By Sara Ackerman
When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors.
The night before the first day of school I lean over the curl of my three-year-old daughter’s sleeping body. She’s pulled off her sleep cap and one of her braids is bent backwards and wrapped around her finger. For as long as she has been able to grasp a chunk in her tiny fingers, she has fallen asleep twirling her hair. I unwind the braid from her index finger, press it in the right direction, and pull the cherry printed cap back on her head.
In the dark I lay out clothes for the next morning and right the sideways tumble of containers on her dresser. This includes what must amount to hundreds of dollars of hair and skin products tossed into an online shopping cart in triplicate in an attempt to compensate for styling skills I don’t have with money that I also don’t have. With tubes of styling pudding, bottles of olive oil lotion and vanilla conditioning spray, and tubs of coconut oil and curling butter, it is not always obvious whether I am about to groom my child or make a dessert.
As an amateur baker I once made a nine-layer, thirty five-pound wedding cake. You know what is harder to construct than that? A cornrow. At the end of the third page of the “cornrowing made easy” tutorial were the words “you now have completed one braided stitch.” Of one cornrow. The tutorial does not mention placing your child in an approximation of a headlock. It has to be implied. I cross my fingers and squeeze about eleven bucks worth of product onto my daughter’s hair.
“We talk about adoption everyday,” one blogger, also an adoptive parent, brags. I panic because there isn’t a single thing I manage to do every day other than lose my keys. “Talk with your child about race; Don’t be colorblind,” experts say. I know all this, but knowledge does not equal a competent execution, as I wade through a shelf of Beverly Daniel Tatum, a thousand Ta-Nehesi Coates articles, and a case of shea butter. Note: wading in shea butter is messy. Also not tidy: the following conversation. When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. She stares blankly. “My hand is peach, and yours is brown.”
“Yours is brown,” she answers. “Hmmm,” I reply, “It’s ok that we have different color hands. Your hand looks brown to me. My hand looks different. Like a peach color.”
“I want peach,” she says. “Also blueberry. I have banana now please?”
A year and a half earlier, my daughter and I were walking down a tiny street in Rome. A drunk man lurched out of a doorway and turned toward us. “What’s your name?” he slurred, and when my daughter, then a month shy of 2 doesn’t answer, he continued “That’s ok, I’ll just call you chocolate.” “That’s ok,” I answered, “I’ll just call you asshole.” “Hey,” he mumbled, “it’s just a joke.”
I did-I-do-the-right-thing-myself? for days. If I say he is an asshole for referencing my daughter’s skin color, then what am I saying about her brownness? Chocolate can be a compliment, right? But then, I reason, he was drunk. A stranger. White. Also, it was apparently a joke?
“Asshole,” my daughter repeated to the Colosseum and to Trevi Fountain. “Asshole,” she said to strawberry gelato, cobblestone, and Fiumicino airport.
A few months later in Penn Station, we climbed down an almost deserted staircase. My daughter stepped slowly, holding carefully to the railing. A woman walked down behind us. “You have to lift her up,” our fellow stairgoer insisted, and when I didn’t, she hissed at me, “bitch, whore, bitch, whore,” all the way down. At the bottom of the stairs she added, “You wouldn’t make her walk if she was the same color as you.” That night I googled, “making black children walk down the stairs.” It didn’t seem to be a thing. “Is it a thing?” I asked my friend Jackie. “No. That is not a thing. That is a crazy person.” Jackie is black but so was the stair lady. But Jackie is definitely not crazy and the stair lady might have been. I sided with Jackie. Then I googled “black children; stairs; racism.”
I read that by age three a child should know at least one color. Mine is nearly three and a half and can’t name one. Oh my god. What if my child is actually, literally colorblind? I search, “is my child colorblind?” The first hit tells me that color blindness is rare, but something conclusion-jumping parents regularly ponder when their three year old can’t identify colors. Guilty.
I point and name the colors of everything we see. “Red,” I touch her sheets, “blue,” I touch her plate, “brown,” I touch her skin. “Blue,” she shrieks pointing to her arm. “Orange,” she screams about nothing in particular.
I get a book about how all people have different skin colors. Most colors are described with food analogies, and the rhyme scheme requires more oral agility than Dr. Seuss. “You’re brown, like the cinnamon,” I say mid-page. “And I’m peach, like, wait, there are no peaches in this book. I’ll be here. The cookie dough page.”
“I’m blue,” my daughter says, “and” pointing at the illustrated ice cream sundae, “I want that.” She calls it the ice cream book. She demands the ice cream book nightly and then claims she’s blue. I imagine she plans it like this: ask for ice cream book, insist I’m blue, repeat.
After her first day of school I take my daughter to my work for lunch. I carry her down the corridor to the cafeteria, my long, straight ponytail swinging from side to side. “Your hair is shaking, mama. My hair is not shaking.”
“You’re right. My hair is shaking and yours isn’t.”
“My hair is pwetty?” she asks. “You got it,” I tell her. “Plus,” I add inhaling her braids, “you smell like a cupcake.”
That night, we snuggle in the gray armchair to read. I wanted to hide the ice cream book but it turns out I don’t have to because after ripping the end papers to shreds my daughter hides it herself. Reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? instead, my daughter places her hand over the bear’s body. “I’m brown, mama” she says. “That’s right,” I say, “brown and so beautiful.” She puts a finger on my arm, “You’re peach mama.”
“That’s right,” I reply. She turns her hand over to reveal her palm, light and pink and chubby. “I’m peach, also.”
Sara Ackerman writes and teaches kindergarten in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.