THE BLOG
04/23/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

The Startlingly Profound (Yet Simple) Question My Daughter Asked About Racism

Jennifer Harvey

We've been fighting song #19 ever since we got Mickey Mouse's greatest hits CD. No matter how quickly we hit "skip" when song #18 is over, I should have known it was inevitable we'd lose at some point.

But when I heard our 5-year-old singing "one little, two little, three little indians," my heart sank anyways. (Yes, "indians," not capitalized on purpose. Let's be really clear: The song's not about actual, real Native peoples or Indians, not about real people.)

I waited a bit to engage her. I wanted to think it through. Besides, trying to figure out (or try anyway) what to say that a 5-year-old's conception of the world would actually understand, I also didn't want to embarrass her or make her shut down because what she mostly heard was that she'd done something wrong.

(One thing I learned from The First "R" is how young kids are when they realize that certain ways they "do" race are taboo and end up getting them shamed by adults. They don't, of course, stop doing those things as a result. They just learn to do them discreetly when adults aren't around -- very young kids do things adults don't begin to imagine they are capable of around issues of race; fully racialized worlds most of us are clueless about. And, if I have no other clear goal in all things parental, it's to try to keep my kids talking honestly with me... making enough space for them that they want to. This goal is certainly no different when it comes to race.)

So, here's how it began:

"Hey H, Can I talk to you about the song I heard you singing earlier? The one about 'indians'?"

"Yes, mama."

"I don't really want you to sing that song anymore."

"Why not?"

"You didn't do anything wrong. It's just that it's not a very nice song."

"Why not?"

And there's the million-dollar question (though not the perfectly amazing one).

It's often not easy to explain directly and clearly how various images of, references to, or symbolisms evoking people of color and their lives are "not nice." Our conversations about "racism" are so simplistic so much of the time: "Is it racist or not?" "Did that person mean to be racist or not?" "Should someone be offended by that or not?" These stark options and underdeveloped categories make it hard to have meaningful conversations about what is at stake, or what's going on, in particular moments when race is being referenced.

Instead, we get pressed to some sort of bottom line: "Bad or OK?" "And who gets to say so?" The questions aren't even right. And if a question isn't right, the answer certainly can't be.

So, how to engage how and why this song -- a "ditty," childish and sing-songy, (especially when sung by a 5-year-old) -- so haunts?

Here's my easiest way. Imagine instead of "indian" (yes, again, not capital) I suggested we start singing with our kids: "One little, two little, three little gay people..." or, "One little, two little, three little Black people..." Can you feel just how wrong that is?

A caricature. A condescension. A cartoon. Not real. Not respected. Not representative of an actual, diverse community that looks nothing like what the community "singing about it" sees and claims the right to describe.

That exercise alone (substituting "gay" or "Black") exposes, in fact, what's wrong with this song so many non-Native peoples in the U.S. have been taught to sing. The only reason this song persists is that we (non-Native people) don't think of Native peoples as real, present (as in right now, today), actual living human beings and communities. And, worse, this ability to erase actual Native peoples in something like a kids' song completely rests on the actual, concrete attempts to physically erase such peoples.

Songs like the one my daughter was singing participate in this (yes, participate in the logic of genocide). Don't even get me started about the NFL.

How much of this did I explain to my daughter? None, for now.

"Well," I said, in response to her asking why it was not a nice song for the second time, "I can't exactly explain it all right now. But, the people who that song is about -- Native American people -- don't like it. They have said that it's disrespectful. And, since they've said that, and we care about respect and kindness, I think we shouldn't sing it."

Too simple? Maybe. For now, just-right-enough.

"But Mama," she said...

NOT, "but I want to anyway,"

NOT, "but they are too sensitive,"

NOT, "but I don't understand and it's just for fun, so can't I keep singing?"

No.

Simply this, from a now clearly, distraught, confused and troubled 5-year-old: "But, Mama, Why would anyone want to make a song that's disrespectful?"

And that's the perfectly amazing question. It's so obvious and so clear. The way she asked left no question about whether or not she wanted any part of disrespect. She doesn't.

Why would anyone -- why do any of us -- make or sing such a song?

No fancy analysis needed.

Why is this so much less obvious as we get older?

Underneath the messages we want to teach our kids to learn to unpack (and which we need to get better at unpacking with them) is the simple reality that we're talking about respect of human beings. Respecting what actual people tell us hurts or not, harms or not.

A 5-year-old gets that. No defensiveness offered from her. No complex arguments needed from me about the meaning of symbols, questions of intent/impact, "proving" something is "not OK to say" for "these reasons."

A basic lesson about simply listening to what actual people are saying about their own lives. I didn't have to convince her of a thing. I just had to give her a context for what she already knows. It's simple. We want to respect people.

She wants no part of song #19 right now. And she knows enough to say why.

Sorry, Mickey.