On Friday, when I picked my two older daughters up from preschool, I reminded them that there would be no school on Monday due to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. “I know,” said my five-year-old. “We read a book about it.”
“Oh you did?” I asked. “What did you learn about him?”
“I learned that he had a dream,” she answered. “What are we having for lunch?”
What I should have done, I know, is to stop her there and have the conversation. It wouldn’t have been totally new to her. Once, after hearing the name Rosa Parks mentioned in one of her children’s songs, I gave her a little background. We talked a little bit about how some people have white skin and some people have brown skin. The pre-school she attended last year was primarily black, so this made sense to her. I told her that there was a time when a lot of the people with white skin weren’t nice to the people with brown skin.
“Why?” she wanted to know. A good question, obviously.
“Well, because they looked different. Is it okay to treat someone badly because they look different?”
An earnest head shake. “NO.”
“Did God make people with brown skin?”
“Did God make people with white skin?”
“So is anyone better than anyone else?”
Conversation over, and rather successful, in my book. I didn’t feel I could go much deeper than this with a then-four-year-old. And I didn’t want her to over-think race, either. I didn’t want her to see differences where she hadn’t before. But at some point, as my children grow, the conversation will have to continue. I know this.
It isn’t the fact that we live in the south that worries me. Racism where I live in South Carolina doesn’t feel worse, necessarily, than the racism I heard people express where I grew up in Upstate New York. Of course, I’m not the target of racism, so I could be totally off on this. What I mean to say is that even if it’s subtle, racism has been present, perceptible even to me, in every place I’ve lived. In New York, in my mostly affluent, mostly white town, the “n-word” was a term used by teenage boys who could count on both hands the number of black people they knew personally. The optimist in me would like to believe that it was stupidity and ignorance, not real hatred, that led them to choose that word over another one. But when people of different races continue to live apart, go to school apart, worship apart – how can we chip away at that ignorance? How can we even make a dent?
Until I left the classroom this past April, I had spent the past ten years of my life in education. I have seen what middle school looks like for a child in inner-city Saint Louis. I’ve seen what it looks like at an elite private school in the suburbs. I’ve seen middle school in Greenville, South Carolina and here in my own town, and, to varying degrees, I have seen inequality firsthand. No one can tell me that race has nothing to do with it.
Listening to and reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I get emotional. The future he envisioned was for his children. For ALL children. As a mother, I want my daughters to be a part of it. The events of 2015 showed us that, as a nation, we aren’t there yet. And I feel, in many ways, powerless. I’m not an activist. I have no “real” authority, but I have been charged with three human beings, and that’s more than one, right? I want my children to have open eyes and hearts. I want them to love fully and without prejudice. I want them to speak when they witness injustice. I want them to hurt for others.
How do I teach these things? Luckily, I have help. I have a church that cares deeply about social justice. I have a husband who sets the most amazing example, who is genuinely friendly toward everyone he meets. I have friends in our school district devoted to teaching every child, no matter their skin color or situation. It will be my job to steer my children into situations where they can encounter true diversity. It will be my job to hold them to account, to remind them that goodness must, in the end, win out. Dr. King reminds us to embrace “the fierce urgency of Now.” I need to do what I can, now. Like write about something that makes me uncomfortable. Or have a real conversation with my child.