by Sarah Stuteville
On a cozy Saturday morning as I ate blueberry pancakes, my then three-year-old son leaned into his godmother and announced, “You are a big, fat weirdo!”
Toddlers do all sorts of embarrassing things—from loudly discussing their genitals on public transportation to casually using the “f-word” when they drop a grape at a dinner party. But for me—a socially anxious empath—there is nothing more mortifying than watching my kid hurt someone’s feelings. Add a dash of political sensitivity aimed right at my how-to-raise-a-nice-white-boy angst, and you’ve summoned my perfect storm of social horror.
We now know that kids as early as two years old notice differences, especially related to race and gender. White children start developing racial bias as early as four and five although children of color do not show these same biases. It’s probably safe to assume that this early acknowledgment of difference extends to size, ability, and other physical variations. This flies in the face of many of our assumptions about white childhood as a time of innocence protected from bitter divisions that rip through our world. And for those of us who can, we often put off conversations about human cruelty too long and, therefore, leaving our kids with an absence of explanations, a studied silence that turns to taboo.
When I was growing up in white, working-class Ballard of the 1980s and 90s, the measure of good character was politeness. And “polite” meant explicitly not talking about difference—not that there was a ton of difference to talk about in that milieu! That didn’t mean difference was ok. A common refrain in my family was “Well, she’s…different,” and it wasn’t a compliment. But to comment directly on the way someone was different would have earned real punishment. I cringe to imagine what might have happened to me if I’d called someone a “fat weirdo” within earshot of an adult.
Discomfort with a difference is itself a red-hot privilege flag. Whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or size, only those of us who spend most of our lives squarely inside “the norm” get to choose to engage with our feelings around difference. Others have the reality of their difference foisted on them. No one cares whether they like it.
I was so quick with my own embarrassment that recent Saturday morning I failed to notice the reaction in the room. Once my blush had subsided, I saw that my son’s godmother seemed unphased, her husband even adding with a smile, “Malcolm, most people you love are fat, and certainly all of them are weird.” In my self-absorbed fluster I hadn’t considered that she and Malcolm didn’t think there was anything wrong with being fat and weird. It was I who did.
This desire—both real and performative—to be a “good, progressive Mom ” raising a “good, white boy” reared up again last weekend when I took my kids to the MLK Day celebrations at Northwest African-American Museum where one can see an event, problematically, flooded with white ladies and their kids. Determined to go to the heart of the difficult, I fumbled my way through what I thought was a toddler-friendly version of past and current racial apartheid systems capping my ramblings with a “Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero” kicker. I would find out later this seemed the only part of my speech that stuck when my superhero-obsessed son: he went around asking people if MLK was “Marvel or Avengers!” Perhaps I would have done well to read this article, visited this website, or sought out a number of other resources beforehand journeying to NAAM. Of course, that crossed my mind only after my well-intentioned #MLKDayFail.
But maybe that’s how I should attempt to raise a white boy who is comfortable engaging with difference. My son is taught best to understand how to be sensitive to the feelings and vulnerabilities of others by my modeling, my willingness to get things wrong, not just a desire to get things right. He and I also need regular reminders that we pay attention to how people describe themselves and use those words. Or we ask someone if we’re unsure. He’s teaching me as much as I’m teaching him.
Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year. Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.
Featured image: “Toddler painting” by Aaron Gilson