When the Wicked Witch is brown: Teaching race and gender politics to kids

Once upon a time, I babysat to make ends meet. I had a handful of families on constant rotation covering their child care as a personal summer camp counselor, the date night savior, and watchful eyes so mommy & daddy can get some work done. When I wasn't sitting, I was teaching movement to small children. There were days when I rarely spoke to anyone over the age of 5. My vocabulary became very basic. As I communicated with little people often, I found myself as a liaison between their world and the grown up world.

Recently I babysat two of my faves for the first time in a long while. We were reading bedtime stories, and the younger of two sisters insisted we read Captain Underpants. To be brief, this book is disgusting. It's a children's book yes, but built entirely around potty humor. The more I read, the more I was grossed out and the older sister agreed. Then she remarked, "This book is for boys! Gross, disgusting boys who play in toilets!" I was struck by how this 6 year old had gendered a story without a gender. I shot back to her, "But your sister likes it! And she's not a boy. Being disgusting is not a girl versus boy thing," I explained. "It's just a disgusting thing." She wasn't convinced. To her, gross humor = boy. I guess her sister just didn't count. How sad, I thought.

I pondered how she had gotten to that equation in her head. What clues and cues had she picked up on to lead her to that inference? Or had someone just said it to her outright? Boys will be boys. Boys have cooties. Boys are dirty. Boys are gross.

The next day we held an informal sharing and celebration for my children's dance classes at the YMCA. The ballet class of four 5 & 6 year old girls danced Sleeping Beauty and in the very fair world of Pre-K and K, they were all the princess, each crowned with a tiara... and they chose their favorite boy from school to be a kiss blowing prince... and Ms. Sydnie to be the evil witch who casts the sleeping spell.

Even at 5 years old, these girls were all about costumes and props. They decided I should wear an evil witch outfit and I needed a magic wand. As I pondered what I should wear as my "evil" outfit, the first thing to come to mind was my burgundy dress & brown shrug. Burgundy is the antithesis to their light pink leotards, skirts and tights. Burgundy is dark. I am dark.

I got nervous and stopped myself as I searched through my closet for the dress. It bugged me to equate dark to evil. I didn't like that I was teaching and reinforcing light as right, and dark as wrong. Am I teaching my ballerinas (who happen to be caucasian and asian) that to wear dark colors (or just to look dark) signifies evil? Will this carry over subtly into all their psyche so that they will always associate dark with wrong?

Maybe the inner monologue was a little over the top, but not far fetched when just the day before I witnessed another child of the same age and relatively similar upbringing and exposure come to an oversimplified conclusion about an entire gender. 

*standing on soap box*

We have to start teaching children to take people on an individual basis. Of course, that would require adults to do the same, myself included. How many times today have you said some version of "Men are...," "Women are...," "Black people are...," "White people are...," etc.? Kids pick up on everything, and the first thing they do is repeat what they have seen and heard. I want the children I teach, babysit, and raise, to understand gender norms and racial stereotypes in our culture. But I also want them to be able to understand themselves as a human being who may or may not ascribe to these notions. Then, do unto others, as they do unto themselves.

It is an individual's actions that reveal their character, and each person regardless of gender and race may choose what those actions are. Because guess what? Gender and race are just some made up social constructs anyway! (Sidebar: I remember my sophomore year in college when Professor Glover wrote on the board - Race is a social construct. It's not real. - BLEW. MY. MIND.) 

*steps down off soap box*

Right before the performance one of the ballerinas asked, "Where is your evil costume?" I was wearing the burgundy dress. I pointed to it. "That's not evil!" She exclaimed. I was relieved.

"Well it's not the dress that makes me evil," I told her. "Really, it's what I do with my magic wand." I waved my sparkling wand in circles and squiggles above her head, and she giggled until she turned pink.

Sydnie L. Mosley is a dancer, choreographer and teaching artist who loves to write. Read more of her musings on race, gender, dance and life on Love Stutter.

1 comment:

Courtney said...

But boys are gross! *Joking*!

Thanks for the insightful peak into the world of your 5 year old baby-sittees and ballerinas! If only everyone who spends time with or has a major influence in the worlds of young people (parents, older siblings, teachers, mentors, care-givers...) were as self-aware and intentional as you! We would perhaps have a world with fewer biases...