“Five little monkeys jumping on the bed. One fell down and bumped his head. Mama called the doctor, and the doctor said, ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed!’”
This was the extent of my childhood memories involving monkeys—the simple childhood song that helped me learn to count. As I grew up, I saw monkeys at the zoo and on TV channels like Animal Planet, but a monkey was just that…a monkey.
Flash forward to Halloween night years ago, my super adorable 10-month-old foster son was all dressed up and ready to experience his first night of trick-or-treating. After filling my camera with photos of his cuteness, we headed out the door. Because he wasn’t quite at the stage where he could gracefully walk without help, we chauffeured him in his stroller. He giggled with excitement as his older siblings ran house to house. At one point, he was ready to get out and try this trick-or-treating thing on his own, though. As I stood holding him on our neighbor’s porch, he waved and smiled as she opened the door. What came next left me speechless.
As treats were handed to all the children, this neighbor gave my foster son his and said to me, “I can’t believe you have him in a monkey costume.” To which I, of course, said, “What do you mean?”
Friends, don’t ask someone to clarify their comment if you aren’t ready to hear them out.
I needed education, and I wasn’t even aware.
That’s when she shared with me how inappropriate it was to have a black child in a monkey costume. My head was spinning, and I honestly can’t tell you all the things she said. I was overwhelmed with information and emotion. She was kind in her explanation, and honestly, I am very thankful she spoke up, but I wanted to melt into the sidewalk. Was I to remove the costume then and there, or keep going, now with new information to be aware of for the future? I needed to learn more, so to Google I went!
Googling the history, opinions, and racial feelings toward a monkey costume gave me way more insight than I knew what to do with, but that bold neighbor of mine did something that I needed. She made me aware.
With a desire to continue growing in my knowledge and understanding, I joined social media groups for transracial parents, signed up for classes with information geared towards multiracial families, found an amazing black barber to cut my kiddo’s hair, and even researched the horrific history of racism in America—including the uses of “monkey.”
My son is now four. His favorite cartoon? Curious George. I can’t and don’t know that I should prevent him from liking monkeys, but now I know just a little more about the background and history that comes with the term. We can talk about monkeys when we see them at the zoo. He sleeps with his George stuffed animal every night. These animals are beautiful creatures that God has made.
But I’m thankful for my neighbor. I’m grateful for brave friends and people who allow me insight into their lives and knowledge, so that I can be better informed for me, for my son, and to understand others better.
As we approach Halloween, be sensitive to what feelings your child’s costume may invoke in others. Think beyond right now and his cuteness. Will your child look back at those Halloween pictures and be proud or be standing in shock? Our goal at Halloween is simply to have fun. I want that for my son. That’s what he wants too!
Would I put him in the monkey costume again? No. Even though he might not understand yet, as a white mom raising a son who doesn’t look like me, I want to be respectful of his culture. I don’t want to add to the pain that others may feel by a history that hurts.
This year—he’s going to be an Astronaut! And I’ll get to talk to him about space and how big the Universe is! I’ll take too many pictures. He’ll go to the door of my neighbor’s house and say, “Trick or Treat!” We’ll continue our Halloween traditions, but now, with a little more understanding.
I don’t have this whole parenting thing down, nor do I always have the right answer when confronted with issues related to being a white mom raising a black child. There are so many thoughts about how to do this thing right. For now, I’ll keep reading, keep listening, and loving my son the best ways I know how.
Shannon is a wife and busy mother of four with a passion for serving and helping others. After experiencing the foster care system as a foster mom, her eyes were opened to the needs of the foster care community.
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