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.
“Who told you?”
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-
- 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
- I might have to field questions about his own race and what that means to him
- 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!