe it’s a universal human feeling.
It’s just that some kinds of “otherness” are easier to hide.
If you have a physical perceived difference, you can't choose when to reveal the "otherness."
And even though I’ve personally experienced “otherness", I myself have made the mistake of unintentionally imposing it.
When I was in grade school, it was “egg roll eyes” - or that “Chinese, Japanese, Korean” chant with actions.
But kids aren’t being mean either. They are trying to understand the world.
We specifically teach kids to categorize from a young age. Colors, objects, animals. Sometimes things are tough to categorize (hello, platypus).
But humans are really, really good at coming up with systems of categorization - because it’s a survival tool.
Evolutionarily speaking, categorizing helps keep people safe: “This is a snake, and I need to be careful to avoid an untimely and painful death.”
Or, “This is a hose, and I can pick it up.” More on this here.
Categorizing makes life more convenient.
Take apples - you know what kind you like to eat whole, but it’s probably a different kind than what you’d choose to make a pie. Apples are predictable. You can tell what is inside the apple by looking at the outside.
But humans are not apples.
How do we teach our kids not to categorize humans?
Have you heard of everyday diversity?
It’s the idea that we need stories about all kinds of people - of various races, sexual orientations, differently abled - just being people.
There were very few books with characters that the typical kid of color could see themselves reflected in (Rudine Sims Bishop’s “mirror”).
Would I have been able to accept my racial identity more easily if I had seen people of Asian descent in picture or chapter books as a child?
My guess is that, growing up with mostly White people, I still would have longed for blue eyes and blond hair.
But the sting of being “other” might have hurt less - seeing characters with racial differences in print bestows value.
Find books for your kids that are windows and doors into other worlds, and some of those will be mirrors.
Stories that reflect "our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience" (read Rudine Sims Bishop's full text here).
Stories with diverse casts, settings and experiences help everyone. We are all susceptible to The Danger of a Single Story.
Talk with your kids about the differences they (already!) notice.
In fact, Audre Lorde teaches that “it’s not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Plus, hard conversations about differences can help your kiddo feel safe to enter into spots where they feel "other."
Of course, while race doesn’t have a genetic basis, race and racism are certainly very real, and affect pretty much every aspect of a person’s life.
Both are true: We are different, we are the same.
To help kids hold both truths, play the “Same, same, different” game.
Whether you use this book as a model or not, start with you and your child as the “characters”.
Find two things - physical attributes, personality traits or interests - that are the same between the two of you, and one that is different. Then branch out to other people in your lives - neighbors, friends, even (and especially) characters from books or shows.
Phew! Being human is complicated. Going to the library is not.
Here at DPPL, we have way more windows, doors and mirrors than the hardware store. And I guarantee we have better prices.
Books with everyday diversity
Stop by our 2nd floor desk and ask! Every librarian has their favorites. Here are a few to get you started:
Check out Shelley Rotner's books
While her Fuse8 productions blog doesn't specifically focus on diversity, Betsy Bird reviews a ton of current, diverse titles
A few books to explore race and discrimination
Check out this title to explore the "why" behind different shades of skin.
Try Amazing Grace to help kids see how the single story can play out.
Let's Talk about Race is an excellent conversation starter.
The Parker Inheritance is a great mystery that compares the Civil Rights time period to modern day.
Have you read Front Desk yet?
New Kid just won the Newbery Award!
If you're looking for a book for yourself, try this excellent read.