When I was in the first grade I went to a production of the Nut Cracker with my class. While we sat in the theatre, waiting for all of the students to take their seats, my friend and I did what most kids do: we joked, we laughed, and we had a good time. While we were in the midst of laughing, over what I have no idea, a little boy, about the same age as us, turned around and said, “Whites are better than blacks.” He then calmly sat back in his seat, as if what he said was fact.
My friend and I stared at each other. I could not tell how my friend was feeling, or what he was thinking, but what I did know was that I was confused. Not over trying to figure out if the little boy was right, but over what would have prompted him to make that statement. We were only seven. I turned to tell my teacher, sitting two rows behind us, but was shushed as the performance was about to begin. I never told her what happened, but I have often wondered what her response would have been. She was white. I caught myself thinking about how she would have felt addressing the issue, if she would have been too embarrassed to answer.
Up to that point, race was never a factor for me. Of course I noticed people weren’t the same color; however, it never impacted whether or not I was willing to play with a child or talk to an adult. The difference in our outward appearances did not negatively influence our ability to be respectful of each other or to be considerate of each other. Naturally, when I got home, I told my mother what happened. And as she played kitchen beautician she gave the best response she could have possibly given. She told me that it wasn’t the little boy’s fault that he felt that way. Children learn from their parents, and if he received a different message, he might not have made the statement. I still carry that moment between my mother and I, and I try to keep her words in mind when my son asks questions about race. Especially when he inquires if a person is racist.
Just recently he asked me if I thought his teacher was racist. He has come to the conclusion that she treats the Caucasian students better. When asked, I couldn't tell him he was wrong for wondering, nor could I tell him he was right. Although I can help him understand that there are many sides to how we view an event, I can never change how he felt at that very moment when he silently questioned the character of his teacher.
In one of my favorite movies, Inmitation of Life (1959), Annie (played by Juanita Moore), asked "How do you tell a child she was born to be hurt?" That has, and will always remain, one of my favorite lines in that movie. Even before having children it struck me. How do any of us explain to our child(ren) that there are people in this world that hate their very existence over something out of their control? I explained to my son that he had a valid reason to feel the way that he did. And that he was not wrong for noticing that there is a difference in how students are treated. I also told him that we cannot automatically assume the worst about a person because of their race. Just as we would not want someone to assume the worst about him because of his race.
I would be lying if I said that conversation did not bring back memories of both the subtle and overt brushes with racism I have experienced. It's amazing how we see ourselves in our children. And how unfortunately we sometimes see history repeats itself through them. Listening to my son took me back to being seven. And how my mother crafted her words so as to not break my hope in humanity. Sometimes people learn to be ignorant because of their environment. Sometimes there is no other option for what one chooses to believe because the adults they imitate do not leave room for any other beliefs to form. It’s an interesting phenomenon. And one that you hope people tear down and reconstruct as they grow older and more capable of forming their own ideas.
Every so often I think back to that little boy in the theatre and if he still feels the same way. I’ve been told that anything a person learns can be unlearned. I wonder if he took advantage of that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Latanya Muhammad is an educator, group facilitator, and 100% a wife and mom. If you would like to read more of her posts visit www.shetanagain.com. And if you want to weigh in on the action, feel free to direct all feedback and inquiries to email@example.com. See ya'!