Being the eight-and-a half year-old older sister of a seven-year-old autistic brother is not an easy gig. So when I heard on Seattle’s KUBE 93.3 about a casting call for kids, I jumped at the chance for my daughter. I don’t remember hearing the agency’s name on the commercial. What I recall was the words “open audition.” That night, I mentioned it to my husband. He chuckled saying, “I was afraid you might hear about those. They’re on all the time.” To be honest, BJ hadn’t expressed aspirations of being the next child star, Disney princess or Nickelodeon darling. She’d always loved to sing, dance and perform but was more comfortable displaying those talents at home. My idea was to give her something focused exclusively on her since she often took a back seat to her special-needs brother at home.
Despite my constant efforts to reassure my daughter how smart, special and beautiful she is, I worried about her self-confidence. Imagine how surprised I was to see that during the try-outs, while chatting with the agency director, she started speaking in various accents and walking with her hand on her hips. She channeled a mini-Mariah Carey mixed with some reality-show diva, which made her all but unrecognizable to me, but irresistible to the agency director. BJ was ready to sell cereal, pizza and children’s shampoo in those first few weeks. She said she wanted to be in commercials. But the Saturday morning classes coupled with the one-way hour drive wore her out and the disappointment of not getting hired was hard on her.
Then I got a call from a video producer. “We’re making a video where parents talk to their kids about the birds and the bees for the first time,” the producer said. “Our hope is that parents will be able to use this as an aide when talking to their children about sex. We expect it will be both educational and probably a little funny and we’d love for you and your daughter to participate.” Innocent enough, I thought when I heard their plans for the project. This company had a good reputation with the agency. I did express the caution that my daughter might be too young and confirmed I hadn’t discussed sex with her yet. But I also said, “Our society is so sexualized I might be surprised to learn what she’s already heard or thinks she knows.” It was for that reason I decided now was probably a good time to have ‘the talk’ with her. In fact, eight-and a-half, might be the perfect time. So, I agreed to participate believing it would be educational for both of us.
I spoke with BJ that same night to tell her of the upcoming taping. I told her we would be speaking in front of a camera where people could ask us questions or we might ask each other questions about where babies come from. She surprised me by not inquiring further that evening or in the time leading up to the taping.
The set up was that each parent-child pair was taped at a different time so we didn’t know who said what or even the ages of the other participants. I wished that my husband was with me but he was taking care of our son. BJ and I sat down with our child at a table in front of a camera crew and immediately started talking about why we were there. Where babies were from. How they were made. My daughter had a blast. She spoke freely and seemed entirely unaware of the camera’s presence. The entire taping lasted an hour and when it was over BJ didn’t want to take her microphone off. “Why were you so nervous, Mommy? she asked me in the elevator. “That was fun.”
When we arrived home she went on about how much she loved filming the video. She asked to do it again. I immediately thought of everything I wished I’d said, just like I had after my last job interview. I should have better prepared myself for how I would handle the subject matter. Still, the experience was great and it made a nice memory with my little girl until the video posted. I spent that entire second day reading the negative comments on YouTube.
Have you ever read the comments people post online? Sure you have. We all have. Some of us go online just to read them. They are enough to make you literally laugh out loud or drop a few tears. In my case I did both. Mostly the tears.
Now before you ask, “Who expects positive online comments?" let me assure you. I know the nature of the internet. I know about trolls. Or at least I thought I did. As a writer, I know better than to read the comments on anything I have posted. But it wasn’t about me. It was about my daughter. Of course I wanted to know what people thought of the video. So I clicked. And once I started I couldn’t stop. Even when it became clear that I would regret reading each new one more than the last. I read each racial slur. I read each snide post that assumed I was a single mom. I read a nasty suggestion that I envied another participant’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Still, I clicked.
I had expected to see comments about some of the kids being too young. That would be a natural reaction. An honest one. I’m sure each parent had thought long and hard about letting their child participate. I know my husband and I did. But what I didn’t expect to see was such intolerance. Such ignorance. And such vicious racism. Even now, in 2015, seeing the “N” word infuriates me but directed at my child and me? In all caps? Only to be followed by how other races are superior to my own. With the final insult reading something like, “Why are the dark kids the only ones without fathers? Anyone else noticing a trend?” It was too much.
As an African American mother of four, I was outraged at the assumption that I must be a single mother simply because there was no man sitting next to me at the table. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not upset at being called a single mother. I actually was a single mother for significant part of my life and there is no shame in that fact. What made me angry was the smug ignorance fueling that assumption and the racist mindset it suggests. And the anonymity such cyber bigotry hides behind, when the bigot doesn’t have to be accountable to real people with real feelings.
When the video went viral, I decided it was time to show it to my daughter. It was her hard work, after all, but the negative comments delayed me in allowing her to watch it. I was simply caught off guard. She was excited to see herself “on the computer,” but appeared unfazed by the topic. I carefully allowed her to view only those portions of the video we were in.
While watching herself online she kept laughing at her facial expressions, movements and my remarks. At the end she said, “Wait a minute, I said some other good stuff. I talked a lot. Where is all of that?” It was my turn to laugh, “It’s called ‘editing’ honey.”
For just a few days, we will let her revel in being in a viral video–I have no plans to discuss the comments with her. But next week, my husband and I will sit her down to talk about some of the realities of being Black and female in America in the year 2015. Hopefully, when she finally does brave the internet comments sections of the world, she'll be prepared–and unfazed.
Sharisse Tracey is an Army wife, mother of four, writer and educator. She and her family are stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington