I was a senior in college in Austin. I had a job in the after school program in an elementary school near campus. One day one of the kindergarteners, a little girl named Sonya, sat on the playground, buried her face in her knees, and wept.
"What happened?" I begged her to tell me. Finally she did.
"I was standing at the tree, and we all wrapped our arms around it. And then Hannah said she didn't want to hold my hand because I'm black."
When Hannah's mom came to pick her up, I told her what had happened. Horror spread across her face. "I don't understand!" she cried. "We are not racist! We don't even see color! Her own godfather is black! How could she say such a thing?"
A decade passes. Now I am the mother. We named him Shepherd. He was beautiful. He was smart. He was funny.
When he was twelve months and ten days old, his sister was born. When he was twelve months and fifteen days old, I sat on the bottom stair in our home, holding my peacefully sleeping newborn in my arms. Shepherd toddled over to me and his beautiful, rosebud-lipped sister. He looked at her. Patted her soft pink blanket. Touched her silken hair.
Then, with as much strength as his precious, adorable little hand that was attached to his sweet chubby little arm could muster, he slapped her hard in the face.
A decade, plus two years. Shepherd has three sisters now. His littlest sister is now in kindergarten, just like little Sonya. His littlest sister is also the same color as Sonya. His littlest sister is also the most extroverted extrovert. She loves new adventures and new friends. Begs me every day for a playdate. Lists each of her little friends and asks why they can't play today? Right now? "People person" was a phrase invented for the Bethies in the world.
Bethie also has a speech delay, which hasn't bothered her too much, until now.
The year has been going well, aside from the usual kindergarten end of day tired/cranky/sassiness. But Thursday, she tells me, "Momma, I had a very bad day today at kindagarten."
"Why, sweet girl? What happened?"
"Two boys who sit next to me at the blue table. They were mean to me."
"What happened? What did they say?"
"I told them to be quiet. They say for me not tell them what to do. Then they say that I talk weird, that I don't talk like them. Then! they tell me I not American, Momma! They say I not America!"
I used to cry with every Oprah, every sad documentary, every long distance commercial. It's possible I even sought these things out for the emotional catharsis. But then I became a mother, five times over. Three of my children are currently in puberty. My emotional cup runneth over.
I rarely cry over news stories anymore.
But today I did.
Today I read about a freshman girl at American University who had a banana thrown at her while she sat in her dorm room. A black girl. Another mother's daughter who I imagine as beautiful, and smart, and funny as my daughter. A girl who got accepted to American University, an upper middle class, politically liberal, predominantly white educational school in an expensive urban neighborhood.
A school that sounds exactly like Bethie's elementary school in Austin.
A decade from now. I see an 18 year old Bethie in her first year of college. The most extroverted extrovert. Who loves new adventures and new friends. The year has been going well. Then she calls me to tell me about a very, very bad day.
"Momma. They were mean to me. I was sitting in my dorm room studying, and someone came by and threw a banana at me."
Two freshman boys are under investigation at American University. Two smart boys. Probably from upper middle class, educated, politically liberal families. Two boys who saw that other mother's daughter but decided to make it very clear that according to them, she was not human. She was a monkey.
So they threw her a banana.
She didn't belong.
She should go back to Africa.
She not America.
Racism is taught people say.
But I bet, I just bet, that if you asked the parents of those two boys, they'd be as shocked as Hannah's parents. I doubt they are any white hoods hanging in their closets. I bet they'd say "But we aren't racist! We have black friends! We don't even see color! How could our child say such a thing?"
Fearing the different is inherent. Call it tribalism, call it social identity, call it xenophobia.
I'm a Christian.
I call it original sin.
We are all born haters. We are all born baby-slappers. We all naturally loathe, mock, and alienate the different. We all cling to what we know and who makes us feel secure and who makes us feel like we belong in an uncertain, unforgiving world.
We are all born racist.
Your child is racist.
My child is racist.
Because racism is not taught. Racism is inherent.
