“Accidental Blackface”: 3 Weeks, 3 Kids, entry # 7

The list of ways in which I have embarrassed myself over the years is long and colorful. One time, not too long ago, I hired a babysitter for Milo and decided I would make the most of my free hours by getting my exercise running my errands, literally. I dressed in my workout clothes and went about my morning on foot, jogging whenever I could—school drop off, eye doctor appointment, the bank, coffee shop, grocery store. I praised myself for my efficiency. As I was walking home from the grocery store, weighed down by bags on each arm, I caught sight of my reflection on the side of a building and saw something that confused me: What was that white thing on my crotch? And that is when I looked down at myself and saw that I had my running tights on backwards… and inside out. Black spandex tights, white cotton crotch.

Once, at summer camp, when I was about eleven or twelve, I came strolling around the bend, on my way back to my cabin from the showers, only to find the entire camp body assembled before me—I stood there in my little towel and flip flops, hair dripping wet, shower bucket in hand, freshly washed toes already covered in dust from kicking down the path, now facing a couple hundred campers and counselors gathered around the flag pole. They were singing Taps.

“Days is donnnnne,” intoned the campers.

I stood there uncomprehending.

“Gone the sunnnnnn….”

A few heads had turned in my direction. There was whispering and nudging

“From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky…”

I must have missed the dinner bell again. The last time that happened—when I disappeared on a solo walk around the perimeter of the camp and arrived halfway through dessert—my counselor told me that if I was ever late again, I would have to get up and sing and dance in front of the entire camp.

“All is welllll…”

All was not well. More and more kids were looking over at me instead of up at the flag. I was going to have to dance in my towel in front of them. I have always been a terribly self-conscious dancer.

“Safely resssst…”

I dropped my bucket with a clatter and fled through the woods, clutching my towel to my chest. When I was found, trembling, hiding under my cot with my towel over my head, legs scratched and bleeding from my frantic scramble through the woods, I feigned illness. No, no, I couldn’t possibly go to dinner feeling so bad. My rumbling stomach betrayed me, but luckily, the counselor who found me let me save face by playing along, “Oh, of course,” she said, “well, I can’t leave you here because I’m going out. It’s my night off, you see. So I’m just going to have to drop you in the back door of the kitchen to hang out with the cooks until the meal is over.” The cooks were friendly to me, the kitchen smelled heavenly, my stomach wouldn’t stop growling. I could hear the din of campers chattering and eating in the dining hall. Then a big plate of spaghetti was placed in front of me.

“Oh, no, I’m sick,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s why I’m not at dinner.”

“I know,” said the cook, “but you see, we made too much spaghetti. If you could eat just a little of this, it would help us out a lot.”

I ate three servings of spaghetti. And downed two cups of milk. And got double dessert: chocolate cake with a cherry on top. (Camp works up an appetite.) Then, bolstered up enough to rejoin my group in time for night games, I took a deep breath and walked back to my cabin. I never had to sing and dance in front of anyone, but that night over the campfire, I told my story over and over again to my cabin mates until it finally became more humorous than humiliating, even for me.

Another time I got all dressed up and arrived at an elegant party that I thought I had been invited to, only to suspect by the flicker of confusion that passed over the hosts’ faces as I waltzed through the door that perhaps I had not. My suspicions were confirmed by the lack of a table number card featuring my name in calligraphy (it was a sit down dinner with assigned seating). I stood there in front of the card table, rooted to the spot, my face growing hotter and hotter as I read the remaining names over again, searching in vain for my own. In the end, the hosts handled it graciously, never letting onto other guests that I had crashed their party, and seating me at a spot intended for someone else, an evident last minute regret. The name card on the plate was swept away by the hostess just as I sat down, but not too quickly for me to miss recognizing the name of a male friend with a history of flakiness. All around the room, tables were seated male-female-male-female, except ours where I disrupted the pattern. That was an awkward note to write: Thank you for the lovely evening. The tiramisu was exceptionally good! I am so sorry for my confusion regarding thinking I had received an invitation. I have no idea how that happened…

I could go on. Really. There are plenty more stories like these. But I think what happened last Wednesday might have topped them all. Unlike previous embarrassments where, for the most part, I have merely made a fool of myself, in this case I found myself being flagrantly offensive in a terrible way.

