This past year in our country has brought a number of hard conversations to the forefront, and we all tend to respond based on our personal experiences of the world, our individual realities. Empathy, which we advocate to our students, means stretching to see the world through someone else’s experience of it, someone else’s reality.
The first bit of research recommended was the Chris Rock documentary, “Good Hair.” We drank in this foreign information about weaves, straightening products that could potentially cause emergency room worthy scalp burns, and the money spent and made on black women’s hair. “We are not getting a girl!” we agreed after that horrifying reality was introduced.
We were matched with a Ugandan girl.
Her baby’s home had shaved her head, along with all the babies, to make their care easier. As it grew out, we were told to “moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!” Her skin couldn’t leave the house without lotion or it would appear that she was uncared for, disdainfully stigmatized, “ashy.” Hair, skin, stigma.
Our family has enjoyed the privilege of being “low maintenance” in our presentation, because we sport the majority culture’s coloring and hair texture. I rarely apply lotion to my cracked and dry legs because, after all, who is looking? My first manicure was for my wedding. My ears weren’t pierced until I graduated from Trinity because my grandparents had impressed upon my parents that if God had wanted holes in our ears, he would have made them that way.
When we brought our baby girl home from Uganda, our black neighbors wanted to know when her ears would get pierced. When we go to Target, or Kroger, or the library, hair products are recommended from strangers who share her same skin tone. My friend, a thought leader in the Black Lives Matter movement within the mainstream, Christian churches, explained from her own experience that when our daughter walks into a store or community of any kind, we should not give others any additional reason to look down on her than she will already face as a person in dark skin. In other words, even our freedom to have messy hair, understated attire, and dry skin is a privilege that I don’t even have to consider.
We watched Dark Girls on Netflix, and cried.
I didn’t own slaves. I don’t make racist jokes. I have black friends. And yet…my black daughter is treated differently in public places than my white daughter. I can walk into any gas station on our way to the beach and blend in while they keep an eye on my baby girl. She has already been harassed by middle school girls in our low income neighborhood, who share her skin color, and heard her call my white husband, “Daddy!” They taunted her, repeatedly even though she was only 5 at the time, “Black people aren’t supposed to be with white people! We don’t even go to school together!” She shrunk into her daddy’s leg, clinging tightly in fear and confusion.
On MLK, Jr. Day, three months later, she brought this experience back up at our dinner table. It was what he had fought against, but the battle continues to wage. My older two children would never have known how painful current day racisim is, from all skin tones, if they didn’t have a sister who weeps like an old soul trying to figure it all out. Empathy grows when we place ourselves in a position to experience the perspective of another. The emotional complexities of living life in different skin can remain at a distance until we are hurt deeply by the deep hurt of one we love.
Learner, Thinker, Writer: Jane Gilbert serves Trinity School as 4th Grade Assistant Teacher