The curriculum I created for my children: Combating “Why is the bad guy brown?”

Marthaby guest blogger Martha Haakmat

My teenage daughters now tease me about the number of times the words “diversity” and “race” came up at our dinner table as they grew up in our family. My middle daughter does an imitation of me with creased forehead making an important point such as:

“…it is a school’s job to educate children about power, privilege, and systemic racism.”

As I packed my two oldest daughters off to college this year and prepared for having my youngest daughter in high school, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my husband and I raised three bi-racial young women, each very different people, but all clearly centered in their racial identities.

I know it started before they were born. We stockpiled children’s books featuring brown people and strong female characters. When my girls were infants and toddlers, I not only read these books over and over, I stopped the stories throughout to point out skin colors and hair textures and to remind my daughters that brown skin and thick hair were beautiful.

“Look. This little girl has beautiful brown skin, just like you and me. And her hair is in braids like yours too. I like this hair style.”

I felt like I was creating a curriculum for my children that would directly combat the one they were immersed in every time we turned on the television or left the house. I had to work on this curriculum and be super aware of the places it was challenged. I talked openly about the color black being like a gorgeous night sky, calm, and peaceful…like a warm, cozy embrace. Whenever they asked me about my favorite color, I said black first, on purpose.

I also pointed out where black was presented as ugly or sinister, frightening, or criminal and built an understanding of this pattern in literature and movies. When my girls were in preschool, they were able to identify the pattern as well. Kaila would question, “Why is the bad guy brown?” and Georgia and Grace would wonder out loud, “Why are the princesses mostly blonde?”

At times, I felt a bit like a brain washer and was very aware of my power over my children’s thinking. I wondered if it was right to be raising the topic of race so much with my daughters…as opposed to waiting until they raised it themselves. But I needed them to be critical of the way Blackness was at best ignored and at worst demonized. I needed them to feel empowered as Black girls to call out racism and to know that their heritage is strong and good. I wanted them to identify with Blackness and with me as their Black parent.

Now that my daughters are teenagers, we still, of course, have conversations about race at the dinner table. My daughters now raise the topic…it’s not every night and it’s no longer about princesses. They share their thoughts about Black Lives Matter and about whether it’s okay to feel annoyed or suspect when a White peer declares that she “only dates Black men.” Our talks are energetic and loud. We debate and we don’t always fall on the same side of an argument.

I have no regrets about the curriculum I created for raising race conscious children in my house. I know I had no choice.

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Martha Haakmat is a Black woman, who is celebrating 29 years of teaching and leading in New York City independent schools. Currently the Head of School at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School serving children from twos through 8th grade, Martha has been a lower, middle, and upper school educator and has held administrative positions such as Diversity Director and Middle School Head. Martha has served as an independent school trustee and has been a member of various committees for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS). She was also the founder and director of Educators for Growth and Empowerment (EDGE), a diversity consulting team that presented in schools and conferences nationwide. Martha is married to Steve, a White man and has three, bi-racial daughters who are now 21, 18, and 14 years old.

Click here for more information on participating in Raising Race Conscious Children’s interactive workshop/webinar or individual consultations.

3 Responses

  1. JL
    JL at · Reply

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s helpful to me and I hope to use the ideas in my house and in my workplace.

  2. Michael J. Newkirk
    Michael J. Newkirk at · Reply

    Great job, Martha!

    No, I don’t think you brainwashed your children. I think that “curriculum” is the perfect word because the intention really does have to be in place and consistent. Although I believe that it is important for biracial children to research all of their family history and be inspired by the accomplishments on both sides of the family, I would not feel guilty (in your case and my case) about placing a social focus on edifying their Blackness because of the political climate. It takes real care and attention to balance the scale so that the real brainwashing that waits for our children is mitigated. You should be proud of the fact that, given the tons of other messages they would have received from the time they left home until the time they returned, that you were able to instill conscious and correct images, thoughts, and associations about Black people, Black women, and their sense of self overall.

    I have a biracial daughter. You’d better believe I cleared my schedule the day my wife asked me if I wanted to go shopping for my daughter’s first doll. I review any children’s book given to us. As an African American parent, I know I have to be on guard and that there is just no other way, at least at this time. I am very grateful to have a wife who not only understands this, but is there in the trenches with me, calling a spade a spade, and making sure that our daughter is exposed to empowering images of her heritage and culture.

    Lastly, the more we do this, the more I believe it will foster consciousness across communities to stop perpetuating systemic problems, knowingly or not. For example, my wife, who is White, was recently at an arts and crafts festival (in a mostly White, small city in Canada) and happened upon a doll maker who happened to be a White woman as well. As my wife as looking through the dolls on display (not culturally diverse), the vendor interrupted her search and said, “I’d be happy to make a doll that looks like your daughter.” Hearing stuff like that gives me energy.

    Best,

    Michael.

  3. Sarah Haas
    Sarah Haas at · Reply

    Thank you so much for your post. I am trying to create this same kind of curriculum for my daughter and for the children I serve in the community. Your work and leadership is greatly appreciated!

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