We are frequent visitors to a particular children’s museum in downtown Berkeley. I have heard others say they do not understand the attraction of this place. I can see where they are coming from: it is just a few basement rooms with areas for art, water play, and dramatic play. There’s a train table, a book nook, a snack area, and a single occupancy bathroom with a changing table. That’s about it. Unless you have a membership, access to the museum is unreasonably expensive—at $10 per child and $8 per adult, it would cost me $38 per visit. However, as I discovered when we moved to town last year, an annual membership is quite reasonable: for $18/month, I can bring all my kids every single day, if I want to. I think it is worth it for access to the paint wall alone: a floor-to-ceiling nonporous wall intended to be painted on and then sponged off—it is my favorite part of the museum.

When we lived within walking distance, I went even more often, but these days I still make an effort to get there at least once a week. Since Milo is not doing preschool, I use the museum as a proxy to give him some of the enriching experiences his brothers got at his age. It’s not quite the same thing—he’s not getting dropped off at a school where he has a regular routine with a class and a teacher and a cubby of his own, but I think he can get some of the essential parts of preschool through our visits. He does messy projects, interacts with adults other than his parents, gets to play with other kids his age, and learns to take turns and share resources, such as the trains at the train table or the boats in the water play area.

The museum is really geared toward toddlers and preschoolers. As a rising kindergartner, Duncan is usually one of the bigger kids; Wyatt, at age eight and heading into third grade, is always several years older and a full head taller than any other kid in the place. He doesn’t seem to notice, though. His favorite part is the dramatic play area, which currently has a big rocket ship in it. He will unselfconsciously squeeze into one of the costumes (which only go up to size 4-6), blithely unaware of how ridiculous he looks barking orders at co-pilot Duncan, in his crotch-hugging, capris-length spacesuit. Because the museum is small, all on one floor, and nobody can come in without checking in at the front desk—and because Wyatt and Duncan never get tired of the dramatic play area, whereas I always try to get Milo into the art room (so I have an excuse to paint on the paint wall)— I usually feel comfortable letting the older boys play out of my sight for long stretches of time.

All over the museum, there are signs reminding parents to let their children explore their creativity without bounds: “Messy play is good for kids!” is the message communicated and it is one that I heartily agree with. Once Wyatt mixed up a cup of silver-gray paint in the art room and then meticulously painted both his arms, fingertips to shoulders, and his legs, socks to shorts—“Look, now people will think I am a robot kid!” he said proudly— and I forever earned the respect of the art teacher when I did not even flinch. (“Wow, you are really doing a great job,” she whispered to me with a shoulder squeeze.)

The one area I am not a fan of is the face-painting corner. I don’t mind mess-making. In general, paint and marker stains bother me less than food stains (they’re so colorful!), but face paint bugs me because it smears on everything, the kids never want to wash it off, and they always get it too close to their eyes. Each week, I am silently chastised for my disapproval by the cheerful signs on the mirror by the cups of face-painting crayons: “Let your child paint her face however she likes!”

Last Wednesday, just as the announcement was made that the museum was closing, Wyatt and Duncan came bounding into the art room. I looked up from Milo’s play dough creation and stifled a gasp: my sons had completely covered their faces in a thick layer of black paint, painstakingly filling in every square nanometer of exposed skin—cheeks, noses, chins, eyelids, eyebrows, foreheads to the hairline, even the backs of their necks. Basically, they were in blackface. My response was visceral. I felt deeply offended by the very sight of them. I wanted to shout, What are you doing! What are you doing! Take it off! Instead I froze. Nobody around me was reacting. (Within the museum, I suppose visitors are desensitized to the sight of children walking around with paint all over their faces.) There was another child with them, a little blonde girl, and she, too, was wearing black face paint, but in her case she had haphazardly scribbled the paint on, leaving more exposed skin than painted, which somehow made it a completely different thing.

