Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teaching diversity

We were standing in line at the supermarket when le Petit pointed at a store employee standing nearby.

"O-ba-ma!" he said loudly, overjoyed and ready to jump out of his stroller.

I've mentioned before that le Petit is a huge fan of President Obama. Every week he flips through our copy of The Economist looking for him. He recognizes his picture on Parisian billboards and can pick him out in a photo of G20 leaders. I somehow managed to transmit my joy and optimism over Obama's election, and now le Petit idolizes him, or at least searches for him everywhere. Recently he's started mistaking most of the black men he sees for Obama.

Much to my embarrassment, the employee overheard le Petit, but he just smiled with amusement and said, "Ah, so he thinks all black men are Obama, huh?" He exchanged a look and a laugh with the cashier, a black woman.

"Yes, well..." I said hesitantly, "He loves Obama and looks for him everywhere." After all, I decided, being mistaken for the handsome American president, who's uniformly admired in France, may not be such a bad thing.

While bagging my groceries, I explained to le Petit, no, that man isn't Obama, but yes, his skin is a similar color. The cashier complimented le Petit's language skills, and I proudly explained that he was learning to speak both English and French (and, it went without saying, some American patriotism, too -- after all, he can name our president.)

We paid and said goodbye, le Petit with a big wave and an "au revoir." As we walked back home, I started into my standard speech for such occasions.

"You see, people come in all different colors. Some people have darker skin, like Obama. Or like M [le Petit's nanny]. Or like mommy's friend R. Other people have very light skin, like Mommy's friend A. A also has blond hair. Mommy has brown hair. Mommy has blue eyes, and you and Daddy have brown eyes. Some people are tall, and some people are short..." and on and on, listing people he knows, in my stock, matter-of-fact explanation of the diversity of physical appearances.

I have no idea if I'm going about this the right way. My goal is to confirm what he's starting to observe, that people do indeed look different, believe different things, and speak different languages. That families come in different configurations. That what we have in common is far more important than these differences. I use every opportunity I can to teach this. I was on Facebook last night when he crawled onto my lap and we looked at a friend's pictures together. "See, that's Baby L. She has two daddies. See, there she is with J, her daddy. And there's B, her other daddy..."

I was thinking, if this approach seems natural to me, why am I so uncomfortable when le Petit mistakes someone in a store for Obama? Why does it make me feel like somehow I've failed? I guess that's because it shows that talking can only make up for so much. Le Petit clearly lives in a world that is smaller and more homogeneous than I'd like. Most of the people I list in my great explanation of diversity live far away: R in New York, J and B in Chicago, A in Delaware. Le Petit only knows them from pictures on the computer or tacked to the refrigerator, and to him they're about as real as President Obama.

Of course, this says a lot about my hermit-like existence in Paris. After six years of life here, I can count my close friends on (a couple fingers of) one hand, and I still don't have any mom friends with toddlers for play dates. For many reasons, we need to get out and meet more people. But still, that feels like an inadequate excuse.


Isabelle said...

When Le Petit starts kindergarten, it will be much easier for you to find play dates for him...

I've never bothered explaining my kids about people being different, I guess that they understood by themselves!! And Le Petit is not even 2 years old yet ;)

Anonymous said...

I love you for your efforts. Le Petit will too.
- Stephanie

A in Delaware :) said...

Miss G asked at one point about her godmother S getting with a daddy someday. So, that was our opening to talk about how some families have two mommies or two daddies, some families only have one parent at all (and how that is very very hard for the parent!) A 3 minutes conversation later, and she understood that her godmother might someday (we hope!) find a nice lady to have babies with, and that they will just have to be creative about getting the baby.

Likewise, she has had some similar Obama moments - in grocery stores. It's a little easier at our health food store, because the darker skinned people she regularly sees there have (or don't have) distinctive tattoos that are like billboards to her. She also mistakes all redheads (from behind at least) for our friend K, and will approach other long-haired blonde women in public as Mommy if she's strayed a little farther from me.

That said, she (at 3 1/2) has been ASKING a lot about WHY people have different skin color, hair color, etc. We've been able to talk about genetics (you have your blonde hair and blue eyes because mommy and daddy have blonde hair and blue eyes - if one of us had brown eyes, you might have gotten those instead), and locational factors in evolution (a long time ago, our ancestors evolved in a place with not as much sunshine, so we are very very very very light so that our skin could make the most of the sun. Our friend D's ancestors evolved in a place with LOTS of bright hot sunshine, so his skin is darker, to protect from the sun. People move around, so now we have all different people living here.)

And, yes, I find Facebook photos VERY useful in explaining similarities and differences. (That friend has Northern European ancestors like us... That friend has Eastern European ancestors. That friend is from a place called India... and so on."

Now, if only I could figure out for sure what ancestry gives daddy M his HUGE SKULL.