In the winter of 2015, Starbucks tried to get its patrons to talk about race.
Across the country, baristas in the iconic coffee shop slapped a black-and-white sticker onto cups: “Race Together.” They initiated dialogues; they committed publicly to hiring ten thousand disadvantaged youth and to open more stores in low-income neighborhoods. Their stock rose. Critics claimed the coffee franchise giant just wanted free publicity. Others said it was a trite way to talk about race. Still others mocked Starbucks’ efforts and suggested they should tackle income equality instead — including the fact that a twenty-ounce latte at Starbucks costs nearly one hour’s pay for a minimum-wage worker.
Starbucks says it ended its “Race Together” campaign in March 2015 exactly as planned, not in response to the criticism. And a year later, as cars continue to line up in Starbucks drive-thrus and people continue to sit hunched over laptops in Starbucks cafes, the weeks when the franchise tried to get its patrons talking about race seem quietly forgotten.
It’s easier that way. We don’t like the discomfort of that conversation over our steaming mochas and cappuccinos. But of course, for some of us — white, Protestant, salaried — it’s a privilege to say “no thank you” to the race conversation. We take another sip of our coffee, sit back in the black leather chair, listen to the music playing from the speakers overhead. We talk about a story we heard on NPR on our way over.
This is not everyone’s privilege in this country. My daughter, who is adopted from Ethiopia, thinks about race constantly. She is only nine, but every moment of the day, her difference confronts her. In school, her white and Hispanic friends ask to play with her beaded braids. They are curious. They love the bright colors of the beads but also the way the complicated parts pattern Mitike’s scalp. When she wears her hair free, her friends ask, How did you get it so curly? No girl with straight blond hair attracts as much attention.
When Mitike joined a city volleyball league for nine-to-ten-year-old girls in August, she noticed immediately that she was the only girl with brown skin, black curly hair, dark brown eyes. All the other girls, mostly residents of the affluent Denver neighborhood surrounding the recreation center, have blue or green eyes, blond hair, names like Payton and Ashley and Piper. Meredith and I picked up Mitike at the end of the first practice, expecting to hear about games and drills. Instead, Mitike frowned at the ground and asked, “Is there any place in Denver where a blond girl would stand out?”
Of course. In the east Denver hair salon where I take Mitike to get her hair braided every six weeks, I am the only white person I see all afternoon. I sit in one of the black plastic chairs in the waiting room and endure the double-takes of the patrons who push open the door (it sticks) and nod and smile at the Ethiopian owner as the little bells on the door handle tinkle. They catch sight of me, then look again. A white girl? In this salon? The men shake their heads and proceed to the back, where they get their beards oiled and their heads shaved. The women stare a little longer, then survey the salon suspiciously until they find Mitike wincing in her chair, the stylist parting another section to braid. Ah. A white woman with a black child. Well, at least she knows where to bring her to get her hair done.
The first time we visited one of these salons in Denver, Mitike couldn’t stop talking about it. “Everyone looked like me!” she said. “Now you know what it feels like to be so different!” Embarrassed of my embarrassment, I tried to hide my red face, my quivering lip. For four hours, I’d endured the stares and the muttered asides, and one woman’s glare. But I understood: Mitike feels this level of scrutiny every day. It was my turn.
My Ethiopian daughter has pulled me bodily into the dialogue about race. I didn’t think it applied to me before. That had been my privilege.
And that’s part of the problem.
When Mitike was in preschool, a fifth grader chasing her on the playground yelled at her, “You’re such a dirty, oily-haired n*&@#*!” The principal, sober-faced, and a teacher who had been supervising recess told me this when I arrived that afternoon. They said the fifth grader’s parents claimed they never used such language at home and couldn’t imagine where he’d learned it. The principal expelled the child. She wanted to make it clear that her school tolerated no bigotry, ever.
Shaken and exhausted by the fact that Mitike had been the victim of such abuse, I sat my little curly-haired four-year-old on my lap on the front steps of our house and carefully asked her what she remembered the fifth grader saying. “He called me dirty, Mommy!” she said indignantly. “That’s why he got ’spelled, ’cause he lied! I take a bath every other day!” She didn’t remember the “n” word, because she didn’t understand it. As for the “oily-haired” part of the epithet: that was just true. Every day, we massage Mitike’s scalp with coconut oil. It’s the secret to an itch-free head.
