February 22, 2010

Nappy and the White Boy

Someone gave Firefly a copy of the picture book Nappy by Charisse Carney-Nunes for Christmas. It's a bit beyond her reading (listening?) level right now, but Puppy asks for it on occasion.

The other day he looked up from the couch, where he sat with the book on his lap. "Firefly's hair is nappy!" he said happily, pleased with himself for making the connection.

I admit it stopped me in my tracks, hearing "nappy" coming from my white son's lips. Even though I knew full well it was being used innocently, even positively, in this specific instance, my gut reaction was negative. I had a flash of him--the only white child in the church--blithely labeling his African-American peers "nappy" the next morning at Sunday School.

I realized I was caught between parenting goals: wanting to affirm his connection of his sister's tight coils to those of the black historical figures celebrated in the book; needing to start teaching him why he and I can't use that word the same way Firefly can. If I have any sort of strategy (to use that word loosely) at this point with tiny Firefly, it is to work on creating a positive association with "nappy," so that when she hears it applied negatively to her hair for the first time--and I believe it is a question of when, not if--she will already have a sense of familiarity with and even ownership of the word. But even there I tread lightly, knowing that there is no one shared perspective on "nappy" among African-Americans. The one thing I know for certain is that it is not a word I, as a white person, should throw around casually, if at all. While I had thought some about familiarizing Firefly with "nappy," particularly after we were given the book, I had neglected to think about my approach with Puppy. He was picking up the positive association but without any of the cultural context he also needed. (Perfectly understandable for a four-year old.)

"Firefly's hair is nappy," I agreed. "It's one of the ways to describe her pretty curls. It's a word we can use here at home with our family. But it's not one that we should use with people who aren't in our family."


"It's a word that some people use to be mean. They call hair 'nappy' as a way of saying someone's hair doesn't look nice. And when someone who isn't in our family hears you using it, they won't be able to tell whether or not you're being mean. You could hurt their feelings."

"People think 'nappy' is mean?"

"Some people do. They are often people who have straight hair and pink skin like you and I do, instead of curly hair and brown skin like Firefly. If we tell a curly-haired person that their hair is nappy, they might think we're trying to be mean at them.* When you're older it will be easier to figure out when you can use the word 'nappy.' But while you're little it's better if it's a family word."

My off-the-cuff response seemed to be enough for him that night. Later that weekend I overheard him making sure Todd knew that "nappy" was a family word, so I know he was thinking about it more. And he hasn't stopped reading the book, so I think so far he hasn't taken it as an over-correction.

It can be a tricky thing, raising my children of different races. Trickier than I think raising two African-American kids would have been, although I'm throwing guesses at the wind there. There are some specific things I need to pass onto each of them; chief among them for Puppy is what it means to be aware of his whiteness (among his other privileges). Teaching Firefly that "nappy" is her word to claim and define while simultaneously teaching Puppy that he can't do the same, at least not in the same way. There is a tension in trying to create a unified "us" as a multiracial family while also acknowledging that our family identity is different than our individual racial identities. Not overemphasizing that three of the four of us share whiteness, but not ignoring it either. Our multiracial-ness as family makes us visible in particular ways and sometimes changes how others interact with us. But parenting a child of color doesn't make me a person of color; being a brother to a black sister doesn't make Puppy black.** When any of us leaves the house without Firefly, our multiracial family identity becomes invisible to others.

It's not the first of these sorts of moments with Puppy and I know it won't be the last. I'm interested in knowing if others of you with similar family make-ups ever feel that same tension.

* This is a Puppy grammar quirk. You're mean at people, not mean to people. He insists on it. Don't ask me why.
**You might be saying, "Well, duh, Heather." But you see that sometimes here and there, white transracial adoptive parents who announce they're an African-American/Chinese/Ethiopian/etc. family now because of their child's background. I suspect they're trying to describe how their perspective on race and culture has changed, or their efforts to embrace their child's heritage. But I think they take it a bit far. I didn't trade in my whiteness the day Firefly came home.


Leigh said...

Hi Heather - I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that I really enjoyed reading this post. I can't personally relate to the challenges in your household, but I love hearing about how you approach them with such grace, intelligence and thoughtfulness. I think your children are lucky to have you as their mom and I'm sure when they're older they'll look back and say, "wow, she was amazing. she made me feel strong."

Hilary said...

Yeah, that's a tough one. Thanks for sharing.

Dawn said...

You sure handled that beautifully!!! I like that our age gap is such that talking about these things with Noah has gone pretty smoothly. I mean, seven years difference works sometimes!! But Madison has lately been on a rampage about not having a black sibling although she has no desire for us to adopt again (good thing because neither do we). It's either that or Pennie and family need to move in with us, says Madison because she is SICK OF BEING THE ONLY BLACK PERSON IN THE FAMILY!!!

passinthru said...

I'm with Puppy. You're mean AT people. And, sometimes, people are mean at you. The mean person owns it.

Lovely post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

In case my google account doesn't work (I think I set one up) I'm Jennifer, 39 year old white woman in MN who has a Korean sister 36 years old. we have been sisters since ages 6 and 3. Back then in them there 'olden days' you just didn't think about addressing how one was different than the other. Yes we knew there were differences, even talked about them sometimes (like I could never wear any of her makeup as I'd look like a racoon and we never could share clothes). Its funny, we get along very well as sisters. I know, in talking with my sister years after our childhood that she wished we had done more Korean cultural events but such things were just not in exsistence in a very organized fashion in the late 70s and early 80s. My how times have changed.

