“Ruby, what do you think about people who have a different skin color?”
I asked her totally out of the blue. We were driving home from an afternoon of running errands. And it was just on my mind, so I asked.
“Well, I don’t really know. It depends.”
“Hmm. Could you explain that?”
“Well, I mean, most of the time I don’t really think anything. But I do feel bad, because it’s usually the first thing I notice…like whether someone has the same color of skin as me or if it’s different.”
“Oh! Well that’s totally okay, honey. Scientific studies have shown that our brains naturally see those differences right away. There is nothing wrong with noticing that someone is different from you. If you tried to pretend there was no difference, that would be kinda silly.”
“Yeah! Because it’s totes obvious that Jason’s skin is different than mine.”
“Did you just say, ‘Totes’?”
“Please don’t ever say that again. Moving on…”
“Yeah, well, it’s really obvious that my skin isn’t the same as Jason’s or Abby’s. But, like, Thea and I are exactly the same. I mean, like, our hair and eyes and faces are even the same.”
“That’s sorta true. You guys could be sisters.”
“Yeah, so when it’s my friends, I notice that they look different than me or the same as me, but I don’t really think anything about it. I care a lot more whether they’re kind to me or nice to me at recess.”
“Well, that makes sense. And I think that’s really great.”
“But there are times when I feel a little scared.”
“When is that?”
“Well, when someone looks sorta tough. You know what I mean? When they’re a lot bigger than me and they have tough-looking clothes on. I feel a little scared, like maybe they’re going to be mad at me because of all the bad stuff that people with white skin did before me. And I don’t wanna get slammed against a wall or anything. You know? Because they don’t know me. They don’t know that I really don’t care about their skin. They might just think that I’m like those bad people from before. Or they might be mad because I don’t have to deal with all that. You know?”
Out of the mouths of babes.
She’s seven, and she’s got a hefty dose of white-guilt coursing through her veins. It automatically puts her on edge around people with different shades of skin. And mostly, society has told her to just be quiet about it. Otherwise, things might get a little “aw-kward”, as my son would say.
So I’m bucking the trend that society prefers. I’m asking her to talk about it. I’m opening up space for her to tell me her thoughts and feelings. And we’re fumbling around and figuring it out together.
I’m talking with her. But I want more. I want you to talk with her.
She needs to know that other white people have some of the same thoughts and feelings. She needs to know how you’ve worked through them in your life.
She needs to know that black people aren’t mad at her, even if they’re mad at her ancestors or society in general. She needs to know what you do think about her and how you think she can help. She needs to sit down with a “tough-looking” black man and see that, even if he is big and strong and wearing a hoodie, it doesn’t mean he intends to harm her.
She needs to know that brown people are facing their own equality struggle today. She needs to hear that, when you walk into an upper-end yoga studio with your two white friends, the hostess tells your friends where the class is meeting, then turns to you and asks if you’re hoping to use public restroom. But she also needs to hear that you don’t blame her for that and that you want to be her friend, even when other people with the same color of skin as her can be really stupid sometimes.
She needs to know that yellow people get pigeon-holed and stereo-typed…that your property manager wouldn’t answer you questions about your bedbugs because he “couldn’t understand your accent”, even though you speak perfect English. But your bedbug situation was quickly addressed as soon as your white friend got involved. She needs to know that, even though this is irritating and hurtful, you don’t blame her for it. And that you’d really like to be her friend.
Mostly, she needs to know that you and she are more alike than you are different. And she needs you to join with her to create a community that’s based on those likenesses but still appreciates and respects the differences. She needs you to help her learn how to fight for racial equality and to strive for racial reconciliation.
And when I say she, I mean me.
So I’m starting by inviting you to this space. Will you consider writing a guest post for this blog? Will you share some of your experience, some of your thoughts, some of your stories, some of your own questions and insecurities? Because I believe that’s the first step. Putting aside our differences to really hear one another.
(And parents…would you consider sharing this series with your children? A friend recently shared an article with me which included the following statement: “It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.” Even if you’re already past that point in your child’s development, it’s not too late. We need to talk about these things. And we need to do it sooner rather than later.)
I’m working on putting together a list of resources to help us navigate these waters. But I really think speaking with one another is the best place to start. So…the invitation is open: Let’s Talk!
If you’d consider contributing to this series, I’d be honored to share your words in this space. Just let me know in the comments, and I’ll get ahold of you to coordinate your submission.
This post is the sixth in a series titled “But I’m Not Racist!” You can see the full list of posts here. Please join me as I carefully tread this sacred ground.