I shared this experience on a blog I was keeping at the time, and one of my aunts wrote, “My love is color-blind! When I see Mitike, I just see a little person I love and adore!”
My aunt’s intention was good. Before I knew Mitike, I might have said something similar. But now I understand that I want people to notice Mitike’s beauty, her colorfully beaded braids, her coffee-brown skin, her slim Ethiopian figure. Her heritage — and those turquoise and purple beads — are part of who she is. Color-blindness is its own brand of ignorant racism. We are different. If we pretend otherwise, we’re faking our interactions with each other. The key is to notice more than just skin color and hair type. I also want people to notice Mitike’s quick smile, her genuine laugh, her gift as a storyteller, her confidence as a leader. I want the world to see her. That fifth grade boy with his ugly words didn’t see her at all; his blindness allowed him to speak violently.
Recently, I read the incredible and important essay “What a Black Woman Wishes Her White Parents Knew” by Mariama Lockington, a black woman adopted by white parents and raised in Denver in the 1980s. She’s angry, now: her parents pretended race didn’t matter, and so they didn’t acknowledge her ongoing reality, which was that race mattered quite a bit, in every moment of her life. She felt crazy, as if her perception of the world was false. Addressing her parents, Lockington writes, “Maybe you think your silence is better than fumbling awkwardly through uncomfortable realities. It’s not. I am a black, queer woman in America, I am your daughter, and I am always in danger.” She insists that by refusing to openly discuss oppression, her parents “erase” her. Lockington’s essay broke my heart. I want Mitike to feel she can talk to us about anything she experiences in her difference; I want her to feel visible – never erased.
Many of the comments on Lockington’s essay are defensive and angry. People are uncomfortable. Privileged, they want to choose not to talk about race. They want Lockington – and Mitike – to just express gratitude to their white families for raising them, as if raising them in white America eliminated all difficulty for them. They don’t want to see that my daughter – beautiful, black – hears about race differently than they do: in every news story about another police shooting of a brown-skinned person, in every racial slur directed toward one of Obama’s daughters, in every bigoted comment Trump’s supporters make, in every statistic about people of color in poverty.
I often remember a day in one of my high school English classes, when we had just begun reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I asked the students to freewrite about the “n” word and how they felt about its presence in the novel. In the ensuing discussion, a white student argued, with annoyance, that the word didn’t matter and it was a waste of time to discuss it. Many other students chimed in to agree, until an African American boy raised his hand. “Look,” he told the class. “The word hurts. It matters to me in a way you can’t get. Until it stops mattering that much to me, it’s got to keep mattering to you.”
What I know: Starbucks was right. We need to hold more dialogue about race. All of us. It’s not comfortable, which is exactly why we need to sit ourselves down in those black leather chairs. Some of us, like Mitike and Mariama Lockington, need to do more talking. Others of us need to start listening.
In her whole life that our nine-year-old daughter Mitike can remember until this year, America has officially embraced hope and progress.
After all, just the day before I brought her home from Ethiopia on August 29, 2008, the Democratic National Convention in Denver nominated Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American presidential candidate. On election night that November, a group of us gathered at a neighbor’s house to watch the results and bite our nails—and when CNN called the election for Obama, we all grabbed spoons and pots and pans and marched jubilantly around our chilly Alaska block, chanting, little one-year-old Mitike happily in the lead, shouting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” in her Amharic accent.
And because she has been immersed in this kind of progress since the first day she arrived in America, Mitike assumes it is a basic quality of our nation. When Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination from the DNC on July 28 last month, Mitike peered at me and Meredith and asked, “Why are you crying?” We stumbled to explain how incredible this step forward is for our country, to finally have a woman candidate for president. I mumbled something about 1920, Susan B. Anthony, 235 years since Abigail Adams. Meredith tried to explain how the 2016 DNC, with its uplifting of people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, women, the poor, and immigrants, embodied and celebrated the message we long to hear about the United States of America: that in this nation, we work to move closer and closer to increasing the opportunities for all people, because we are stronger and better when we work together. Mitike listened to our muddled emotional explanation and then shrugged. “Moms. That’s just the way America is.”
