Something happened to Silas the other day, and I’m trying to process it, but I don’t have quite the right words for it. This is an attempt, but I don’t think I’ve captured what I’m trying to express, not quite.
The other day, I took the kids into a truck stop to use the restroom. I sent Silas into the men’s room and told him to wait for us right outside the ladies’ room door when he was done. Petra and I used the restroom. When we were washing our hands, Silas came in, in tears. “They yelled at me and told me I couldn’t be in there,” he sobbed. “I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to do.” I told him just to use the ladies’, and I tried to comfort him.
Mostly, I was bewildered. Were the men in the bathroom doing something they didn’t want a little boy to see? My mind went all kinds of crazy places. Drug deal? DIY tatooing? Sex? Why would someone yell at a child?
Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not six-and-a-half is old enough to use the appropriate-gendered restroom. I think six seems about old enough for some independence in the world, and (as I remind myself any time I send one of my kids off to do something on their own) stranger violence against children is vanishingly rare. It makes news, but it practically never happens. Silas in particular tends to be shy and nervous. I think it’s valuable for him when I encourage him to do a number of fairly safe things on his own–walking the 100 yards from the playground to the library, checking his own order out at a store, and, yes, using the bathroom.
When I got home, I mentioned this to JC. He immediately knew what had gone wrong. “It’s his hair,” JC said. Suddenly, everything made sense. Silas is frequently mistaken for a girl when were out in public, but only because of his long hair. At a restaurant recently, the server asked me if “the girls” liked the food. Even our relatives sometimes mistake a picture of my two kids for Petra and one of her girl friends. Silas doesn’t seem especially bothered by it–certainly not enough to cut his hair. He rolls his eyes at people because isn’t it obvious that he is a dude?
To be clear, Silas is not trans, at all. If he were, we’d love and support him, but that is not remotely the issue we’re dealing with. His gender presentation is not feminine in the least. He doesn’t have shame around being mistaken for a girl and hardly blinks if for some reason he needs to use his sister’s princess backpack. He likes books about boys and books about girls (which led to me having a conversation with the library director after one of the librarians asked him if he was sure the Fancy Nancy title he had selected wasn’t for his sister…). I’m proud of him for being the kind of boy who doesn’t think that being mistaken for a girl is an insult. I’m proud of him for being so deeply himself that he doesn’t even know what societal norms he’s breaking.
When we have an upsetting experience like this, JC and I try to reassure him that being a long-haired guy is fine, even handsome. We show him pictures of Fabio and Legolas. Yesterday, JC found a bunch of pictures of surfer dudes with long hair and guys looking tough with braids, buns, and ponytails (Silas still refuses to let me do any of this–it crosses a line). I introduced him to “Hair” from Hair and he giggled with delight the entire time it was playing. This morning I heard him singing quietly to himself, “My hair like Jesus wore it / Hallelujah, I adore it!”
I’m happy for his confidence, for his ownership of his body, but I do wonder how to protect him, how much to warn him about the world. I worry that the current national trend toward bigotry, especially with the increased discussion of trans rights, will make him into a target. Who would target a child? The same kind of people who would vandalize graveyards, I guess.
I also appreciate that we have an incredible amount of privilege. We’re white, educated, middle class, straight, Christian people. Life in this country is getting ugly, and fast, for people who don’t fit into those categories of safety. But even we find our protective bubble pierced by the rhetoric of hatred, by the idea that being cruel to someone because of their personal qualities (real or perceived) is acceptable. This experience is a reminder to use our privilege to speak up for others, to not allow inappropriate words to go unchecked, to maintain vigilance against the tide of intolerance and spite legitimized by the installation of a white supremacist in the White House.
In some ways, I’m a tiny bit glad of this experience Silas had in the restroom, because it gave us a chance to talk about how it feels to have someone make assumptions about you based on how you look. I have a friend who expresses distress about her teenage son’s complete unawareness of his own privilege. “He has such excessive tall, handsome, white, male privilege, I just see it in the way he moves through the world. He’s completely unaware of it.” I know him well, and I understand what she means. He’s not a misogynist or racist at all, but he is completely unaware how much benefit he gets from just living in the body he happens to have been born with. His parents are great people and are the kind of progressives I want to be, devoting their lives to making space for underrepresented people to tell their own stories, always challenging themselves to listen more. And yet they have this son who is so blissfully clueless. Part of it, I am sure, is an age-appropriate narcissism. Developmentally, his brain is working on perspective-taking, still. I look at him, and part of me hopes my kids turn out so well–I genuinely like this kid. I have every confidence that a few years at a strong liberal arts college, and the brain development that his body will naturally create as he grows into his early 20s will blast his bubble and turn him into a deeply aware young man. But part of me wonders, can anything I could do or say help Silas be a bit more woke a bit earlier? Maybe hair discrimination will give him an inkling of what it feels like to be hated for who he is–a valuable, if painful, experience for those of us in the majority.