Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Skin Deep

I have some work to do. The other day, while we were standing in line at the Post Office behind a tall man, my 3 year old said to me (aloud), "that guy is brown". My first response was "What?" because I thought I didn't hear him correctly. When he repeated himself for a second time it was more of gasp. Yes, he was "black" or "African American", or whatever the current politically correct term is, but I don't think "brown" is it. Fortunately, the man didn't hear him say it and he didn't notice my "shushing" either. Just a minute before, the man had been smiling at my 3 year old who was doing his usual performance in line - various songs and dance. I had noticed him because I thought he looked familiar; it was Aaron McKie of the Sixers. My 3 year old noticed him for a different reason; he looked different than himself.

When we got back in the car I started to explain why we can't really label people by color and I realized that while it makes sense to me knowing our country's social history, it made no sense to him. Obviously, my 3 year old was making an innocent observation that was literally only skin deep. He and my 5 year old make these same types of observations at home about my dark complected husband. In their opinion he is "light brown", while I am "dark white" or on a summer day "light tan". They don't equate skin color with making anyone anything but look different. To them, noticing someone's skin color is no different than noticing hair color. So, it was no wonder that my 3 year old's eyes started to glaze over when I went into my usual spiel about how no matter what color a person's skin is, the inside is the same - same heart, same mind, same feelings. Blah, blah, blah. He didn't care, because he never thought otherwise.

Every year around MLK Day, I get onto the same topic with my older son who always has lot of questions about this holiday. Each year I explain who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, how he died, and the importance of his life's work for civil rights. I go through my same speech that skin color is only an appearance and that all people are really the same despite how different we all look. This year I thought he really got it. But then he spent the rest of the day pointing out to me any "black" people we saw. Although he was following that up with "they are just like me", I was at a loss. I don't know how to get my real point across without making a point that I didn't intend to make. I didn't try to draw attention to skin color, but I did.

How do I expect them to grow up thinking all people are equal if I keep pointing out differences to make my point? I could just leave it alone and say nothing, but they do notice color and I'm concerned what kind of message they are getting on their own. I'm concerned that most of the diversity my kids see in our community is on the other side of the counter at McDonald's or in the check-out lane at Genaurdi's. I don't want them to correlate skin color with any one career or lifestyle, good or bad. I do want them to optimistically view all people as having equal potential and opportunities. I want them to know and believe that a person from a different background than their own can achieve great things, just as I assure them they can.

So, I have my work cut out for me. And, I don't have that figured out just yet. I do know that prejudice is a hard thing to explain to a child that has never experienced or witnessed it. But without this knowledge it is pretty hard to explain why they can't just state the obvious. If the person in front of us at the Post Office had blue hair, it would be a different conversation. Life is truly wonderful viewed through the eyes of children. Wouldn't this world be a better place if we never lost that view?

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