It was when we were reading Martin’s Big Words that I encountered the problem. The children’s book, by Doreen Rappaport, beautifully illustrated by Bryan Collier, is about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to espouse and and practice theories of non-violence toward effective social change. Like most Americans, I’m a huge admirer of Dr. King. When the display in the children’s section of our library was filled with books about civil rights leaders and African American pioneers, we stocked up.
Reading Martin’s Big Words with my son presented great opportunities to talk about injustice and that differences in appearances do not mean differences in humanity. We pulled out the big light up globe and talked about continents, migration, and how all people share the same ancient ancestry, going back to the original mother in Africa. This made C very happy because he realized that everyone is his brother and sister, even though here at home, he is an only child.
We talked about how the essential legacy of Dr. King is love, that he was influenced by the legacies of Ghandi, and Jesus. “Martin was died, bad guys killed him,” said C. He’d been learning about King in school. We discussed how society at large has trouble with people who preach love, equality, and respect for life. We talked about how these men were killed for their beliefs, and that threat of death is no reason not to stand up for your beliefs. I told him that dying is not the worst thing; the worst thing instead is to betray that which you know in your heart is right.
It was important to me that C identify with King, Parks, and the civil rights activists in the book. In reading about King’s experiences as a child and young man growing up, there was a word that stood in my way of that. That word was white. C and I have talked about how skin tone varies based on what part of the world a person’s ancestors come from. We’ve talked about how there are people in the world who think less of others based on differences in skin tone.
It’s easy to talk to my son about race. It’s racism that is complicated, because racism doesn’t make any sense. Racism isn’t something that can be justified within a world view that puts love, respect, and equality at its center. As he grows up, he will learn that in the United States people who are labeled white have been absolutely unbearably horrible to people who are labeled black. He will learn that racism is when a majority of people who share genetic, physical characteristics oppress and mistreat a minority of people who don’t share those characteristics. (I’m not looking forward to explaining Nazi’s and the Holocaust.)
But do I need to teach him that the fact of his skin tone makes him complicit in racism? Do I need to teach him that because white people have been oppressors, and his skin tone is classified thus, that means he is at risk of being a racist or practicing racism unwittingly? If I were a kid growing up today, being reminded again and again of my own personal risk of being a subconscious racist, I would go out of my way to avoid people who look different from me just so I wouldn’t have to constantly worry that I was being offensive.
When I was growing up, there were not many black people in my town. There were not many non-white people in my town at all, for that matter. It was a small, Irish Catholic suburb in Massachusetts, and encountering someone who was not Irish Catholic was out of the ordinary. Even the Korean adoptee in my class basically presented as Irish Catholic. I was Catholic, but not Irish. Before Massachusetts I’d lived for a while in D.C. My parents were split but they both lived there. My mom tells a story about picking me up from Montessori school and asking if who I’d played with that day.
“Did you play with Daniel?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “he’s brown.” He was brown. My mom was concerned.
“Did you play with Michael?”
“No,” I said, “he’s brown too,” which he was. My mom was starting to worry that she had a budding racist on her hands.
“Did you play with Nefertiti?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But isn’t she brown?” my mom asked.
“No, she’s a girl,” I explained, “only boys are brown.”
As a child and young woman I remember thinking that racism, and hating people for reasons having to do with physical appearance, was a gross thing that was a problem of my parents’, and their parents’, generation. I didn’t think that kids my age were racist. The kids at my school were horrible, but there were horrible for a whole ost of reasons that had nothing to do with them being racist. When I got to the word white in Martin’s Big Words I paused. I thought about it. I diverted from the text.
“Remember we talked about how there’s people who think less of someone else because their skin is different from their own?” I asked.
“Yeah,” C said.
“And we talk about how that doesn’t make any sense because God loves all people?”
“Yeah,” said C.
“Well when Martin was little, people were mean to him because of his skin.”
“That was bad of them,” he said.
I briefly thought that I should ask him if he thought it would be right for him to treat people differently because his skin tone was different from theirs, but then I realized that this thought had never occurred to him. I was not going to drop this miserable idea of discriminating against his friends into his head.
When we got to the story about Parks, we talked about how important it is to give up our seats on the subway and bus to people who need the it: pregnant women, old people, people who have trouble standing or are physically weak, people with masses of packages, people carrying babies. People give up their seats to C all the time, and he appreciates that.
We couldn’t come up with any reason why a man should demand that a woman give him her seat if he is capable of standing on his own. I explained that the man thought he was better than Parks based entirely on skin tone, and that the law of the time supported his belief. I talked a little about how the law is not always just, and how that’s why we need to know what’s right in our hearts and minds.
I didn’t want to tell him that the skin of the people who were horrible to our heroes had similar skin tone to our own. I want him to identify with King, with Parks, with the Montgomery bus boycotters, not with their oppressors. The idea that C should identify with others because of shared skin tone, eye color, hair color, is crazy to me. I don’t want him to bear the guilt of racism and racist practices. Let that be a problem he leaves with his parents’, his grand parents’, his great grand parents’ generations, while he sallies forth into the world seeing, as my brother D says, every person as a potential best friend. As he stands now, in his five year old self, he is open and kind to everyone he meets. My goal is that he treats all people with respect and love, believing in equality so fully that he sees skin tone as part of God’s glorious landscape and not as a marker of difference.