The award-winning author of Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit spends much of her time educating students about the pervasiveness of prejudice in our society. At home, she looks for ways to keep prejudice from convincing her daughter that there are limits to who and what she can become.
What Makes You Pretty?
“Not long ago my 11-year-old daughter, Maya, came home from her school, where she happened to be the only African American in her class. She was not being accepted as part of the popular group, and she had decided it was because she wasn’t pretty enough. So she asked me if we could get plastic surgery to reduce her lips.
“This was a pretty traumatic event for both of us. I’m a single parent, so I got her godfather to take her out and talk to her about how beautiful she really was. She and I got out all my old copies of Essence and went through them. I had Maya point out the women she thought were pretty. And all of them, I showed her, had lips like she did.
“Beyond that, I worked to convince her that we can’t let other people and their prejudices have power over us. If we accept other people’s interpretations of us, they control us. We give up our power to them if we allow them to define us. Maya and I talked a lot about defining ourselves, about feeling beautiful the way we are and about the importance of what’s inside people.”
Models of Self-Esteem
“Your daughter may encounter prejudice, too. If she’s a different religion from her peers or a different race, if she’s disabled in some way, or if she’s not a size or weight sanctioned by the culture, she’s likely to hear demeaning remarks and to be pigeonholed in insulting ways. If that happens, try to find a support group of girls for your daughter.
“A Girl Scout troop or a religious youth group might be supportive. In our case, Maya and I formed a mother-daughter book club. I found other mothers who were concerned that their daughters’ feelings of self-worth might be endangered by their mostly white setting. At our first meeting, the girls played while the mothers talked about how to give our daughters a better sense of value.
“Over time, we read and talked about lots of wonderful books—The Eye and the Ear and the Arm, Do You Know Me?, Coffee Makes You Black and Yolanda’s Genius, to name a few. We also went on field trips, like to a civil rights museum. One good thing about this group was that we weren’t all the same. Some of us were middle-class, but some of the mothers were able to talk about memories of picking cotton when they were young. I think it was good for the girls to hear these stories. Ultimately, what I did for Maya—and what all the mothers in that group did for their daughters—was provide role models. And that’s something we can all do for girls who encounter prejudice.”
On Her Own Terms
“The other thing I’m learning to do is to work with my daughter on this problem rather than swooping in to rescue her. I tend to jump in and fix things, but I realize that doesn’t always help Maya. When she comes home from school with a problem, whether it’s being left out of a clique or some other situation she feels is unfair, I try to let her take the first action herself. Maya tends to be polite. She doesn’t come on as strong as I do. So I ask her, ‘How would you like to deal with this?’ Then I watch her carefully for a while to see if she is satisfied with the outcome. We’ve practiced using humor, for example, to defend herself. That way, she can assert herself and be herself at the same time.”
Dealing with the World
“Of course, if your child is being harmed of facing a situation she can’t handle on her own, you’ll step in. If the trouble is at school, team up with the teacher and with other parents to look for solutions. Ask the guidance counselor to do programs with your daughter’s class about the effects of prejudice. If your daughter’s teacher doesn’t have diverse curriculum materials, direct him or her to the Southern Poverty Law Center at www.splcenter.org. Ask the principal or the superintendent for support. Just by standing up for what is right, you become a powerful model for your daughter.
“Our daughters are growing up in a world that’s more diverse that it was when we were young. The prejudice they encounter is often subtle, hard to read, but still dangerous. Whenever a girl who is different from her peers encounters a hurtful situation, she wonders, ‘Is this about prejudice, or is it about me?’ That questions compounds her uncertainty and her struggle. It’s crucial that we parents make it very clear how precious our daughters are to us and how valuable they are to the world.”
Stick Up for Yourself: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power & Positive Self-Esteem by Kaufman, Raphael and Espeland. Practical ways to help a girl use her voice.
Racism Explained to My Daughter edited by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Heartfelt essays, including one by Lisa Delpit.
40 Ways to Raise a Nonracist Child by Matthias and French. Two mothers of different races collaborate on practical steps all parents can take.
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