Saturday, October 06, 2012

Lessons in racism for the two-year-old set

Last week, I asked my Facebook universe for help with a situation. Here's the gist of the conversation and how the experience is playing out thus far.

My post: 

Help, please. I LOVE Ella’s gymnastics school. I always wanted to go there when I was a kid, Olympians come from there (not my goal, just by way of explaining its quality), and she and I have the most fun of our week’s mommy-and-me activities at that class. That said, they end the class with the 10 kids sitting in a circle with the teacher (who may very well have been teaching the little kids 20 years ago, when I was in high school across the street) and singing a song. We’ve had two classes, and both times the song has been “Ten Little Indians.” “One little, 2 little, 3 little Indians, 4… 10 little Indians, more.” And then they make this war whoop kind of sound and pat their palms to their mouths. You know. Then the teacher gives the kids stamps on their hands and feet and we all go home. In this age of sitting “crisscross” rather than “Indian-style,” I’m a little uncomfortable, to say the least. It feels like this is one of those moments where I can do nothing, or stand up for something, and if it were the original lyrics (no Indians, N-words instead) or an issue I’m known to boycott restaurants over, I wouldn’t have a question. I’d at least say something or ask for a different song. But I don’t want to be “that” mom. Or do I?

My friends' answers ran the gamut from "I vote leave it alone. The song isn't meant to be hurtful. I'm sure the teacher's intentions aren't hurtful either" to "I'd say something. For sure."

Ella's godmother (not surprisingly) made a point that really clarified the situation for me: "I have mixed feelings, but the real litmus test is to imagine how you would feel if Ella starts belting out the tune at your next playgroup, or the grocery, or at church. If you are okay with people believing you taught it to her, you are okay. If not, it shouldn't be too hard to ask if you can take her out of class just before the song. That way you get all the good gymnastics, and you can give her your own silly song!"

When a friend whose daughter was a student in that class for two years posted the lyrics that the teacher uses, I thought perhaps I could just let it go--the lyrics don't tell the story of genocide (I misspoke in my original post, when I said that the original lyrics were about N-words--that was actually derivative of the original lyrics, which makes sense in the historical order of things. The original song was used to teach children that they didn't have to be scared of Native Americans because they all die off in a countdown from 10.), but the gym's lyrics are still a very stereotypical caricature of American Indians. 

 Here's the song as they sing it: "One little, 2 little, 3 little Indians, 4 little, 5 little, 6 little Indians, 7 little, 8 little, 9 little Indians, 10 little Indian boys and girls. Jumped in the boat and the boat tipped over (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Swam to the shore and built a teepee (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Danced around the fire and they all went ooh wee (repeat 3x), 10 little Indian boys and girls. Ooh wa, ooh wa, shoot an arrow (repeat 3x), ten little Indian boys and girls." 

When I read those lyrics in my friend's comment, I was relieved. Perhaps I was making too big a deal of it. Perhaps I could live with it. If Ella belted it out in church, at least she wouldn't be telling the story of genocide. 

Ella and I went to class on Wednesday. We had an amazing workout. Then, we sang the song. Because I can still pretend I don't know the words, I didn't sing them, but I tried to help Ella with the hand movements. Boat tipping over: open palm with opposite hand's fingers on them tips over, repeat on other side. Swam to shore: pretend to swim with arms. Teepee: hold your hands over your head with your palms pressed together. Dance around the fire: make circles with your hand around a pretend fire. Shoot an arrow: clap your hands together and have the right hand fire off an arrow into the sky using your pointer finger in an upward motion. 

I didn't like it, but I thought I could try to live with it. I'm very conflict adverse, and while I will post my political opinions all day long, I really hate confronting people. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, I could live with it. 

That night, Justin was home for dinner. Ella was jabbering to herself as we sat down at the table, and she started saying, "Shoot the arrow, shoot the arrow!"

It took my breath away. 

I looked at her and said, "Ella, I don't really like that song."

She stopped singing it and moved on to another song, as she does these days. My life is a medley of Wheels on the Bus, Old McDonald, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Skinamerinky-dinky-dink.

Justin and I exchanged looks and decided we would talk about it later, so as not to draw attention to a song we don't want her to sing. She's already old enough to do something just because we ask her not to--just to see what will happen. 

We agreed that it was not acceptable for Ella to sing that song. Even if the lyrics aren't murderous, they are stereotypical and, at their heart, racist. 

The trouble is, we really like the gymnastics program, so we don't want to pull Ella from the school, which seems a little extreme anyway. One song in a 45-minute class shouldn't be so powerful, should it?

The trouble is, it is. 

We decided that we could keep Ella in the class, let her sing the song and get the stamps on her hands and feet, and ask her not to sing the song anywhere else. We could tell her, as we did that night, that we didn't like that song and didn't want to sing it outside of class. She's two. How can we explain this all to her? We can tell her we don't like the song because it hurts some people's feelings or that it isn't very nice. She's smart. She'll understand. Right? At the very least, she'll listen to us, as she did that night. Right?

