Monday, April 19, 2010

Wanted: For Being Criminal? For Being Cute?

Last week, my son’s daycare celebrated the Week of the Young Child with an assortment of special activities. The committee of teachers who planned the activities decided to organize around a theme, and chose a sort of cowboys-meets-wild-west theme. I thought it was an odd, slightly dated choice—I mean, do most young children living in the Midwest even know what cowboys are? (my son sure doesn’t)—but I didn’t see any harm in it as long as there wasn’t any cowboy-and-Indian nonsense.

I am happy to report that there was absolutely no cowboy-and-Indian nonsense. There was, however, an art project that I found very troubling. A week before the special celebration, a piece of paper appeared in my son’s cubby one afternoon; it was printed to look like a blank Wanted poster and was accompanied by a note: "Please decorate this however you would like." These ambiguous instructions seemed somewhat disingenuous, though, as the blank white rectangle in the middle of the page looked like it was meant to be occupied by a drawing or photograph, assumedly of a “criminal” on the lam.

My response to this assignment was immediate and visceral: no way am I putting a picture of my child—my black, male child--on a wanted poster. My child is not a criminal, and it’s not cute or funny for me to imagine him as a criminal, when I know that plenty of criminal assumptions will be made about him as he grows up.

But what to do? I thought about how we could alter the assignment to make it work for us. Perhaps I could alter the text to read “Wanted more than anything in the world by his family” or something like that. A friend suggested substituting a peace sign for the photograph. Another friend with a dark sense of humor suggested using a photograph of the governor of Virginia. I briefly contemplated a photo of our family dog, whom we could legitimately and comically accuse of biting off the button eyes of most of my son’s stuffed animals.

In the end, somewhat paralyzed by discomfort and doubt (and too exhausted as usual by normal life to want to use any additional energy on this), I did nothing. And, judging by the number of completed Wanted posters that lined the hallway (not even approaching the number of children at the daycare), we were not alone. There were, however, quite a number of families who participated quite enthusiastically. One drew a villainous mustache on a photo of his son. Others added cowboy hats. I was interested to see that families of color participated as well, although two black families had put photos of the entire family on the photo rather than singling out the child. One black mother, though, seemed to have no discomfort, writing “she is on the loose!” next to a photo of her daughter.

I know I have some basis for my discomfort. My American Indian colleague, whose daughter attends the same daycare, also did not participate, and when we chatted about it, her reasons were similar to mine. And I noticed that one parent of a white child who did complete the poster was careful to write “Wanted: For Extreme Cuteness” above a photo of her daughter. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I overreacted, made something of nothing, projected all sorts of adult fears onto an innocent assignment. I would be grateful, readers, to hear what you think.

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