It has finally happened. My 5-year-old has been exposed to the ugliness of racism.
I was not prepared for what he told me after school one day. My husband and I have worked hard to protect him from the nastiness that comes from ignorant people’s mouths. We have asked friends and family to avoid using hate speech. I have tried to keep my son oblivious to prejudice in people, but I have failed to protect him from the ignorance that permeates society.
On the day in question, while coloring with his new skin tone crayons, my son mentioned that a schoolmate said another child at school wasn’t a candidate for friendship because he is a different color than they are. In that friend’s eyes, this different color negatively affects that child’s breath and body odor. While I’m dressing up the language used to describe this child, the ugly reality is clear.
I started questioning my son about the friend who said these things, and I asked if he had noticed the child smelled any worse than I did. He said no. I asked if the other child was a good child, and he yes. Finally, I asked if it made sense to make friend decisions based on color. My child said no. He went on to say he likes people no matter what color they are because his skin gets darker in the summer, “just like yours, Mommy. And sometimes you stink after you run, but I still love you. And your favorite color is pink and mine is blue.”
My heart was broken that, at 5, he was exposed to this. I know I can’t keep him oblivious to skin color, and attempting to was foolish. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the waters of those who like or dislike another person based on the different levels of melanin, and, regardless of what others think, those levels don’t make a person unworthy of friendship. Doesn’t that open the door for comments that could come across problematic anyway? “You have more/less melanin that I do, but I’ll still be your friend.” It’s just like the “Mommy you stink” comment. Conjunctions, and their rhetorical subtleties, are difficult for most adults; they are impossible for 5-year-olds.
After the topic was exhausted, and the 5-year-old was ready to play Legos, I wondered what Atticus Finch would do. He would be honest with his children, of course he would! Atticus would tell Jem and Scout that there is ugliness in the world, but that didn’t mean the children have to take part in it. He would tell them people are called to do what is right and kind in the face of hatred. (Doesn’t he challenge his family and community members to ignore decades of hate? Doesn’t he wipe Mr. Ewell’s spit from his face?) I may not be able to protect my Atticus from the hurtful things people say, but I can certainly teach him that friends come in all shapes and sizes and colors. I can teach him that our differences are what make us special and worth knowing. Heaven knows I’m about as idiosyncratic as they come, and I manage to have a friend or two in the world.
A couple of weeks have passed, and I was curious if he remembered our conversation or if he was still under the influence of colorism. I asked about all of his little friends and if everyone plays nicely. According to Atticus, only one color prevents the children from playing together in his kindergarten class ... those who have to sit at the little, yellow timeout table.