“We’re monsters!” Wyatt shouted.

“Roar!” said Duncan.

“Roar!” echoed the little girl.

“Arrrrghh!” said Duncan.

“We’re scary!” said the little girl.

“And we’re leaving,” I said, doing my best to maintain a calm exterior.

“Awwww,” said Duncan, Wyatt, and their little friend.

“Awwww,” said Milo, at my elbow, “but my not get face paint also!”

“Mommy, we can’t go now! We just finished our face paint. We didn’t even get to scare anyone!” said Wyatt.

“It’s time to go. The museum is closed.”

“Can we keep our faces painted all day?” Duncan asked.

I did not respond. My mind was rapidly cycling through my options. Wipe it off here? But they were so proud of their efforts and the museum was closing anyway and as I knew from prior experience, the cleansing wipes in the face painting corner are tiny squares of slightly damp tissue, fine for touch ups and small jobs—such as removing a set of whiskers or a lightly drawn cheek design— but not up to the task of removing such a quantity of thickly applied paint. I started digging through my backpack for baby wipes. Apparently I had forgotten them.

“The museum is now closed! Thank you for coming!” called one of the museum employees, flickering the lights. “We are now closed.”

I just needed to get out of there. We were parked less than half a block from the side entrance—with any luck, we could get out the museum, down the long hallway, out the door, up the steps and to our car without seeing anyone else. Then I would get them home and scrub their faces and decide whether they were old enough to understand the racist implications of their innocent actions.

When we got out in the hallway outside the museum door, there was a group of nannies sitting on the floor, speaking Spanish to each other, and feeding their young charges healthy-looking packed lunches.

“We painted our faces ourselves!” Wyatt told them. They smiled at him. Nobody recoiled or looked askance in my direction. Maybe I was overreacting? Then again, none of the nannies were African American. “Do I look like a scary monster?” he asked them.

“Yes, very scary,” said one of the nannies.

“Monster,” confirmed another.

The hallway is long, wide, carpeted, well lit, and usually empty. It practically begs the kids to turn cartwheels and run with their arms out, making airplane noises. When we neared the end, I had them stop and line up against the wall. I needed to photo-document their faces. I was having dinner with friends that night and when I told them about this, they would want to see evidence. I snapped a few pictures on my phone, none of them very good or in focus, but then a man walked by—he was a white man and barely looked at us—and I felt guilty and ashamed, as if I was condoning racism in my children. I put my phone away. “Let’s go, guys,” I said.

As we exited the building, a woman was coming down the stairs towards us. She was African American, about my age, baby on her hip. She kept her gaze straight ahead as she passed us. I wanted to explain: They don’t mean it! They don’t understand! They are just trying to be monsters! But then what? Am I saying that they think black people are monsters? She was gone before I could think of anything to say.

The kids take forever to walk anywhere. It’s not that they are slow—they are usually moving more quickly than I am—but there’s too much lateral movement and backtracking to make much forward progress. They are constantly investigating everything, apparently asking themselves the crucial questions of childhood categorization: Can I touch it? Can I keep it? Can I climb it? Can I jump off of it? Can I eat it? Can I stomp on it? Can I kick it? Can I run around it? Can I break it? This is why I was halfway up the stairs before I heard their plea to ride the elevator. Usually I say “no”—it is an accessibility lift, meant for those who cannot manage the stairs, not a toy for able-bodied little kids. I let them try it once last year just for the heck of it and now they beg to play on it every week.

“Can we ride the elevator?” Wyatt asked.

