About two weeks ago, our family went to the local art museum. We were there primarily to see an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s work, but also on display was an exhibit that highlighted art by some of our country’s African American artists.
We wandered through this exhibit first, and as we went along, we came to this piece.
Neither of my children (5 and 7) understood the piece at all. And so, I found myself in the middle of a museum trying to explain to my children how people can choose to judge each other entirely by the outside appearance rather than by looking at the heart. Truth be told, I started explaining, but started tearing up about it (somehow having children has turned me into a really easy crier). I was EXTREMELY thankful that my husband was with us on this particular day because he took one look at me trying to breathe deeply (lest I become a true weepy mess, which NONE of us wanted. Trust me.) and just picked up where I had trailed of. So, between the two of us, we talked about racism and the Klu Klux Klan and how horribly wrong it is to make assumptions about people based on what they look like.
My 5 year old looked up at us and asked “What color are WE?”
It was one of those rare FANTASTIC parenting moments where I thought we’d done something right. That’s EXACTLY what I would have chosen for him to have asked.
He looked down at his arm and thought for a second and said “Are we white . . . you know, white-ish?”
So, I explained to him that if we had to check a box on a form, we’d probably check the “white” box. I was in the middle of following that up with something deep and meaningful when he said:
“Yay! We’re white!”
(and for about a second I wanted to die)
And then he said:
“They [meaning the KKK] couldn’t do anything like that to us, right?”
And then, I just REALLY wanted to cry.
Obviously, more discussion was required. It’s a hard thing to explain to a 5 year old that “couldn’t” and “probably wouldn’t” are not the same thing and that just choosing to disagree with people who use violence as their means of settling arguments might make you a target regardless of your skin color. And of course, just because someone might not treat us as badly as someone else, it’s still just wrong in the first place, and not something we want to celebrate having been spared. That kind of violence just shouldn’t happen in the first place.
It was one of those days when you know that your children’s view of the world has expanded and changed . . . a lot. And it makes you sad on some levels, because you know that the world the way they knew it before that experience was much more innocent and straight-forward (and color-blind). And yet, it’s important to develop empathy and to begin to understand that life continues to be about choices and about how we choose to treat one another. That’s not something reserved just for childhood.
So, even though we watched Martin Luther King Jr’s speech during the 1963 March on Washington last year on this day, this year it meant even more to me and more to my children, and my husband joined us on the couch as we watched. And we talked about how ordinary people can choose to make a difference. And about how no human being (save one, and He died on a cross 2000 years ago) is perfect, but there ARE such things as heroes, and the people who deserve that title are the ones who do the hard stuff and make the world a better place.
And now, since I’m all about a good book, here’s the one we read today. Do read the reviews. There’s a shadowy drawing of a man who has been lynched. If you have very young children or aren’t ready to get into that kind of detail, this may not be the right book for you. It is a very informative book about the Civil Rights movement in general and written in a very straight-forward style.