- Jyoti Grewal
Updated: May 20, 2021
Today is my daughter’s 9th birthday. For the last month, the whole family has been relentlessly reminded of exactly how many days, hours and minutes are left until her big day. She woke up today wanting to dress up for her special day. For a child that loves wearing hoodies and sweatpants, she got all decked out in her plaid skirt, tights and a shirt that said ‘Girls are the Future’. We took big smiling pictures as she walked out the door.
While waiting in the car to pick her up from school, I received a call. It was her principal. As a parent, this is not a call one looks forward to. I waited as the principal explained that there was an incident involving my daughter at lunch. She had asked a boy if she could have a turn at the see-saw. He replied in the negative and called her a ‘brown chocolate bar’. She responded by calling him ‘milk chocolate’. The principal went on to explain that my daughter left the playground in tears and told the boy’s teacher about the incident who, in turn, involved the principal. He said the boy’s parents were contacted and expressed deep shame at this behavior. He said he was shocked as this boy himself is from a mixed-race family. After a couple of hours with the principal, this boy wrote my daughter a letter of apology. The principal also pointed out that while the words uttered by both children were wrong, the boy’s words involved a position of power while my daughter’s did not. This, he said, was racism.
As I walked out of my car to meet my daughter, I found my body shaking with intense anger. A ball of fire was rising in my stomach. I was angry at how my happy girl’s day had taken such an ugly turn. On the outside, I did what mothers are ingrained to do-swallow the pain and smile. I had to wear it so my daughter would not. When we were alone in the safety of the car, she started sobbing and asking, ‘mommy is there something wrong with me?’. I climbed in the back seat and held her small, sad body tight to mine. I wanted to absorb all her pain. I spent the next half hour explaining that what happened today was not her fault. I fought back my own tears as I wiped hers. I sought nine-year -old words to help her make sense of this ugliness that had invaded her 3,285th day on this earth.
Now I sit alone trying to process this. As a woman, I know my daughters will have to deal with their share of injustice in this world. It is a place where women have to fight for equal pay, recognition and a seat at the table. It is a place where color trumps ability. It is a place where the victim is silenced while the oppressor walks. Today, it is a place where a little girl gets reminded of her place in this world.
My heart does not hold venom for that boy. My heart is sad. I’m thinking about the things that have shaped his life. I’m thinking about why this little boy’s first line of defense was belittling someone based on their skin color. What has brought him to this point in his young life? I look at the lopsided words in his apology letter where he apologizes for ‘rassism’. A child who cannot spell what he enacted. I am hoping that today’s intervention will be a meaningful turn in his life. I hope his heart aches just enough that he will think twice before making someone ashamed of that which they cannot control. I hope my daughter’s tears helped sow the path towards a positive and inclusive future for him. While I hope to erase this day from my daughter’s memory, I hope it stays in his. Scars help us stay noble.
As for my daughter, she will be okay. She has a mother who has fought for her place in this world as a visible minority. She has a father who spends his waking hours showing his sons and daughters what true equality looks like. Words like ‘unconscious bias’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘reconciliation’ are run-of-the-mill at our dinner table. My daughter’s actions of speaking up tell me that she will stand her ground. She may do it through stinging tears and a breaking heart but she will do it. In a perfect place, this would be the end of it. Born who and what she is, perfect does not promise to be the lot in her life. Maya Angelou said, “we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty”. Something tells me my baby girl is destined to be a Monarch.