One of my only memories that ring crystal-clearly in my head is one of total intolerance. It actually comprises two separate events, but they are so closely related that I cannot think about one without thinking also about the other. The details are foggy. I can’t recall if it was my birthday, or some such other special occasion, but I had a group of classmates over to my home in Virginia. I was in early grade school, but cannot remember which grade, either. None of that really matters. The point is, one of my friends was a black kid named Jared.
Well, that’s not the only point. I’m not tooting my own white horn, like “look at me! I’m not the misogynist, xenophobic, racist, discriminatory, homophobic, privileged cracker that you thought I was! I once had a black friend!” I’m not wearing this fact like a badge, it is merely a totally relevant fact. I had never given it any more thought than that, until that day. We were all playing in the basement (I do remember the undeniably 80s wood paneling on the walls), getting along just fine. And then somebody’s dad showed up to pick up his kid.
He walked downstairs toward the big room in which we were all minding our own business- maybe to say hi, maybe to bring cake (doesn’t seem so likely any more), maybe to slip us all some beers, but instead he caught sight of Jared and walked back out of the room. Then, in a way that lacks all sorts of subtlety and propriety, he yells upstairs and out the door to anyone within a 1-mile radius “why is there a little nigger kid here?!”
Boom. I’m certain I had heard some kind of off-hand disparaging remarks about spics or niggers or gooks before then, muttered under his breath, but this was my first in-your-face taste of outright hatred. I saw the reaction in my friend’s face. This is one of the few instances where I would use the terms crestfallen, shattered, hurt and devastated all together. I don’t know what happened after that. Memory is a fickle bitch and I don’t like to invite the opportunity for new memories to materialize from suggestion or inference. If it isn’t clear, I just leave it at that. I do clearly remember his face, and the silent heaviness that fell over the room.
The second part to this tale comes some time later, maybe a few days or weeks or months, whatever. We were back at school, and we were playing soccer. It was recess, so I imagine that I couldn’t have been much older than 6 or 7 at the time. Never minding (and probably due to the fact) that I was a scrawny kid with very limited athletic ability then, I was wide open on the field and calling for the ball. Jared had it. I think he passed it to someone else. This happened again and again, so eventually I might have just settled on thinking that maybe he didn’t hear me.
So I called out to him. “Give me the ball, nigger!”
With an R, mind you, not an A.
I was a little kid, already being indoctrinated into a hateful way of thinking about others. Remembering this moment still makes me ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t know better, but at the same time I certainly did.
I have to wonder about these things now because I’m a dad. I have two beautiful children, still so very young and fresh in the world. What are we to do to prevent our children from falling into the same detrimental way of thinking, a way that robs others of their individuality and humanity and instead drives us categorically toward disregard and disgust?
Well, I have a couple of ideas. Bear with me.
First, it is important to mention that I now live in Georgia. Ironically, the southeastern United States is almost synonymous with racism, since we will forever be linked to slavery and the Civil War. I write that this is ironic because the population here is so diverse. We benefit from the same thing that benefits military service members: being forced to live and work alongside others of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We learn just how false stereotypes can be (and how dead-on accurate they can be). This makes the people here fertile ground from which my children can learn tolerance and acceptance before they ever even have to tolerate or accept… while people still just are.
My wife and I capitalize on this diversity with our daughter, who is just now getting old enough to really interact with people. We take every opportunity to stop and engage with friendly strangers, no matter their color. We want our little baby bird to know that she has to engage with someone before she can know if that person is worth knowing, rather than lumping an individual into an amalgamated mass of shared attributes based on skin tone. Almost always, the people we talk to are pleasant and polite and happy to entertain our little girl (I mean, she’s pretty much the most adorable thing you’ll ever even see).
Now, to be fair, there is no escaping racism, not completely. The way that we categorize things comes naturally. We don’t question it. It happens out of necessity, and comes from deep down under the cover of consciousness.*
But what we can do is become sensitive to when that categorization starts to creep toward prejudice. That is what I aim to do as a parent. Racism is sneaky and subtle, and it sometimes shows itself through nothing more than a feeling that is very easy to believe in, almost as strong as faith. I want to encourage my children to be able to identify the moment that they start to assume or feel things about people they’ve never met, and to question those assumptions rigorously. Furthermore, we will encourage them to interact with as many people as possible, so they can learn the value of unique individuals.
Of course, we are also going to teach them about stranger danger and all of that common sense stuff. We can’t have them naively trusting strangers in windowless vans, but that’s another subject altogether.
I just really, really don’t want to teach them to hate.
How do you deal with racial prejudice in your home, if you do?
*I strongly recommend the Invisibilia podcast episode “The Power of Categories.” Go here, scroll down to season 1, find the episode, listen to it, and expand your dome. In that order.