“Daddy, you have to pick Taylor up from school so she can take theater class with me!” Penny implored. Taylor is her good friend. Wait. I take that back. According to Penny, “she’s my sister.”
I had already talked about it with Taylor’s mom and let her know it would be my pleasure. Penny was nervous about the class, and having a friend there would make it easier for both of us.
Upon hearing the news, Penny let out a loud “Yay!” followed by a pause. “Taylor’s not actually my sister,” she whispered.
And this is when I really started to pay attention. I took a deep breath and waited for what was about to come. Our family is white. Taylor’s family is black. Penny is 5 years old and not exactly known for her subtlety. I knew a lesson in political correctness was coming, and I was mentally preparing for the conversation.
I wasn’t expecting a gleeful “Actually, we’re twin sisters!”
We would all like to think we’re color-blind, but I did not have a clue what that cliché really meant until I heard Penny say those words. Obviously, I was touched by the sentiment, but in retrospect, maybe I should not have been that surprised.
Penny attends a racially diverse school. It is not uncommon for hers to be the lone white face running around with a tight-knit clique of Indian girls, whose families knew each other prior to pre-K. Penny bonded with them over a mutual adoration of pretty dresses and Disney princess. These girls love sparkles, so Penny loves these girls. They have everything in common 5-year-olds could want and are oblivious to any dissimilarities in skin tone.
When Penny describes any of her friends it’s usually by what they were wearing that particular day. This is not very helpful in determining who she’s talking about, but it is endearing. Beauty may be skin deep, but Penny does not seem to get quite that far when she sees people.
When I think about Penny’s color-blindness, it is both amazing and completely normal. It makes me unbelievably happy and, I have to admit, a little sad.
It’s amazing because the distinctions are so plainly obvious and I know Penny is mindful of discrepancies in individuals. She once asked me, “Why does that lady have a mustache?” I explained that it was just a guy with long hair. Penny was flabbergasted and bombarded me with more questions. She understands gender norms all too well. My wife and I have tried — and failed — to convince her that there are no such things as girl colors and boy colors, only colors. But certain colors and shades she doesn’t see at all? That is just … amazing.
On the other hand, it is totally and completely normal. Taylor thinks of Penny as a sister too. And the Indian girls at school never asked her why she was so pale or made her feel less-than or like an outsider.
It makes me so happy that my daughter and her friends are like this. But I can’t help but be a little worried for the future. (I’m a parent. It’s kind of what we do.) Those first days of pre-K, Penny and all the other students were mixing, mingling and playing, regardless of race. If you were to look up at the parents, however, well, that was another story altogether.
During Penny’s first year of school, the mothers were invited in for a stirring rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” My wife was early and sat on one side of the semicircle of chairs. As the other parents filed in, the seats tended to be grouped along racial lines. One of our friends (and the mom of Penny’s “boyfriend” at the time), who is Indian, came in a little late and sat next to my wife rather than in the open seat closer to the other Indian women. Whispers were exchanged, and my wife and her friend felt somewhat scrutinized. It was one of those rare moments when a light is shone on how separate and distinct we all remain in America’s melting pot. You don’t realize it until you do, and then it’s impossible to get out of your head. As Penny and her classmates have gotten older and become closer friends, this boundary has dissipated. There still tends to be a clustering along racial lines, but then those groups ebb and flow with parents from a variety of backgrounds streaming in and out, gushing over everyone’s kids and how adorable and talented they are.
It is inevitable: One day, Penny will cease being so blindly color-blind. She’ll notice the rainbow of different complexions in people’s faces and know all about different races. The thing that’s just as inevitable: she won’t care.
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