My Daughter is in White Denial

Several weeks ago, my family and I went to Home Depot on a quest to find an obscure appliance light bulb. My husband and seven-year-old daughter thought it’d be in stock, but I was more skeptical, and so we bet milkshakes. That way, no matter what, we’d all win. The scenic drive was peaceful and delightfully quiet, except for the off-key, nonsensical epic being sung in the back seat. My husband and I listened in comfortable silence, enjoying the sound of our daughter’s voice. It was a beautiful and unburdened moment. Then she stopped.

“Mama?” she said, loudly. “Guess who my hero is? Harriet Tubman. She is AMAZING!”

I looked over at my husband. He glanced at me, and we both (naively) smiled, so thankful that her school was teaching her actual history. I turned around and looking at my daughter said, “That’s great Birdie!” Emboldened, I wanted to keep the conversation going, but in doing so, I evidently made a reference to the fact that we’re white. I’d felt so proud, I should have anticipated the fall.

“Wait, mama, we’re not white,” she said.

“What? Yes, we are.” I told her.

“No, we aren’t. We’re tan.” she said.

“Birdie,” I said, “we are definitely, without a doubt, white.”

She looked at me and said, “Nope, I am not those people mama. I’m tan.”

And there it was, the fall. A sickness settled in body. I knew that arguing with her any further right then would be useless. My daughter was in denial, white denial. And a clichéd denial at that. My trip to Home Depot was officially burdened. I stared past her, at the trees blending together as they rushed by, and thought, “I can’t tell anybody what she just said.” I turned around, my eyes skimming my husband’s in a weary acknowledgment before resting on the road before us.

I was in shock. So, this is what they are worried about, I thought. The parents who are against so called CRT. Her words were on repeat in my head. She’d essentially used the story of Harriet Tubman to infer that white people were not good. And in her refusal to identify as white, she went so far as to call them “those people.” Yikes. We pulled into the Home Depot parking lot and my head exploded with questions. I had no idea what to do with this situation, but I knew that it was significant, and I couldn’t ignore it. I also knew that her words were incendiary and could be weaponized. I had to tread lightly.

On the way home, milkshake and lightbulb in hand, I decided I wouldn’t talk to my daughter about her whiteness again until I had a firm grasp on the situation, (which I later amended to just a grasp). Over the next few weeks my husband and I discussed her denial countless times, and I carefully curated three friends to help council me.

What I discovered through these conversations, and through my own mental wanderings, is that my daughter’s confusion created many difficult and uncomfortable questions. Ultimately though, the question boiled down to “why do we teach our children history?” Is it to get an A in class? Or to go to a good college? No, not for our family. I want Birdie to learn history so that she can understand how we got here, both personally and as a society. I want her to know the beauty and the ugliness of the past so that she can better understand the present and the future. And I want her to know that we’re all connected, that everyone has ancestors, and that no one is self-made.

History is brutal, it’s sad, and learning about the tragedies that our country is built upon will both break her heart and build her resilience. And she might feel shame, but that’s okay. It’ll pass, and it’ll help her understand the connection between past and future. That what she does now, will have an impact on how her grandchildren, and their grandchildren feel about history.

And as for her white denial, I finally asked her what she meant, and Birdie told me that the white people in the Harriet Tubman story were bad. Very bad, and that she did not want to be those people. I told her, “Fair enough.” I’ve also discussed the term “white” as not just a color on the color wheel. It’s a work in progress.

And so, we continue to teach her difficult truths, knowing that secrets fester, and history cannot be erased.

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