This article was originally published on Mama Knows It All.
For two years since we moved to Oakland, Ayva was the only Black girl in her school. What her preschool lacked in diversity, they made up for in awareness, and I was never once concerned that Ayva might be treated differently because of her race. There was only one instance where Ayva coveted a trait from one of her classmates (the time she wished she had gold hair), but other than that she was confident and comfortable with herself. From the parents to the children and the staff, our sweet little school was a special place, and I cherish the time Ayva was able to spend there.
Of course, after the easy two years we had at preschool, it wasn’t even two weeks into kindergarten when Ayva came to me with a realization. “Mom”, she said, “Nina and I are the only two Black persons in the whole school.” Now, it’s true that of the 32 kindergarten students, Ayva and Nina are the only Black girls, but the school goes through the 8th grade. There are plenty more African-American students in the upper grades, not to mention Asian, Hispanic, and other races. I calmly explained that to Ayva and made a mental note to point folks out to my observant child when I saw them. When we do see other brown children, parents or teachers during school drop-off or pick-up, she gets really excited. It’s like “Spot The Black Folks” is her favorite new game!
Now that Ayva’s aware of her ethnicity and recognizing the ways that she’s different than so many of her classmates, my job is to help her to feel comfortable in her skin. As much as I tell her that standing out is a good thing, I remember how much I wanted to just fit in when I was a kid. As we plant and nurture seeds of confidence and pride in her now, I look forward to really seeing them blossom as she gets older, when self-identity becomes even more important. Here are a few things you can do if you want to help your child fit in without losing what makes them special:
Talk About The Way People Are Different
I know some folks think it’s taboo to point out differences, but it’s actually a good thing that we’re not all the same. Ayva, being 5 and self-centered, thinks she is the most unique child in the class, but it’s not true. Every single one of her classmates has something that makes them special, from the little girl who is super short, or the boy with the really curly hair. Helping your child to see that anyone can be an “only” will help them feel less self conscience about what makes them different.
Even though it’s controversial, we embrace labels in our family. Ayva and I both have kinky, coily, or crinkly hair depending on the day. I talk about loving her long legs and how she’s so tall and beautiful. After I bathe her, I call out her warm brown skin while putting lotion on her. We also use words like brilliant, kind, helpful and thoughtful. Words have power. When we own them first and color them in a favorable way, they can’t be used against us.
Expose Them To Images That Represent Them
Ayva has a ton of books, but I’ve realized over the last few weeks that she could have a lot more that feature little Black girls as protagonists. It’s not that I think that’s all she should read. It’s just that right now is a super critical time in her life in regards to identity. While she is hyperaware, I need to make sure I’m loading her up on positive images of Black folks that can help to buoy her as she makes her way through life.
Educate Your Child On Educating Others
Ayva’s only 5, so it’s be a big responsibility for her to have to teach other kids about being Black. I don’t have her memorize Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” or anything like that. I do, however, instill in her that she’s not a toy or a dog, so it’s not okay for people to pat her afro puff without asking, and she has every right to feel uncomfortable and to say something. I also share her history, Black history and her personal family history with her so that she can talk about it accurately when / if it comes up.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings
Finally, if you’ve done all of the above and your child still talks about feeling different or uncomfortable, listen to them. Ask them questions to get them to talk through how they’re feeling. Remember that they’re human, and it’s normal to want to fit in sometimes.
Brandi Jeter Riley lives in Northern California with her daughter and husband (both of whom she shamelessly posts pictures all over the Internet!). Brandi's parenting & lifestyle site, Mama Knows It All is a "keeping it real" resource for mothers all over the world. Tweet her @BrandiJeter