It was late. We had just tucked her into bed and finished the dishes and picked up the house and all we really wanted to do was sit on the couch with a couple of drinks and watch the DVR of the Presidential Debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It was so nice that we agreed and had come to such a simple conclusion about our little problem. Plus, no confrontation!

Then, the debate sucked.

Then, I called Ella's godmother in the morning to commiserate over President Barack Obama blowing it in the debate. Conversation turned to our kids (hers are old enough to watch the debate (as homework! in fourth grade!)) and then, the song.

There is a reason this woman is Ella's godmother. We have the same moral compass (you can call him Jesus). Her kids (Kindergarten, fourth grade, seventh grade) are awesome role models for Ella. Our husbands are the exact kind of perfect that each of us needs. We are all blessed. 

She delved into the idea that I have to be comfortable with people thinking that I taught her this song. "Because you did." 

While Ella is two, and I am sitting with her and a teacher, and she is learning something, I am giving her that knowledge. I am saying, "It is OK for you to learn this concept, or this trick, or this tune. I am with you and I believe it is good to learn this lesson." 

I am still with her. 

When Ella is five or six, when Ella is in school on the playground she will be learning from her peers. But how will she know not to make that racial slur that someone else is saying? If when she was two I said, "You know what? In this case, in this scenario, when I'm really uncomfortable and I think singing this song is wrong, but I'm doing it anyway because everyone else is doing it and I really want to be liked and be part of this gym, in this particular set of circumstances, it's gonna have to be OK," how will she know?

Fortunately, I have several friends who not only have a good sense of right and wrong, but also good strategies to help me do what is right.

Alternative lyrics have been suggested. Count pumpkins, toes-ies, airplanes, or bubbles. 

Tell the teacher my reservations about the song. Mention being sensitive to other cultures.

Take Ella out of the class just before the song. Give her our own silly song. 

Send an email. If I can't send one to the teacher directly, send one to the director, even anonymously, and the information will be passed along from a supervisor role.

Pull the teacher aside, saying something "like, 'Thanks so much for another great class. Ella really loves the singing at the end of class, and I like the idea of the activity. Do you know what the song is referring to, though?' Explain its origins and ask if she would consider a different song. If you can keep it friendly and supportive, and let her know that it makes you uncomfortable, and you are not judging her, you will not be 'that mother.' Just keep saying 'we love the class' if she gets defensive."

"Fix the problem without being 'that mom.' Print a reference from the Internet describing the meaning of the song. I doubt she has any clue. After class thank the coach for doing such a great job with the kids. Then give her the print out. Tell her (not the gym owner or anyone else) that you are sure she must not know what the meaning of the song is, but she also might not realize that some of these girls in the class are descendants of Native Americans. I bet it stops...who knows what other song you'll get in its place!?" 

And there was encouragement: "I'd say something. For sure. But, I'm always 'that' mom. And proud of it. :) What's the worst that happens--you speak your mind, provide some enlightenment, perhaps change some things... or they just keep singing the song and you then decide your next move of living with it vs. taking her out early or not supporting the business. Can't hurt to bring it up is my point."

I knew that having a child would challenge me in so many ways, but I did not expect this particular challenge--at least not already, when she's only two years old. I thought the big moral and ethical questions would come later. I don't know when. Maybe in elementary school? Definitely in junior high. By high school I'd be praying that her upbringing gave her the foundation to make the right choices in the face of peer pressure and everything else scary to a parent.

Who knew her upbringing had already begun at this level?

So, my dear Ella, I know that you love to sing and you love teachers giving you stamps or stickers at the end of class. I know that I have been teaching you to look the teacher in the eye at the end of class and say "thank you." I know that you are likely to be angry and confused if I usher you out the door the minute the coach tells the class to finish what they're doing and come sit in a circle for their song. I know that you might even throw a fit.

I also know that I want you to appreciate all people for their real qualities. I want you to respect your teachers and do what they say, but I also want you to respect yourself and do what is right. I want you to know the difference between right and wrong. I don't know how to teach you these lessons except by example. So, even though I am really scared of authority (seriously? it's a mommy-and-me gymnastics class and I'm the mommy, but somehow the idea of speaking to a teacher who is also an elder makes me feel small), even though I want to be liked and I hate to make waves and I don't want to create a difficult environment in a place you might choose to spend a lot of your time in the future, I have to say something. 

I cannot sing that song because it is rooted historically in racism. I cannot sing that song because even in its modernized version it plays on stereotypes that reinforce inaccurate and demeaning images of what it means to be Native American. 

I spend my life hoping to make this world a better place. I have always worked for that goal. It's why I was a journalist. It's why I was a teacher. Now, as your mother, it is really all that I am meant to do. I want the world to be better for you. I want you to help make it better for others. It is my legacy. You are my legacy. 

So we have to learn this big lesson today. We have to learn to be sure of our principles. We have to decide what is right. We have to act on our decision. We have to be gracious and delicate and strong and confident all at once. 

It's gymnastics for our minds and souls.

1 comment:

B. Wilson said...

I really enjoyed reading this. You take parenting seriously and I admire & respect that.

You'll do right by Ella. I don't even question it. She's being raised by some wonderful people.