“No,” I said.

“Please?” said Duncan.

“May my peas ride elli-bater? Peas!” said Milo.

“No,” I said.

“Just once?” said Wyatt.

“Guys, walk up the stairs. I want to get home now,” I said, marching up the stairs without looking back. As I neared the top and looked toward my car, I saw a pack of teenagers walking down the sidewalk toward us. “Actually,” I said with urgency, turning back to the kids where they still stood at the bottom, “never mind! I changed my mind! Go ahead and play on the elevator! Do it right now! Great idea! Yep!”

“Yay!” they cheered and began squabbling over who got to press the buttons.

The kids continued to ride the lift up and down as people of all ages and races kept walking by. We live in a diverse and heavily populated area; I usually see this as an asset to be able to raise our children among a constant and wonderful rainbow of human beings. But now I was trapped by diversity and sensitivity. I did not want to offend anyone—I wished to make a quick getaway in our car without exposing anyone to my kids’ faces—but there was just no break in the flow of humanity. Each time the sidewalk cleared, someone else would round the bend before I had time to get the kids out of the elevator and to the car.

I wondered, was it somehow more acceptable that they be seen by non-African American people? I imagine that for a person of any hue, seeing two little white boys in blackface could be an upsetting experience, but for a person of color, it had the potential to be offensive in a deeply personal and distressing way. When I told the story to my friends that night and showed them the photos, they were suitably impressed with both the horror and the hilarity of the situation. One friend, who herself happens to be a woman of color, took one look at the photos and said, “Yeah, if I had seen you, I probably would have thought you were a terrible person.”

Finally, there was an opening. “Okay, let’s go now guys,” I called in my no nonsense parenting voice. I scooped Milo up and carried him toward the car. Duncan and Wyatt dragged along behind. We were all four fully exposed on the sidewalk when an elderly African American lady rounded the corner, pushing a little folding cart with a grocery bag in it, heading slowly down the block in our direction. I glanced over my shoulder. Wyatt and Duncan were squatting down to investigate something on the sidewalk behind me. They had their backs to the woman and to me. Please don’t move. Please don’t move, I thought. Maybe she would pass them by before they looked up.

I put Milo in the car and pretended I had no association with the other kids. Then, just as the woman reached me, Wyatt and Duncan jumped up and came running, “Mommy! Mommy! Don’t forget us!” they shouted.

How could I explain the situation to this woman? She was older, female, black, and, at least based on outward appearances, of a low socio-economic status: not someone I wanted to trod on in anyway; I did not want to be responsible for ruining her day. So, I threw my kids under the bus: “What is this!” I said severely to my surprised children, as if I had just noticed their faces, “You. Get. In the car. This instant,” I said. “I am appalled by you!”

Wyatt and Duncan hurriedly scrambled into their seats without another peep and I slammed the door hard, turning to face the other woman. My message to her was that I would not stand for this kind of unacceptable behavior from my children. (My message to the kids was that they had dawdled too long and Mommy had finally snapped.) I nodded a grave good day to the woman, promising that I would take care of this, and she held my gaze and nodded her own head before moving on.

On the drive home, Duncan asked, “May we please go out for bagels?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not taking you into a bagel shop in blackface… paint. In black face-paint. It’s not okay.”

“Because… the bagels might get painty?”

“Among other reason. You just can’t go into a bagel shop like that, Duncan. We are going home.”

When we got home, I kept Duncan and Milo out in the yard with the dog while I washed Wyatt’s face. He protested enough that I finally decided to explain to him why it was not okay to paint his face black. Aaron and I have talked to him about racism many times before, so this conversation built on knowledge he already had. He was completely chagrined.

“I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings,” he said, looking upset.

“I know you weren’t, honey, but you can understand how it might seem like you were, right?”

