ately, American civil rights have been flipping, flopping and twisting. The pride-making Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage came after the Charleston church shootings which itself followed case after case of nationwide police brutality. The fight with bigotry and racism is far from over.
I type this as a white woman. I can’t pretend know what it’s like to have black skin. What I can do is try to teach my children to approach life without prejudice, open-minded and openhearted.
My friends are of many colors, creeds, religions and sexual orientations. I thought having such people in my children’s lives would broaden theirs, and let them know everyone can enrich you. Call it the “Variety is the spice of life” system.
Yesterday it failed, forcing this mother into a serious talk with her elder offspring.
I’ll set the stage:
We were in a picturesque Tuscan villa enjoying summer fun with other families. Kids splashed around a pool while adults lounged around. The sun sizzled, giving my skin the freckled tan I so adore. I was in paradise — until my older son lost at water polo, and also lost his cool.
“You cheated!” he bellowed at another seven-year-old. “Now I don’t like you. You have black skin. You’re a freak!”
One quip had turned bliss into hell. Mortified doesn’t cover what I felt for that little brown boy and his mother — who happened to be white.
I instantly snatched up my son, told him to never, ever say such a thing. I then made him apologize, get out of the pool, and sit apart from the fun.
I then went back to the boy he’d insulted. “I am so sorry my son said those things to you,” I told him. “No one should ever do that — he was very wrong. But he said those things to you because he was jealous. He felt badly because you’re a better athlete. He wanted to bring you down with him. So please don’t be brought down. You’re a smart and sweet guy and a strong athlete. I have to teach my son better.”
The kid seemed to have shaken it off. I apologized again to his mother, who’s a friend and a kind and gentle person. She accepted the apology but also told me her son had already faced similar comments in school. “Kids have told him it’s better to be white. It’s something he’s going to have to deal with for the rest of his life.”
Heartbreaking was her word for it, and mine.
That’s when I had the serious sit-down with my son.
“Why would you say such a thing?” I asked him.
“I was mad,” he said, “and he does look different than us.”
“We all look different! Daddy is darker than most people — and he gets stopped in airport security because he looks Arabic. But we love him the same.”
He looked at me.
“Our president is black,” I continued, knowing he’s a big Barack Obama fan. “Would you say that to Barack Obama?”
“No,” he blinked, then wavered: “But maybe if I was mad?”
On it went.
“Leonardo, we can be put in jail for saying and doing hateful things to people,” I went on. “Being angry doesn’t give you the right to hurt people.”
“Okay,” he signed, “but he’s so much better at me at everything we play.”
What I wanted to say but didn’t was, “Of course he is. You have motor skill issues.” “When someone is better than you,” I continued, “it means you have to work harder to improve.”
My son will always face an uphill battle when it comes to sports. He’s already faced prejudice in that regard — but not for the color of his skin.
“People have made fun of you before. They’ve called you stupid. How did that make you feel?”
“Not good,” he said.
“Exactly. We don’t say things to hurt people. Plus, his skin is gorgeous.”
As we sat together in silence I realized we all have work to do on racism — including the mother who thought she was rearing a bleeding heart liberal. It’s acknowledging the need to do that work is the key to restoring dignity.
Even though the silence persisted, I hoped my son had learned a lesson.
“Mom, when Obama is finished, who will be the next president of the United States?”
“A woman. Hillary Clinton, I hope.”
“Women and black people make good bosses,” he said.
Yes, I told him, they do.