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