The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.
“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”
It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.
Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.
Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.
The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.
That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.