Learning from the Sneetches

This is not the first time Dr. Seuss has graced these pages. You may remember that the Cat in the Hat home invader did not survive his trip on the Character Assassination Carousel.

Today, however, I would like to acknowledge some beaked Dr. Seuss characters whose presence has been welcome in my kids’ lives: The Sneetches.

The Sneetches helped me answer this question that came my way from Akka last year: “Mama? When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

This post was first published on Parentdish Canada on November 26, 2014.

Sneetches

“Mama? You know when white people thought they were better?” This from my eight-year-old daughter one morning on our way to school. She had about a quarter of my attention.

“What’s that, babe?”

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

My partner and I knew early on that we were going to talk to the kids about race. We weren’t going to pretend that they wouldn’t notice their own parents are two different colours. I’d read articles suggesting that parents often think their kids are growing up colour blind. They’re not.

Kids develop ideas about race early. We’d do better to name the issues and talk about them openly rather than hope race is no longer an issue just because their class photo shows more diversity than ours did.

So we’d had conversations about skin colour. We had talked about how most people in Europe, and families like mine who had moved from Europe, had white skin. And people in Sri Lanka, as well as people who had moved from Sri Lanka like their dad, had brown skin.

We had also told them that white people used to think that people with darker skin weren’t as good as they were. And that there was a time when people with brown skin had to live separately and also when many of them had to work for no money.

We had talked about racism. They had witnessed the actions of customs officers in airports who told us to approach one at a time; not realizing we were a family. They saw their dad get held back and searched while I was waved through.

I thought we had been doing a pretty good job. I knew we couldn’t cover everything but I had hoped we were giving them the basic vocabulary to talk about racism and the understanding they would need to recognize and hopefully to fight injustices.

But that morning I was reminded of how little we as parents understand what is going on in those little heads. My kids and I had been walking to the train platform and talking about a story that we like: The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

In Sneetch society, bearing a star on one’s belly is a mark of privilege, and the star-bellied Sneetches impose all kinds of indignities on the starless ones, like excluding them from their frankfurter parties.

A stranger comes to town and offers to stamp stars on those without and then to remove stars from those so endowed. The Sneetches spend all their money but learn that sporting a star or not is a feeble mark for the worth of a Sneetch. Good lesson.

The kids said the star-bellied Sneetches were silly for leaving the starless ones out; just like when white people thought that brown people weren’t as good as they were. Silly and wrong.

This was the story that had sparked my daughter’s question. What would happen if a star-bellied Sneetch and a starless one got together beyond the reach of the frankfurter party firelight? What sort of Sneetch would result from such a union and how would it be received by the others?

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

We were crossing a busy street. Our train was coming soon. We were rushing to school the way we rush to school every morning. This was one of those conversations that you have with your kids one sentence at a time in between saying “come-on!” and “look-both-ways” and “you-can-fix-your-sock-when-we-get-there.”

So I answered quickly. “It was bad,” I said. “The white people didn’t like the mixed people, either.” Because I’d reasoned that she was thinking of apartheid in South Africa (we had been talking about it after Nelson Mandela’s death). I said, “the mixed people also had to live separate from the whites and couldn’t have all the things that they had.”

My daughter stopped. I glanced down at her just in time to see a look flash across her face. She was surprised. Shocked and hurt. I cast my mind back, wondering what might have upset her, and I suddenly realized that she had not seen that answer coming. She hadn’t known.

When we had talked about the times and places when racist rules prevailed, it had never occurred to her that people like her had suffered. I had just watched her find out that there was no star on her belly.

Perhaps she had thought she was going to hear something different. She knows that she is both Canadian and Sri Lankan, both white and brown.

She and her brother are doted on and adored by families on three continents; families that have little in common besides these two children. Perhaps she had thought that I would tell her that mixed people are loved and accepted by both sides in divided, racist societies. As part of both sides, they are the bridge between them; the proof that the divisions are arbitrary and hurtful and wrong.

Maybe she had thought I might say that the white people loved the mixed people because they were part white and the brown people loved the mixed people because they were part brown. Doubly-loved.

Instead, without pausing long enough to really hear her question, I’d told her that people like her were treated badly. I had inadvertently opened her eyes a little wider than I had realized. She knew now what is both surprising and obvious: being part-white is being non-white.

I regretted my answer. I should have waited until we were having a conversation face-to-face where I could have asked her more about what she was thinking. I wish I could go back and explore the world she had in her mind before I told her that life had been (and therefore could still be) hard for a mixed-race person. I had taken the wind out of her beautiful little sails and longed to blow some air back in.

We caught our train. She changed the subject. She didn’t have any more questions. And she seemed fine.

Growing up, our children will have many moments when reality displaces a firmly held but false belief. First, their childhood fantasies were reasoned away: they cannot fly and the dinosaurs are never coming back to life. Now they have to contend with uglier truths being revealed: life isn’t fair and racism really does hurt people very much like them.

Leah Birnbaum is an urban planning consultant and a parent in Toronto. She blogs at Chapter Four.

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