I work with kids. The staff ensures that everyone stays safe, out of trouble, happy, and healthy both physically and mentally. Most of the time we spend together is fun and silly for everyone — kids and staff included — but every once in a while one of the kids will say something that catches you off-guard.
About a year ago I met a 6-year-old girl. It was apparent immediately how bright and precocious she was, waiting patiently in line for snacks and asking politely before joining with another group of children. Eventually I introduced myself and she reciprocated. She had a pretty name, so I told her so. She said “My middle name is Rosa. That’s Spanish for ‘rose.’ ”
I asked her if she spoke Spanish and she nodded.
“I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Spanish,” I told her sincerely.
She cocked her head and said matter-of-factly, “…but English is better.”
I froze and said nothing, unsure of how to respond. Why, I thought, would a 6-year-old have an opinion about such a thing?
We played together for a while, both of us sitting on the floor. She would get up and grab a toy or game and bring it back to where we were sitting. One of these times, she came back cradling a stuffed white rabbit. “A ‘conejo.’” She said quietly. “Some words I like to say in Spanish.”
I drew on my very limited, high school Spanish vocabulary and answered, “Conejo blanco.” White rabbit. She beamed back at me, eyes wide with astonishment. She leaned in close to me and said, “I’ll tell you a secret…” and whispered “I am Mexican.” She held out her hand to show me the color of her skin.
“Why is that a secret?” I asked with a smile, suppressing the sudden sorrow I felt.
“I don’t know. Some kids at school don’t understand it…” She said.
“I think you should be proud,” I told her. “I think it’s amazing that you can speak Spanish.”
“Well,” she said, brightening. “I guess it’s OK. My skin color looks good with my hair.”
“Your hair is beautiful,” I said.
She smiled, still holding the conejo, and that was the end of our conversation. It was short, and maybe she forgot about it the next day, but I have been thinking about it since. It astounds me that a 6-year-old girl is even aware of her race, much less ashamed of it. Then again, I guess, that’s a little bit of my white privilege showing through.
Allie Friese writes for the Chinook Observer and is executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Long Beach Peninsula.