When I take my daughter, Stella, to the playground, we sometimes walk over to the county’s tennis center across the parking lot. She calls this “watching tennis,” but, mainly, she just wants to scale the spectator stands which tower over the surrounding courts, steep concrete steps stacked into a green ziggurat with a pro-shop at its peak.
Last time, a group of middle-aged African-Americans sat on one side of the stands, watching friends playing below. Stella clamored to the top row, and we sat with them, watching for a few minutes until we decided to check out the action on other courts.
Everyone sitting on the opposite side was white. If I hadn’t noticed at first, I surely would have when Stella voiced this observation loudly. Several of the people around us chuckled and exchanged grins as I reflexively shushed her. “But, everybody is all white over here,” she replied. I couldn’t really argue with that, so I could only feel grateful that she hadn’t made a vocal pronouncement regarding racial homogeneity while we were on the other side of the stands.
When I was very little, my parents decided not to call my attention to racial differences and waited to see when I noticed them on my own. This probably took longer than it would have somewhere else, as diversity was a fairly alien concept in rural North Carolina circa 1979. Finally, one day, I said to my mom, “The people on Good Times look like the people on The Jeffersons.”
“And how is that?” she asked.
“They’re all purple.”
Whether this was indicative of my poor grasp of the ROYGBIV scale or of the shitty television reception we received in the mountains, I’m not certain.
My wife and I never pointed out differences in skin color to our daughter, but, no doubt, she noticed them earlier than I did. Since she was three months old, we’ve had her in a daycare and preschool here in Atlanta where a vast majority of her classmates and teachers have been black or Latino. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, not to mention Jewish, Stella is something of a minority in her own tiny, day-to-day world, but, for some time, she never seemed to notice that she looked different than most of her friends.
Then suddenly, weird prejudices seemed to pop up out of nowhere. For a few weeks, she griped that her teachers weren’t the same color as her. Around the same time, she asked, with seeming suspicion, the skin color of every person she heard us mention. She cried when she had the dreadlocked instructor at swim lessons and made a comment in a pizza place (again, at a nearly-embarrassing volume) about how black people shouldn’t be in a booth with white people. She didn’t want to play with the “brown boys” a few houses down, but then she would turn around and ask if a number of friends from pre-school, all of them black, could come over to visit. I mean, where the hell did this all come from?
I’ve never been great at coaching kids through moral reasoning. As a Peer Counselor in junior high, I once advised two underclassmen against beating up a kid who had been harassing them. I told them they could probably get him to back off with just some violent threats. The guidance counselor never requested my help again.
I’m not sure I’m doing much better now, although to my credit, I haven’t recommended menace as a problem-solving strategy lately. I’ve talked to Stella about the meaninglessness of appearance and skin color, not just sternly after she said weird, racial shit but also during chatty moments at breakfast or while getting ready for bed. I thought that if I made this seem like an everyday truth rather than a reprimand, she might take to it better, but I stumbled into our most recent discussion of race very unexpectedly.
We were visiting my parents over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend when a friend of theirs died. Stella has a general grasp of death being a bad thing, and she was aware of her grandparents’ loss. I explained to her that Nana and Papa’s friend, like her cousin’s grandma and my own sister long ago, had something called cancer. She seemed a little frightened, but mostly puzzled.
“I thought Martin Luther King made it so nobody had to die anymore?”
While I’m reasonably well acquainted with the achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., that is definitely one I had overlooked. I certainly had not expected her to pursue this line of thought, largely because I had no idea she’d ever heard of King.
“No, um…” I considered how to respond. “Well, that’s not really it. Before Martin Luther King, a lot of white people thought it was okay to treat white people better than black people. They thought black people and white people shouldn’t hang out together.”
“Jenna and I are friends, and she’s black,” Stella said, with a tone that implied she knew that anything contrary to this notion was absolutely stupid.
“Exactly! But before Martin Luther King, you probably wouldn’t have been friends with Jenna. You wouldn’t have even been in school with her.”
“I’m friends with Michael because he’s the same color as me,” she replied in the same tone, as if this complete contradiction further reinforced her case.
“No…no! You’re mainly friends with Michael because you live on the same street.” I thought for a second about how to make that seem more positive. “You’re also friends with Frederick on our street. And he’s Asian.”
“But he speaks English like us,” she continued, following some trail of logic I wasn’t privy to.
“Jeff and Henry are Chinese, too.”
“The kids in your class? Wait…are you sure they’re Chinese?” She nodded, so I continued, “Okay, right. So, you probably wouldn’t be in class with them if it wasn’t for Dr. King.”
“He was a doctor?” She seemed impressed.
I had never needed to explain graduate degrees to someone who had yet to finish pre-K. “Well, not like the kind of doctor that gives you shots,” I began. “When you graduate college, you can go on to something called graduate school, where if you become really knowledgeable in a certain field, you’re called ‘doctor,’ even though you aren’t a medical doctor.”
“Oh.” Stella may have been wondering how Martin Luther King had cured death if he wasn’t a real doctor.
Confusion over Dr. King’s medical legacy aside, Stella’s preschool has been a great influence in terms of exposure to other races and cultures, but she’s starting public school soon. While we’re fortunate our house is on a block so multicultural that we are just a few Muppets away from a Sesame Street level of diversity, you couldn’t say the same about the surrounding neighborhood. I’m worried that she’ll be in a whole class of 25 kids who basically look just like her. Then what will her attitude be?
I don’t want any of this to seem like I have a “Isn’t my kid’s racism adorable?” perspective. My wife and I have found some of Stella’s statements confounding and upsetting. But, my sister-in-law, a veteran preschool teacher, assured us that it’s normal for kids Stella’s age to arrange people into “like me” and “not like me” categories, and that these categories are constantly shifting. I feel like I’ve seen such a shift lately, and I think our conversation about Dr. King represented a fumbling sort of progress.
Thankfully, her remarks regarding skin color lately have been, like at the tennis courts, of the strictly observational variety. She hasn’t said anything too egregious in a while, so maybe our talks have worked, or perhaps she’s just emerging from this phase naturally. I’ll take either.
We should also probably work on keeping her voice down.