Five year old Hannah did not have to be taught to not want to hold Sonja's hand. One year old Shepherd did not have to be taught to hate and envy his little sister for dividing his mother's affections. Two little boys did not have to be taught to shame my daughter for "not being American," which is kindergarten speak for "you're different and you don't belong here" which could quickly evolve into "Go back to Africa."
I used to think that my children would not be racist simply because their dad and I are not racist. Therefore, we didn't really need to discuss it, especially when they were still so little and beautiful and smart and funny.
Racism is taught, right?
So we won't teach them racism.
But now I realize how callow that was. Because both their dads and I are big readers. But I never expected my kids to learn how to read just because their dad and I read.
Not one of my five children had to be taught to throw food on the floor. Or to throw a tantrum. Or to disrespect their parents. Or to lie. Or to steal. Or to hit their siblings.
None of them have seen their dad or I do any of these things, yet somehow they were born naturals in each of these areas. If my children would became respectful, moral, contributing citizens purely by osmosis, I would have mothered several, perhaps dozens, more.
What I have spent the past decade plus doing is trying do is to UNteach these innate skills. To replace them with the inclination to honor and respect other people, both inside our home and outside of it. To see the image and likeness of God in each and every mean, annoying, hateful, tattling human they encounter, and treat them with dignity not because of how they behave, but simply because of the Image-bearers that they are.
It is relentless, grueling, frustrating work. Many days I gaze in shock and awe at the vitriol and evil they spew at each other - vitriol and evil that they did not learn from their dad and me. Many days I am convinced that they are unrepentant sociopaths and my life's work will all be in vain.
The only thing that keeps me hopeful is to know that other mothers feel the same way. That my own mother felt the same way. That hearts will change. That prayers will be answered. That my evil little sociopathic children are perfectly normal.
Because to sin is the nature of children.
Yet these children - who commit such atrocities on the people who share their very DNA, their tribe - these children are the ones we expect to be naturally loving and accepting to people who look different from them?
Racism isn't taught.
Racism is inherent.
Love is taught.
Respect is taught.
Honor is taught.
Proclaiming "I don't see color" is a horrible thing for you to do to my child.
And to your child.
Because we all see color. Kindergartners see color. College freshmen see color. My daughter sees color every time she looks in the mirror.
Color is good. Color is what makes life colorful.
Saying color doesn't exist as a parenting technique is as effective as saying sex doesn't exist or stop signs don't exist or the internet doesn't exist. Haphazard at best, and deadly at worst.
And if you pretend it doesn't exist, you certainly can't rejoice in it.
Pretending you don't see color means you can't talk about how wonderful and un-boring God made the world and all the people in it. Pretending you don't see color means you can't discuss how amazingly and lovingly we were designed to be protected from the sun in Africa or to absorb more vitamin D in Scandinavia. Pretending you don't see color decreases the glory of a perfect bowl of pho or a perfectly melded salsa. Pretending you don't see color denies history, both the good parts and the bad parts. Pretending you don't see color mitigates the experiences, sufferings, and triumphs of entire groups of your neighbors. Pretending you don't see color means there was no slavery in this country nor a civil rights movement. Pretending you don't see color is lying to your child.
Pretending you don't see color means that you cannot examine your own heart and root out the inherent racism that may still exist within it. Pretending you don't see color means you won't examine it, confess it, grieve it, unteach it, and murder it, before you pass down a malignant inheritance to your child. Your child, who will one day go to kindergarten, or university, with my child.
Pretending you don't see color may break my daughter's heart at best. Pretending you don't see color may be deadly to my daughter at worst.
Pretending you don't see color will never teach your child to love, respect and honor other colors.
Please talk about race with your child. Now. Right now. Before kindergarten, if possible.
Because your child was born a racist.
But you have been blessed with an amazing opportunity to redirect their heart.
How to teach your kids about the nations
Help the children love the different people
Resources for talking to your kids about race and racism
Celebrating diversity in our homes
How white parents should talk to their young about race