“But I wasn’t making fun of anyone! I didn’t even look like a real person. Real people have more brownish skin than that…”

As far as I know, Wyatt has never used race as a way to identify or describe a person. He has made friends and played with them for months at school, talking about them every evening, and then, when I finally meet the kid in person, I find that the fact that the child in question is not white is  something that Wyatt never felt the need to mention. I love this about kids; I also realize that being oblivious to race is an element of white privilege. Because even today, white children are less likely to be on the receiving end of discrimination, they are sometimes permitted to maintain their childish innocence regarding the inequalities of our world for longer than children of color. Recently, Wyatt indicated that he had noticed something about racial characteristics in a conversation about hair. He asked, “Why doesn’t Daddy grow out his curls like me?”

“Because it is a lot of work,” I said.

“No, it’s not! It’s not hard to take care of my curls at all,” he said. He loves his wild curly hair.

“Yes, Wyatt, but you have looser curls than Daddy does.”

“What do you mean?” This was a new concept to him.

Once I explained it to him, his eyes grew wide and he said, “Wait!  Wait, do you mean Daddy has the kind of curly hair that poofs out when it grows long?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Whoa! That’s totally awesome! He should wear it like that! That would be cool,” he said, and then he stopped and looked puzzled, “But, Mommy, I didn’t know Daddy was that style of human.”

This is how I found myself explaining the “Jew-fro” to my 8-year-old son.

Later, I reflected on his idea of “style of human” instead of “race”. In his experience, everything comes in different styles—music, clothes, lunchboxes, food, toys—so why not people? The same way a blue backpack is just as functional as a green one, so too a brownish person is just as human as a pinkish one. I want to protect this beautiful understanding of the world, but I also feel that as a mother of three little white boys who will grow into three educated white men, it is my duty to teach them to recognize and push back against sexism and racism.

“Please, Wyatt, I know you did not mean to upset anyone, but now that you know, never paint your face like that again. And if you are ever with other kids who want to do something like that, you can explain why it is disrespectful and wrong. Okay?”

“Okay, but what if I’m in a play or dressed up for Halloween and I’m a… um… like a skunk or a panther or something and I need to wear black paint on my face?”

“For now, just no black face paint. Period.”

He sighed. “When I make a time machine, I am going to go back and tell the person who invented slavery that it’s really mean and make him not do it.”

I kissed his mostly clean forehead and ruffled his wild hair. I remember feeling the exact same way when I was a kid. While of course he cannot undo history, I think that maybe growing up wishing he could is not such a bad thing. He is a good-hearted boy and with any luck, one day he will become an exceptional man.

For Duncan, I decided he was not ready for a conversation about the history of blackface. He’s very young and still fluid in his identity. I feel it is more important at age five for him to just be friendly and open to all people; there will be time soon enough to teach him the upsetting legacy of inequality in our country and enlist him in the ongoing fight toward a better and fairer future. But I still didn’t want him painting his face all black next time we went to the museum. Luckily, he found the cleaning process so uncomfortable—I had to scrub his eyelids with a washcloth—that he came to the conclusion on his own: “Black face paint is too uncomfortable to take off! Next time… I’ll do blue.”

Day 7, July 23

Money Spent: $24 – Philz Coffee: 3 small hot chocolates, 1 large coffee, 1 bag of beans. Everyday I make coffee at home, but when we run out of beans, I sometimes treat the kids and myself to a coffee date at Philz. I bring a stack of children’s books and we sit around sipping our hot drinks and reading.

Miles Driven: 8

Quantity/Quality of Exercise: Okay. A short morning run for me, an afternoon walk for everyone.

Run: Yes

Read: Yes

Write: No

Temper: A- (I think I did a pretty good job considering the circumstances)

Toll on House/Yard: Low

Screen Time: 0

Scheduled, over-, under-, or just right?: Just Right. A busy morning out and about and a quiet afternoon at home with a walk before dinner.

Activities/Outings: Philz Coffee and Habitot Children’s Museum


Any thoughts to add?