But what prompted me to comment is your statement of when the 'three white people' are together without the 'racially different' person in the family. To this day this kind of bothers me. When I leave the house, especially when I leave the house with my parents, there is no symbol, no recognizable way to identify that my sister is Korean. And I want the whole world to know because I'm proud of her and love her for who she is. I thought about this more when I was in my younger 20s, in college and ready to take over the world. But it still steals into my head from time to time. I don't have an answer. One of the things I do frequently is show off photos of my sister and point out that she is my sister, letting the viewer make the connection that perchance there is adoption involved.

I have other funny 'adult siblings that are adopted from different cultures' stories as well. But I don't want to make this post any longer than it needs to be. :-)

Jen said...

Thanks for your post and blog. Great story.

Come check out our new site called goodkin (www.WeAreGoodkin.com) We are a non-tradtional family lifestyle site that looks at new kinds of families all over. I think you'd like it.

mama d said...

Beautiful post.

Our situation is somewhat different in that only us parents are caucasian, but four of the five of us look it. Frequently, non-family assumes that only one of our children was adopted or that he is a friend of the family. "Did you all just meet him here? Where are his parents?"

My kids are much more aware of their racial/cultural identities than I expected them to be at this age (4 & 5, our 9YO has a different perspective), perhaps because of the potentially misleading external cues within our own family. I have to remind myself that our blondes are not always assumed to be Chinese and therefor not always "allowed" to question someone's "Asian"ness in public (as my daughter did recently to mixed results). It really begged the question of whether or not there is a universally accepted language of respect or if everything is relative.

Unknown said...

Years ago the Afrocentric bookstore near our house had a wall clock that said "I'm Happy to be Nappy!" across the top and "Nip, Nap, Hooray!" across the bottom. I thought it would be great to have for the kids' room. My African American husband looked at me like I was nuts. He's in favor of our girls having natural hair, but I don't think he wanted to have to explain to his mom how in White Wife World, nappy is good.

luna said...

such an excellent and thought-provoking post, heather.

Kohana said...

Yes, this is challenging, especially with very young children. I had one of these moments of conflict when our whole family was getting our groove on to James Brown's "I'm Black I'm Proud." We all love the song, but we can't all sing along.

Sprout, who is three now, sometimes tells people, "This is my brother Small Sun. He's brown." Just in case they aren't able to see for themselves?

I think being the "only" in any variation of family hues can be challenging, and it hurts my heart that my son is alone in this experience for much longer than I had intended at the outset.

I think you handled it well, and it sounds like you found the balance between introducing caution without shutting Puppy down. Well done.

Jess said...

Wow, I really never thought about those type issues! It's funny, in a way, because a child can be so OPEN in their innocence, but also NOT funny because it's very serious!

We don't have a multi-racial family but are starting to have a little bit of talking about how Ava has another Mom and brother and yet Ethan doesn't and this feels a little similar! Thanks for sharing!

Lavonne said...

great post heather. lately i've realized how when i leave the house without tee i'm not marked in some way for others to know that i have a multiracial family. i simply become like a regular non-descript person that no one pays any attn too. and then when i'm out with tee i get many looks (mostly positive) and much more attn.

there is obviously nothing to do about this but just an interesting observation. and i like your point about how just b/c firefly is black doesn't make you any less white. so true.

Jen M said...

Wow, nice work! I'm just in awe. It was an age-appropriate and accurate explanation. And off the cuff too! Can I borrow you any time I have a tricky kid question????

Anonymous said...

Great job! Wow.
This reminds me of one of our family stories.
When Ilsa was 4 and she and her twin brother were the only white kids in their preschool class (in Mauritania), she came home to tell me about her two new friends. Aida had "gold skin and black hair" and Bomby was "dark dark brown like chocolate." She kept going on about how dark Bomby was. I kept squirming. But it was so innocent--she was just describing her friend to me, and there was no judgement behind it. She thought her new friends beautiful, as they were. (Aida Lebanese; Bomby Ivoirian) But I still had to teach her that we usually don't just describe people by skin colour.

Marlo said...

That was really well said. I write about hair and have been shocked by the number of times I've heard white parents describe their black child's hair as nappy without any understanding of the cultural significance and context of the word.

Great job explaining it to your son.

Wishing 4 One said...

This was an amazing post for me to read. I have no connection to adoption of any kind. I just loved how you talked to him about the word nappy and it made me smile. I remember a close friend growing up, she was mixed race, black father, white mother and her siblings were from her black father and their black mothers. They used to give her a lot of shit because her hair was straight and smooth curly and theirs was not. Trivial then, but I wonder how she and they turned out. Great parenting advice anyway thanks so much for sharing!

Meredith said...

This is a wonderful post. I'm Caucasian and my husband is African American. We are currently trying to conceive (with infertility issues) and we are also seriously considering adoption.

If we have biological children, they will obviously be biracial, and if we adopt we will likely adopt a biracial or African American child. I hope that I can approach any teachable moments with my future children as well as you did with yours.

I think you beautifully acknowledged how complex racial issues can be, even within the same family.

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