Of course, I’m grateful that our daughter takes for granted that her adopted country is good, and that it will continue to move forward toward the “more perfect union” for which those wise (and flawed!) writers of the Constitution hoped. But I’m also filled with fear about the future our country could tip into in November. I fear the racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters. I fear that the country our daughter believes she knows will fail her.
We Americans find ourselves in a dangerous moment, stretched painfully between what some of us hope our country could be and what Donald J. Trump wants our country to become. As First Lady Michelle Obama proclaimed in her eloquent speech on July 26: “[This election] is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” The question has become not a question of policy but a question of whether we teach our children about progress and love, or about divisive hate.What is at stake in this presidential election is not Mitike’s formation. At nine, she believes wholeheartedly that the world requires us to be kind and lovingly accepting of those who are different in any way from us. She trusts that a nation, like a person, is simultaneously fallible and tasked with the responsibility to improve. For eight of her nine years, she has watched and listened (an avid fan of NPR, which I play while I cook dinner) as President Obama has wrestled with immigration, Guantanamo, Osama bin Laden, drone strikes, the auto industry, equal pay for women, police brutality, race, same-sex marriage. Obama has not always made (or been allowed to make) the decisions I wanted him to, but—while my child watched, learning—he worked to lead our nation in the direction of progress.
Meredith and I have protected Mitike from many of the ugliest of our nation’s weeping wounds: the details of the Sandy Hook massacre, for example; or the racist comments hurled at Malia Obama online when she announced her acceptance into Harvard last May. I don’t want Mitike to feel that afraid. But every day Trump says or does something more offensive, or proclaims his cavalier apathy toward world affairs, every day his supporters seethe with vitriol toward Obama and anyone else who isn’t a white English man with roots in colonial America, it becomes harder and harder to protect Mitike (and ourselves) from fear.
However, of this I’m certain: if we fall into fear and let our children tremble, we won’t even need to hold the election this coming November. Of course FDR was right: we must fear fear itself most. It is our fear that will defeat us.
So I remind myself: our little girl has grown up believing that America stands for progress, so now is the time we model for her that light, as the prophet said, still shines in the darkness. Mitike and I spent an entire afternoon registering voters in a park here in Denver. On the weekends, we hike in our beautiful mountains and we spend time with our family, trying to talk more about hope and progress than about fear. Every day, Meredith works in her private psychology practice to help people find peace in their lives, and I drive to a high school to teach teenagers how to express themselves and advocate for themselves in writing. And Mitike watches. We chant what Michelle Obama said she teaches her girls: when others go low, we go high. I remind Mitike (and Meredith, and myself) that no matter what happens in November, the general direction of this nation is progress. Just look at how far we’ve come.
We can’t afford to take for granted how far this country has come. This is not the time to be afraid, but the time to act, to vote (as President Obama said, “Don’t boo, vote”), to stand up and speak for what (and who) matters, to declare our belief that our nation will continue to progress toward a more inclusive and more just place for all Americans of every kind.
At my first parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the newer instructors asked me why my daughter would often re-read books that were “too easy” for her.
My daughter was already a strong reader by then. She’d taught herself, although we didn’t know about her new skill until sometime before her third birthday; she held up a cup at a restaurant, pointed to the words, and told us, “This says, Have fun.”
It did say, Have fun. We rushed through dinner and zipped home so that I could hold up magazines and novels and point to random (easy) words to ask her what they were. By the end of the evening, we had confirmed that she knew how to read.
There was no stopping her after tha—no.
That’s not true.
That makes it sound like it was never-ending progress: a rush toward fluency and proficiency when it was not like that at all.
Yes, every day, month, and year, she read harder, more complicated things. But as that teacher noted, she would also go back and re-read books—picture books, board books, books without words. She went forward. She went back. She re-read more than she read. We didn’t push her; she was in charge of her pace. The main thing that we did was to make sure there was always something for her to read. We took her to bookstores and libraries. We let her pick out and renew what interested her. We read to her when that was what she wanted. We left her alone when she needed that, too.
