Two years ago my Black daughter had to think about what topic she wanted to work on for her Year 6 (Y6) exhibition. Very exciting times for her as she approached the ultimate project that her years in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) were leading her to. Finally, she was leaving behind PYP and moving up to the Middle Years Programme (MYP), she was really looking forward to all the excitement ahead. For weeks she kept considering and mentioning all sorts of topics… the pay gap between women and men, stereotyped jobs based on gender, safe countries to travel based on gender,etc… All very interesting but either someone else was doing something similar or they were not really that convincing for her.
One day, as I was driving around, I had an idea for her exhibition: Peanuts allergy! She suffers from this terrible, limiting and dangerous allergy. Despite the fact that our school is a nut-free environment, we find many families do not respect this sacred rule. Sad to see how little we care when something does not affect us personally.
Anyway, as my daughter and I sat in the car after school, I said to her…
“Sweetheart, I think I might just have the right idea for your project. Let’s see if you can guess it:
- It is something that affects you personally
- It is something that people don’t take seriously despite the fact it’s really dangerous
- It is something that makes you sick and can kill you
- It is something you know better than anyone else in your school
- It is something you could use to educate your peers and adults who should know better but they choose not to.”
She was sitting in the back of the car and I was watching her expression through the rearview mirror as she listened carefully to my excitement. She then looked at me and said…
“Mom, I know what it is. It is racism because it is the only thing that makes us sick and kills people like me plus all the other things you said. Did I get it right?”
Suddenly I felt stupid and very small, I felt like the sky and everything with it had just fallen on me. I felt like a useless mother…. I had been given the privilege of being the mother to this amazing child and I felt like I had just titanically failed her. How could I?
“No sweetheart, it was not racism but peanuts allergy….and I feel just so very sorry right now that I do not know what to say other than I am truly truly sorry,” was the only thing I could bring myself to say, fighting very hard the urgent need to cry.
“It’s OK mom. You are a white mom, a very nice one, but a white one but I love you anyway.”
That sentence drilled my ears with an unstoppable force. At that moment it came to me for real that no matter what I did or said…I was always going to be a white mother, a white person who would never really understand what is to be a person of colour (POC) or what racism really does to you. My daughter knew and knew all along. For 20 years I had read about it but it never really sank in me.
Her passion was gymnastics so she decided to do “Racism in gymnastics”. At the age of 11 she immersed herself in a tough topic all on her own. Not a single one of her mentors was a POC. Nobody at school seemed to notice. So emotionally speaking she did this on her own. I suggested to contact the school but she did not want me to. “They are white, mom, they don`t get it,” tends to be one of her favorite sentences for sometime now. She contacted her idol, Simone Biles, and received a reply encouraging her to carry on with gymnastics. My daughter was over the moon.
Exhibition day came and she performed like a true champion. A few mothers of color approached me to congratulate me and tell me how brave and confident my daughter was to choose a beast of an issue like racism as a topic for her exhibition at such a young age. They were very impressed with her.
“ Wow, just wow”, said a Congolese mom.
“ She is going to places,” one Kenyan mom said.
I walked away that day, as I do every single day of my life since I have been the mother of this amazing little person, with an overwhelming sense of pride and responsibility towards her. I never forget that I am a white person and I would never fully understand what it is like not to be but I am totally committed to educating myself to be my daughter’s ally. I owe it to her, to every single POC I care about but mostly to myself. I could not look at myself in the mirror knowing that I don’t do all I can, every single day of my life, to make sure our world is a safe place for all.
I will never understand but I stand.