Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems.
When my son was around 2 years old we were practicing naming colors. When I asked him to point to something brown he pointed to my knee. He said, “You’re brown, Mommy, and Daddy’s pinkish. What am I?” I’d thought about having this biracial identity conversation but didn’t think it would be happening so early. My son listened silently as I launched into a long explanation that I hoped I’d simplified enough for a toddler. That afternoon, when we were in line at a grocery store, my little boy suddenly shouted out of the blue, “Me know! Me beige-ish!”
Of course he had no concept of skin color as racial identity. He was 2. The actual color of skin was simply an observable fact — like the green of grass or the blue of sky. Race is something adults made up. Literally made up, because there is no basis in science.
Later, when he was about 6 or 7, my son asked me why we went to “so many different churches.” As an agnostic, non-religious person, I wanted to expose my child to various places of worship so he could grow up to decide for himself what he believes. I explained to my young son that people have different beliefs about what God is, and one belief isn’t better or more right than another. When I told him I wanted him to be able to decide for himself what God is he replied, “But Mommy, I already know what God is. God is in all of us. It’s the part of us that stays to look after the people we love after we die.”
What a beautiful sentiment. Don’t you just love the clear and open hearts of young children?
We eventually settled on a Unitarian church after visiting on youth day, when young people spoke about what being a Unitarian meant to them. “What does being Unitarian mean to me? It means God or no God, it’s up to me,” said one 8-year-old boy. One after another the youth in the congregation spoke about acceptance, tolerance, community service, and love for all.
When he was 13, my son stood in that church to give his “coming of age” speech. He was comfortable enough to tell this: “I am agnostic. I am also dyslexic. Do you know what an agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac does at night? Lies awake wondering if there is a Dog.” There was laughter. I was proud. Don’t you love the power of laughter, especially when we can laugh at ourselves?
Childhood Innocence Doesn’t Last…
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if childhood innocence could remain indefinitely? Unfortunately my conversations with my son and only child grew more serious. Like every Black mother of a Black son, I began the talks about how he needed to handle himself around police. I had to explain why his White friends could congregate in groups wearing hoodies, but he, a tall boy of color, could be seen as a threat if he did the same thing. I had to explain why he could not run around his father’s tony neighborhood playing with Airsoft guns like the White boys, because if he did he could be shot and killed as a Black “man” with a gun.
In high school my son experienced shock and outrage when a Black friend and classmate, a quarterback and National Honor Society member, was targeted in our neighborhood because of the color of his skin. His friend was selling fundraiser tickets for their high school football team after school, going door to door on the street behind their house. A White resident called police to report “a suspicious African-American man going up and down driveways.” She told the dispatcher he might have a gun “or a cell phone” in his hand. Four police cars came within minutes. The officers’ guns were drawn. Fortunately, another Black mother had had the talk and her son knew not to reach for his I.D. He was humiliated and terrified, but not killed.
…But What if it Did?
Not long ago I read an article about racism experienced by travelers and expats of color. The article itself struck me as nothing new, but the comments disturbed me.
Non-Black people on the forum posted hate-filled, nonsensical political commentary — as if racism is a “left-wing” political construct. A White person saying racism doesn’t exist is the same as a man saying sexism doesn’t exist. How would they know? The comments were angry, defensive, and ridiculous. Surprising only because I’d wrongly assumed — as a future expat preparing to move to Portugal — that folks on an expat forum were likely to be more worldly and open-minded in their thinking.
Of course not every traveler encounters racism — or religious hatred or sexism. Many never do.
When I was much younger and traveled to Italy, my negative experiences with angry and racist Italian-Americans in my city’s Little Italy neighborhood made me afraid of encountering the same behavior abroad. Fortunately, however, nothing could have been further from the truth. Citizens of Italy were friendly and welcoming, and I loved my time in Venice and Rome. Similarly, my family’s earlier negative experiences with Irish-Americans here in the US made me wary when I traveled to Ireland in my 40s. I needn’t have been worried. The people of Ireland treated me with nothing but kindness.
When my sister and I traveled to Spain in 1993 we had no concerns. We expected to have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, we were shocked by frightening, ugly, overtly racist and anti-Semite behavior during our stay in Madrid. Swastikas and the words “morta negros” (“dead niggers”) were spray-painted on buildings. We were followed around a department store by security guards. A group of young men kicked a garbage can at us while making monkey sounds as my sister and I walked back to our hotel from a flamenco bar and restaurant at night. Yes, I know of Black and Jewish travelers and expats in Spain who have had no issues with racism or religious hatred. But my experience there is burned into my memory and has prevented me from wanting to go back to this country that shares a border with my future home.
Whether traveling the world or just down the street, we can encounter racial or religious intolerance and hate. It is everywhere, as we are constantly reminded by media coverage of increasing numbers of hate crimes. But children aren’t born hating. They learn hate as they get older.
Oh how wonderful it would be if we stopped growing haters and started nurturing peace-makers. Here’s to creating a world brimming with love, laughter, understanding, and compassion. I can’t think of a better gift for our children.
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