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There I was living, loving and laughing out loud as a wife, mother, creative artist and native New Yorker in the Beaches community of Toronto when I was thrown into the fires of an inflammatory comment made by one of my daughter Grace’s school friends.
Rose, 6, is not yet able to read, but saw a photo of a smiling black man in the Guinness Book of World Records, flagged Grace, also 6, and described how the man was being teased for being “the blackest man in the world.”
Rose is white, Grace is black. Traffic jam.
When Grace repeated Rose’s perception of the picture to our family over dinner that evening, I was shell-shocked. But I took the time to clarify that the image was of a man overjoyed to have won the record for “most adjustable digital camera in the world.” Our children understood, and we all moved on.
However, I was in for an abrupt awakening that would remind me of how the best of intentions can lead to dangerous paths of distress where matters of race are concerned.
The comment was made on a Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, Rose’s mother had cornered me on the playground, with our children and others within earshot, to inform me that her daughter, whose friendship with my daughter I value, had been crying, assuming I no longer liked her.
Before I impart the details of the square dance that followed, allow me to divulge some emotional history.
Rose’s family had taken it upon themselves early in the school year to come to our daughter’s defence when an alternate racial snafu occurred. Apparently, our daughter was being teased for the caramel complexion of her skin. Rose’s father left a voicemail, her mother approached me at school and Rose gave Grace a toy weapon for warding off “the bad guys.”
Considering we had already handled the matter privately, I was thrown by the intense urgency and outreach.
Rose’s mother expressed shock over people’s cruelty and shared a story of a relative who was gay and also being teased. I believe this was a noble attempt at bonding, but I can ensure you, a straitjacket would have felt more comfortable.
I smiled and explained that my husband and I arm our children with verbal ignorance-busters, harmless little anecdotal one-two punches that take the heaviness out of most misunderstandings. We’re teaching them, at ages 4 and 6, to nurture their inner power and avoid taking things too personally. So thanks, I said, but we’re good.
My acceptance of the situation seemed to astonish her. Was she surprised by how quickly I dismissed any possible iniquity?
Cut to 2014, the comment about the “blackest man in the world,” and the day I was approached in the school yard by Rose’s mom, who wanted to make it abundantly clear that her daughter’s comments were innocent.
Got it, right. She’s 6.
However, indulge me a second. If you gave a dime and a gurney to every person of colour who’s been subjected to a racial insult, misconception, innocent injustice or slip-slur of the tongue, you would have a nation of millionaires suffering from congestive heart failure from all the anguish.
Mothers can be relentless protectors, and motherhood one of the most thanklessly rewarding, misunderstood roles we’ll ever have the honour of playing. I get it. Don’t mess with our kids.
But I quickly learned that Rose’s mom had yet to discuss Rose’s remark with her directly. So what did she want from me?
She decided to revisit the first incident, asking how I might have handled knowing her daughter was being teased.
Convinced by now that her goal was to blow my mood into the River Thames every time she saw me, I was visualizing the swimsuit I’d be wearing for our next match.
I wish I had said I felt our job as parents was to provide life tools and skills our children would find useful in those moments when we’re not present, or that we are to love, empower and enlighten them, not enable them.
But rather, with the veins nearly combusting under my skin, I replied coolly: “I would have assumed parents were parenting and left them to it.”
What she said next nearly split my head in two. She explained that, due to living in the Beaches, her family had no reference for ideology on matters of race.
How serene it must feel, I thought, to reside in such a subterranean sea of naiveté. Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and you have no reference … for what? How insulting you’re being?
Throughout this inquisition, I kept wondering if at any point she might decide to take pause and apologize for any hurt caused to my family. I am saddened to say I can still feel the cold chill of that unfulfilled dream.
I will always wonder how a nonthreatening photo of a smiling dark man could lead to such discordance, but one thing is certain: The world is a much better place because of the friendship between Grace and Rose.
If you were to focus on anything other than the love between them and that which they share with the world, you’d be missing the point entirely – and maybe we mothers had, too.
Lanette Ware-Bushfield lives in Toronto.