I am no stranger to the ways in which even young children already become socialized into society’s boxes. But my recent experiences working in a kindergarten classroom have me directly shouldering the burden of interrupting the ideological constraints that this world traps children within. Currently in the midst of my student teaching, working with five year olds, most days I find myself in serious awe of how they manage to condense the big ideas of the world into small questions. Already, they are seeing themselves as little beings in the world, and they make sense of their realities through their constant questioning. I’m forever inundated with why why…
However, making sense of themselves in the world means that they are already keen to the ways in which society delineates space for them. The ways in which society puts them in boxes, and makes them operate according to the laws and rules of the box. One box that comes up continually, and admittedly sometimes I find myself infuriated at its presence, is that of gender. Already, in scarcely five years of thinking and feeling, many of the students, have already begun turning their questions into conclusions at best and insults at worst:
“Boys don’t wear pink.”
“Ugh, your braids are long like a girl’s!”
“Mr. Talley, tell him only girls use purple crayons!”
Though I am hesitant to admit it, it is often Black boys who I find expressing these thoughts. To many of us, this line of thinking gets dismissed as trivial, and often times these ideas are returned with patterns of thinking that only reinforce patriarchy and hyper masculinity (e.g. “real men wear pink.) Moreover, we sometimes fail to be critical of the messages children send us precisely because they are children. However, as a young black same gender-loving male I find myself feeling fearful of what these seemingly innocent and child-like dispositions will grow into? As an adolescent, I myself was constantly at the bay for ridicule because of my constant deviation from the stereotypical understandings of Black maleness. Therefore, it did not take long for me realize that acceptance into a sexist culture meant that my social and emotional proximity to what might be deemed “feminine” should be far, wide, and distant.
And what remains more unnerving for me is that many of their ideas about gender, sexuality, and [whatever issue x] can be both birthed and molded at home, only to be reinforced elsewhere in the world. I can recall various experiences where I have seen parents steering their children into wearing certain types of clothing, or telling their children “let the girls eat first, they’re girls,” and furthering coopting their children into sexist and heterosexist patterns of thinking that they themselves have yet to unpack.
I have no children, and cannot begin to pretend to understand the behemoth task of raising children. But as a son, who had to fight against my own notions of inferiority, as a teacher who sees my young students getting ready to face the onslaught of oppression, and as a person who sees male celebrities like Chris Brown trumpet rape as self-affirmation. I can’t help but wonder—what does it mean to raise children radically? What does it mean to get our children to see beyond boys and girls lines and boys and girls bathrooms and boys and girls clothes and boys and girls toys? I believe that when you are raising Black children to love themselves, you are already engaging in a radical act. But how do we help our children to be critical across all layers of their identities and consciousness?
I want our world to be unafraid of the little Black boy who sashays a little bit more than one expected. Or the Black girl who refuses to wear skirts. I want our children to like princesses and Tonka toys because they do in fact like Tonka toys and princesses, not because they are supposed to. I want our world to realize that gender and sexuality is not an either or prospect, so therefore we do not have either/or children.
For our children, this is not just an academic and theoretical exercise, but a matter of supreme importance for raising children with unlimited capacities for self-love. This is a matter of empowering our Black children to be self-identified girls and boys. To be children, and ultimately adults who are not limited by body, sex, aggression, commodities, and external validation. To love themselves because they know how to love themselves. Which of course requires that they know how not to love themselves.
My thoughts are still growing on these questions, but we have millions of little Black faces and smiles for whom we must provide answers. And for whom we must help to find their own answers. Answers that are broader and more complicated than lines and boxes.