Interrupting White silence with my children
On Wednesday, November 9th, the day after Election Day, I picked up my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter from school with my fourteen-month-old in the baby carrier and told her that we were headed to Manhattan to a protest Trump’s election. Armed with leftover Halloween candy and melt-in-your-mouth dehydrated yogurt bites, we made our way to the subway and got on the C train to Columbus Circle.
I had brought paper and crayons to make a sign for the protest, and in light of our conversation that morning, my daughter asked me to write “MO MORE JAILS” in bubble letters, which she diligently colored in, while fellow subway-riders looked on. (My daughter had developed a three-step plan for closing jails, which was, as stated by her: “1) Open the jails; 2) Get all the people out of the jails; and 3) Close the jails.”)
The protest had already started when we arrived, so we stuck to the back of the crowd and learned a chant that my fourteen-month old has since “requested” quite often, by showing us a chanting fist: “We won’t let hatred win, this is where the fight begins!”
My daughter showed off her sign, checked out some other peoples’ signs, chanted, and after twenty minutes needed to use a bathroom and was hungry. Thus ended our participation in the day’s action, but it was where I needed to be, and I was happy to have shared the event with my children.
Fast-forward a few days: I overheard my daughter singing “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe” (which has racist origins, as do so many other childhood songs including, “Shoefly, don’t bother me,” “Five Little Monkeys,” and “Oh Susanna” among others) with her stuffed animals to decide who would get a first turn.
“Where did you learn that?” I asked. She had learned it from another child at school.
“You know, I realllly don’t like that song because it has a very ugly history that uses a word that is very hateful towards people who have brown skin, in this case people who are Black. When something is hateful towards a group of people just because of their skin color, it is called racism, which is a very ugly and sad. So I really don’t like the idea of singing a song that has a racist history. I wonder if we could find another version of a song to choose whose turn it is…maybe one in Spanish…or we could make one up!”
We ended up doing both. My daughter first instructed me to message my mother-in-law in Argentina.
While we waited for her reply, we made up our own chant.
“How about we start with something like ‘Silly billy?’” I suggested. My daughter jumped on board. Here’s what we came up with:
“Silly billy willy boo.
We will pick a person who.
Really likes to eat some goo.
Silly billy willy woo.”
My daughter later suggested we change the word “goo” to “shoe” and the line became, “Really likes to eat a shoe!”
I suggested that when other children sung “eeny meeny,” my daughter could teach them her version of the song instead.
“I want you to come to my classroom and teach all the children our new song.”
“And you’ll help me, right? Can we also explain why we made up this new song?”
My daughter concurred.
An hour or so later, a message arrived with a Spanish version, which my daughter put to memory immediately:
“Ta, te, tí,
Dame suerte para mí,
Si no es para mí, será para tí,
Chocolate con maní”
Literal translation: Ta te ti, Give me luck for me, If it’s not for me, it’ll be for you. Chocolate and peanuts!
All of a sudden we had two songs to teach her class…and two other options to avoid reproducing a racist history by singing “eeny meeny…”
On that cold, rainy day after the election, Columbus Circle is where I wanted to be with my children. But as a parent, it feels even more urgent to take the daily opportunities for interrupting racism and standing up to White-washed history that often stands in silence as “harmless” nursery rhymes are reproduced by generation after generation.
If there is anything I want to teach my White children, it is not to stay silent. It is that words matter…and today, they matter more than ever.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.