I grew up in a lily-white town on Long Island, with only one African-American student in my classes from kindergarten through high school (and this was a BIG high school). Not far outside my personal sphere, of course, the world was much more diverse, but I had only brief glimpses into it, mostly on school field trips into the city.
College was one of the best things ever to happen to me. New ideas, philosophies, and people – people from every imaginable background – became a part of my life, and after that, I couldn’t imagine going back to the world I used to inhabit. I decided that if I ever had kids of my own, they needed to grow up in a place that was the opposite of that monochromatic neighborhood.
Fast forward to the village I’ve lived in for the past 25+ years, Yellow Springs, Ohio. For a small (<4000 population), semirural, midwestern town, it’s remarkably diverse and liberal, the perfect place for my kids to come up in. It was a “stop” on the underground railroad, and some of today’s African American residents can trace their roots to former slaves who decided to stay.
From the time the boys started in daycare as toddlers, they’ve had classmates, teachers and friends from a large variety of ethnic groups, and didn’t appear to think anything at all about it – just the way I’d hoped it would be. I debated with myself, though, whether I should comment in any way on people’s differences. Obviously, some physical characteristics – like skin color – are immediately apparent, but I didn’t want to prejudice my kids toward thinking that those differences were more worth remarking on than anything else. So I studiously avoided describing anyone by the color of their skin – “You mean the boy with brown curly hair and glasses who had on the Big Bird shirt?” or “That girl with the purple necklace and cowboy boots?”
This seemed to work fine, and I thought I’d hit nirvana the day someone asked 4-year-old Angler about a little friend he talked about meeting at the annual Easter Egg hunt. We knew two boys with the same name, and Kim was wondering which one we’d seen, so she asked him, “Which Asa was it? Was he black?”
Angler was silent for a minute, his face serious, while he thought. Then he brightened, and answered, “No, he was blue.” Yes, this Asa had black skin – but he that day he was wearing a blue jacket!
Encouraged by this episode, I carried out the same plan with Rock Star, and thought everything was copacetic until… one day when he was three, we were at the library and I sat him down at the table with the big doll house, a menagerie of zoo animals, and other toys while I went to browse for some storybooks. Because he was only a few feet away, I left him to his own devices, and was flipping through a few books when I heard his voice: “Here goes the daddy monkey up the stairs.”
No surprise there, as among the zoo animals was a plastic gorilla, and I imagined him walking that ape up the dollhouse stairs. No sooner had that picture entered my mind though, when I heard my son add, “And here goes the little girl monkey up the stairs.”
I stopped turning the pages, momentarily confused – I didn’t remember any little monkeys in the toy collection. So I peeked out from behind the shelves, and to my horror, saw Rock Star with a member of one of the dollhouse families in his hand – the little black girl doll. Granted, they were flat, wooden, puzzle-piece type dolls, and were so old that the faces were worn off, but to me, it was obviously a brown-skinned human form.
I dropped the books, grabbed him from the table, and made a quick exit from the library. Oh my God – what if someone had heard him? (How could they miss? He had such a foghorn of a voice for a little kid.) What ever would they think goes on in our house? And what should I say to him? All my carefully laid plans, in ruins.
After some consideration, I sat him down at home and talked about the library toys, how the toy he’d been holding was not a monkey, but a little girl. No look of recognition dawned on his face, and I realized that I was going to have to talk about real people in exactly the terms I’d been avoiding: “You know, honey, some people have light color skins, and some people have dark color skins.” I probably spent way more time on this than I should have, because I was still trying to be careful and not make like it was anything remarkable. I imagined him thinking to himself, “If it’s no big deal, then why are you talking about it so much?”
Why, oh why, as parents, do we analyze and second-guess everything we do with our kids??
Turns out I needn’t have worried – both my boys have always had close friends who are African American, are fiercely loyal and protective of them, and are mystified by anyone who would suggest that any one race is better than another. One of the best illustrations of this is a drawing Rock Star came home with in first grade. As part of a project describing themselves to their classmates, the kids were asked to draw their family portrait. When I saw Rock Star’s I was speechless for a few seconds, then said, “So – that’s an interesting color that you made our skin.” His response? “That was the only flesh color marker at our table.”