It was my eleventh birthday, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I had been anticipating this birthday party for what seemed like forever, and the day had finally come. I picked out the streamers and balloons- green and purple, my favorite color combination at the time. There were hot dogs and hamburgers, cake and ice cream. I still remember how sore my arms were after playing countless rounds of “Red Rover, Red Rover” in the front yard.
This birthday party was special, though, for another reason; I invited my friends from school to stay over a slumber party afterwards. I pictured us in our sleeping bags, watching movies and eating popcorn late into the night. I had been to slumber parties at my friends’ houses, but this was the first time that I would be the hostess and it felt very special. I invited my best friends from school- Tiffany, Andrea, P.J. and Jacinda- to stay after the party to spend the night.
But, something happened. Things didn’t go as planned, and even now I’m not exactly sure why. All of the girls came to the birthday party and seemed to be enjoying themselves alongside my family. And then, I realized that Jacinda wasn’t there anymore; she had left without any explanation. When I asked my parents, they fumbled for answers. They never told me what happened, but somehow I came to realize that it all came down to one thing: the color of Jacinda’s skin.
Before that time, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was any difference between Jacinda and myself or the other girls. She was my best friend- kind, smart and funny. I later learned that there had been whispering in my family- some uncomfortable with the thought of having a friend who was black. Perhaps they could have tolerated our friendship within the confines of the school grounds, but having a black person spend the night at our home was unacceptable.
I imagine that someone in my extended family made an ugly remark to her, or she became aware of what was being whispered behind her back. Either way, she was gone. Our friendship was never the same. And, I learned the unspoken rule in our home that I had violated- people that look different than us are different, and we have to keep our distance.
With the George Zimmerman trial debated endlessly on every television channel and Paula Deen’s controversy playing out day by day, I’ve thought about Jacinda a lot lately. Not only Jacinda, but each of the people I have loved over the years who have a different skin color than my own. As newlyweds, my husband and I lived in Malawi, Africa for a time, volunteering with a mission organization that helps children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. As we prepared for our journey, it became clear that some of our loved ones were uncomfortable with us sacrificing so much of our lives for people of a different race. And yet, some of the friendships we made during that time have been the most rewarding and enduring relationships of our lives. I think about each of these people that we love and how painful it would be for them to know how they are judged, simply because of the color of their skin. And, I think a lot about what I want to teach my daughter about this complicated issue that reaches to the core of who we are and what we believe in.
Parenting is the dramatic play in which we act out our beliefs about the world around us. Without little kid-sponges in our home to soak up each and every message we send, spoken or unspoken, we might be more successful at hiding our hang-ups. But, our worldview is inextricably tied to the way in which we parent our children.
If we believe the world is unsafe, we will teach our children to fear. If we live our lives as victims, we will teach our children to feel helpless. When we believe that people of a different skin color are, in fact, fundamentally different than we are and we work to isolate ourselves from them, we will teach our children that racism and bigotry are the only safe ways to live our lives.
I want my daughter to know that the color of our skin is not who we are, it is simply what we look like. We are all fundamentally the same; we are parents and children and friends and neighbors who have hopes and dreams, struggles and disappointments. We make mistakes. We hurt other people. But, we love people, too. And every one of us is worthy of love and acceptance.
We cannot condemn one another by dividing ourselves into arbitrary categories and judging the group by their lowest common denominator. I have truly known and loved people whose skin color, culture, background and lifestyle were dramatically different from my own. Although our external circumstances were different, our hearts and souls truly connected.
I believe that the best gift I can give my child in teaching her how to overcome racism is simply giving her the opportunity to forge her own friendships with those of different races and backgrounds. I know many parents who manufacture a one-color world for their children to live in. While most don’t openly say that they desire a racially uniform culture, we tend to cluster with people like ourselves. We choose private schools and neighborhoods and churches of predominately one race or another. Perhaps without even realizing it, we cut ourselves off from the need to interact with those who are different than we are.
When our children have never had the opportunity to truly know anyone of another race, it breeds fear, resentment and misunderstanding of our differences. They cannot see the uniqueness of the individual; they can only see the distinction between the colors of our skin. And there amongst the fear and resentment and misunderstanding is where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted.
I hope to provide the space for my daughter to open her heart to people and receive the same in return, no matter what their skin color.
And, while that may not change the world, it will change her world.