Of blacks, whites and greys

I welcome back Mommysan, who’s writing a post after almost two years. She’s one of my favorite bloggers because I love her heartfelt, genuine style. I hope to get her to write more often.

In this post, she chronicles a recent incident with Tyke, which poses unique challenges for parents of very young children.

A lazy Tuesday evening found Tyke and me lounging together. I was working on my laptop while the kiddo sat at my feet making a bus with his Legos. Suddenly he spoke, “Mommy, do you know whites sit in the front of the bus and blacks sit at the back?”

MSWord doesn’t have a font size large enough to convey the WTFness I experienced. Just an hour ago he had innocuously narrated how he had learned about the number 7 at school. What the hell was this??!

Making a huge effort to look unaffected, I tried to get the whole story out without alarming him.

“What?” I asked casually.

“Whites sit in the front of the bus and blacks sit at the back”. OK. So I hadn’t imagined that.

“Which bus?” I soldiered on.

“Any bus”

“Who told you?”

“My teacher”

What?! Why would a teacher say something like that?!!  Then I remembered – Martin Luther King Day. Ah.

But wait, that’s not what the message should be.

“Who are white people and who are black people?” I prodded. His little face scrunched in concentration as he struggled to remember. It occurred to me then- He had no idea. I managed to say something about how that’s not the case anymore and anyone can sit where they wanted to etc. He seemed a bit confused, but let it go.

Next day, I went a little early to drop him to school and thought I’d ask his teacher about what really happened. I started by asking whether they had a MLK themed talk about segregation the previous day. She immediately seemed a little embarrassed and went on the defensive about how the school directed them to but how she personally felt they were too young to grasp it. Nervous titters abound.

I repeated what Tyke told me and was met by a  “oh, I didn’t think he would remember. Most kids weren’t paying attention anyway”. My aghast expression jolted her to seriousness. Long story short, it was decided that she would repeat the story again today and make sure that the kids took away the right message.

Here’s what I think happened. The teachers probably told the story in a cavalier manner with many anecdotes, without introducing the concept of race and ended the story without underlining the main theme of how discrimination is wrong. So the kids just remembered whatever was interesting to them, for example, in Tyke’s case he probably thought it was funny to have people referred to as colors.

This whole episode is upsetting because it has hastened me into having a conversation Tyke, or even I, aren’t ready for yet. I could ignore it and hope he will forget but what if he repeats it out of context? It may be easily presumed to be a direct reflection of our values and prejudices as a family. Oh, the horror!

Plus having such a talk involves too many complex issues-

  1. To start with, I have to explain the premise of race- and the differences. So even if he wasn’t thinking about people’s skin color, he might start now
  2. I might have to field questions about his own race and what that means to him
  3. Convince him to not repeat in public his selective learnings, without making it seem like a bad thing.

Anybody who has a toddler would know how difficult all of this is.  I don’t have the privilege of using clever and tempered analogies as a crutch. I will have to explain it using a very limited vocabulary to a little mind that doesn’t understand grey areas yet.

I understand that sensitizing kids to the ills of racial discrimination is important. But there is a time and place for everything and if it is insisted that they start this early, I wish the process were given more attention. It takes a village to raise a child and I cannot help but worry about what else he might learn outside the sheltered life we offer and how his little brain might process it.

As for me, frankly, I’d gladly trade this situation for a birds-and-bees talk right now!

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8 responses to “Of blacks, whites and greys”

  1. Shantanu says :

    Not only Babysan, turns out a lot of other people have asked similar questions. I was googling for some random keyword when I came across this book – http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16280._Why_Are_All_The_Black_Kids_Sitting_Together_in_the_Cafeteria_

    Not sure how good or bad the book is, but the title suddenly reminded me of babysan’s question. Another line that hit me without warning was – ‘it takes a whole damn village to raise a child.’ Because the world is probably running out of these ‘villages’ and I wouldn’t want to raise my child in that world.

    • MommySan says :

      I understand your concerns :) Parenting is way trickier than we thought. We are also learning as we go along.

  2. 2pigtails says :

    My mom’s a teacher, and I can tell you the great lengths and pains to which my mother – and from the constant stories I hear, her colleagues – go to while preparing for each event in class.

    My mother told me of an interesting situation in her class, when an NRI girl had came along. The other kids had asked, “Why is her English so funny/weird?” She was alarmed at the judgement. “Funny”. “Weird”.

    The matter of difference, her school’s decided, to tackle as a celebration. The perfect opportunity for them – Republic Day. Of course, here, it isn’t about colour, as much as nativity. They’re telling each of their students to dress as the state that they come from. And each of them will be teaching their classmates one word from their mother tongue vocabularies.

    It is only from her that I can imagine the act of raising a child to be so fascinating and so complicated. As you rightfully said, it takes a whole damn village to raise a child.

    God help you the day you have to explain the idea of a caste system to Tyke.

    Beautiful post. Mommysan, please write more!

    • MommySan says :

      Thanks 2pigtails! My mother is a School Principal and hence I am aware of how much careful planning goes into explaining complex social concepts to preschoolers. It is important to keep reiterating the main takeaways of these messages which was not done in Tyke’s case. I am now curious to see how the teacher plans on setting this right.

  3. Robi says :

    It is funny how educators pretend that the problem doesn’t exist instead of addressing it. I’m sure that teacher did not want to be the person who put the idea of trivial human differences into a child’s mind, but by ignoring these differences, their attitude seems to highlight the wide racial divide more than it suppresses it. Kids have no context to put beside the history they are taught, because the reality that teachers paint for them is so far removed from reality that the schools might as well be gulags.

    • MommySan says :

      Robi,
      I wish the subject had been made more palatable for the little kids especially because the the Tyke attends a school which has a lot of diversity. I wonder how the other kids processed it…

  4. rainbow says :

    Hi
    One easily runs out of superlatives while commenting on your posts. the feeling of awe (the older meaning of the word that is) one gets after each of your posts is .. well.. awe inspiring. handling a sensitive subject like this. and like the presentation as well as the thought behind it. Great, sir. Hats off.

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