The other day, my daughter asked me about Abraham Lincoln at breakfast.
I explained who he was, and why he was important, which led to a conversation about slavery. I don’t think she believed me when I described that people had once bought other people to do work for them. I didn’t even get into questions of race and power, but merely the idea of buying and selling and owning people like things. She giggled at me and said, “Mama, that’s the silliest thing I ever heard. You can’t own other people. That’s mean. You’re not making sense.”
While I applaud her faith in humanity, I did explain that sometimes people do things that are very very mean and do not make any sense. I love that her world is one where the very idea of something like slavery is so bizarre she assumes it’s unreal.
We still haven’t really had a conversation about race. A couple of years ago, when Obama won the nomination for president, she asked who he was and why he was important. After his name and the position he was running for, I tried to explain why he was special in this moment in history. I said something like “see how his skin is a different color than mine?” She just looked at me with these big confused eyes and said, “I have skin. I like skin.” I shut my mouth tight. I’d be damned– pretty literally– if I was going to instill that in my daughter.
So now I watch her with her friends, and although we live in the whitest state in the country, there are some kids in her class and her church whose skin is darker than alabaster. And she seems not to notice. I even ask her what she likes or doesn’t like about a classmate, or what makes a friend special or different, and she doesn’t mention skin color. She doesn’t mention if they have one or two parents or if those parents are the same gender. She doesn’t mention how people dress or what part of town they’re from or whether or not lots of other people like them.
Her judgments are restricted to “she’s nice to me,” “he’s on my bus,” and “she took my crayon.”
Which is as it should be. Would that we all saw each other like kindergartners do, and the only judgments we made were based on relationship and behavior.
When I commented about this on facebook, a friend reminded me of the lyrics from South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
…It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
That’s true, and I am so honored to have the opportunity to teach two children something different, to raise a generation that can maybe look past race and sexual orientation and whatever else. But I can’t ignore these issues either, because I am not my daughter’s only teacher. Soon peers and classmates will have a huge pull in her life, and even if I have taught her otherwise, they get to have their say. Some of them may try to convince her to look down on others because of the color of their skin, the gender of their parents, their sexual orientation, their economic status, the clothes they wear, the way they talk, how much they weigh. Some of them may try to make her the victim. Kids can be nasty and bully each other for any (or no) reason. We’ve been seeing recently how deadly that can be, but it has always been vicious and violent.
Parenting is a huge and fearful responsibility. Because as much as I believe you have to be taught how to hate, I also believe you have to be taught how to stand up to those who are hateful.
(sermon uploading is stalled while I figure out why Audacity is quitting without saving projects)
In honor of National Coming Out Day, and to honor those who have lost their lives, and to share a message that I believe everyone should hear about bullying and our responsibility for it, I invite you to read a sermon by a friend and colleague of mine, Rev. Bri Desotell.