It didn’t occur to us to do anything different. So when the teacher asked us why—more out of curiosity than judgment—why my daughter re-read so often, I was surprised. I muttered something about familiar books being comforting, and the teacher seemed content with that. It never occurred to me to tell my daughter not to re-read. I had done the same as a child, too. And for me, yes, re-reading was a way to soothe myself. But re-reading was also a way of marking how much I had learned.
The text of a book doesn’t change—most of the time. A couple of authors have on occasion gone back to update details. (For example, Judy Blume altered a scene in later editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so that the protagonist used stick-on maxi pads instead of the belt and fastener that was prevalent when her classic children’s novel was first published in 1970.)
But for the most part, what changes is not the book, but the reader.
There are the jokes written for adults (by adults) in stories meant for children that most kids aren’t likely to find funny until later. Or there are the scenes where there are emotional currents that children—the protagonists of the book and maybe the young reader—don’t necessarily understand.
For example, I was reading middle-grade writer Susan Tan’s latest book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic recently, and came across this passage:
Until right as I was about to put together the triceratops’s tail, I heard a conversation that made me stop and pay attention.
They were still talking about the wedding. And my mom said, “Just remember, this is your day. All that matters is you and Paul. Everyone else will deal.”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “Also the trick is knowing how to manage Mom. She can be a handful, but you just have to know how to keep her happy.”
“That’s easy for you to say, big brother,” Auntie Eva said. “You’re the son—you just have to show up and be yourself and you’ll make Mom and Dad happy. I have to be perfect…”
Cilla is an optimistic, aspiring writer. She’s in third grade and happens to be biracial. Her beloved aunt is about to get married, and the event brings out tensions in the family that Cilla doesn’t quite understand. Adults may be able to unpack all that’s going on, but Cilla’s confusion—her growing knowledge that the grown-ups see all of the events of life quite differently—mirrors the younger reader’s. In a way, the fact that this book may be understood on more than one level means that this book is meant to be remembered and re-read.
But of course, sometimes, re-reading doesn’t make a book seem better.
This column, of course, is all about re-reading. It’s about looking at how books shaped me, and also at how my perception of those books has changed now that I’m an adult. At times it has been a delight and a comfort to greet my old friends. Sometimes it has been painful but rewarding. Sometimes it’s been shit.
Recently, my husband was flipping through the channels when he happened upon an episode of The Golden Girls, a classic NBC sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992. As soon as I saw it, I said something about how often I’d watched the show in re-runs after school. I remembered watching TV in the basement, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was a latchkey kid and spent hours alone except for books and the television. I knew even then that the show wasn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t matter. It was a comforting place where I could settle.
Of course—of course—as soon as I said something about this to my husband, the following happened onscreen:
Teacher Dorothy, played by the great Bea Arthur, is doing roll call for her adult education class. She says, “Jim Shu.” No one answers. She says, “Oh, very funny. Gym shoe.”
Then an Asian man, played by Ralph Ahn, stands up and says, “I am Jim Shu.”
Dorothy apologizes profusely. She explains, “I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Jim Shu looks at her up at down and says, “I don’t think I could drink that much sake.”
The live studio audience laughs wildly, even though the line doesn’t really make any sense. Also, sake is Japanese, Jim Shu is probably Chinese, but who can tell the difference? LOL ASIANS AND THEIR FUNNY-SOUNDING NAMES FOR THEMSELVES AND THINGS.
It was like a kick in the stomach. But at the time I first saw it, I probably thought I should laugh along. Even while sitting alone in the basement.
I guess it’s a measure of what a person I’ve become—Oh, look how I’ve grown—when the space for comfort is no longer comfortable.
And I don’t wish that the children’s books I’ve re-read as an adult were different, nor do I wish to unlearn what I know now in order to feel soothed by old, familiar fictional people and places.
But if I did have to do it over again, I might answer my daughter’s teacher a different way. If she asked why my daughter returned to books that were too easy for her, I would tell her that in re-reading, my child was exploring the spaces she’d been in, furnishing them with new knowledge. And in doing so, she was asking if she needed more.