Discrimination Gauntlet Thrown- by our 5-Year Old
The other night, we were watching The Voice, and Tony Jr and Charlotte got into a back-and-forth about who they wanted to win. “I want the girl to win.” “I want the boy to win.” Cute, right?
Then Tony Jr said, “That girl singer is a dirty dump truck.” And even though mostly it was just to goad his sister, it struck me that it was a moment of “Boys are better.”
I know we are going to hear a lot of that. I am sure pretty soon he will learn about cooties, and then he will spend years thinking that girls have them. He will tell Charlotte that girls have them, and then she will know what they are and she will know for years that boys have them. “But we still love you, Mommy and Daddy.”
Tony Jr said that he wanted Tony Lucca to win. So did I, actually, so I did a mental fist bump.
Tony Jr. continued, “Because he has curly hair like me, and his name is Tony, and he has light skin like me.”
“Um...” I said.
Tony Jr. added, “That other guy I don’t want to win, because he is bald, and he doesn’t have light skin like me, he has dark skin, and...”
I felt my heart fall into my knees. I looked at Tony Sr, and I could tell he was feeling the same way.
I was floored. I mean, I understand he’s five, but... I guess because we have so many friends from different places, and backgrounds, and countries, and cultures that are in our house and our lives, and they are people that he is closer to than either of his parent’s families in many ways, I just hoped that we would breeze right past this.
I think at first we both felt an urgency to “correct” things. But how do you do that without turning it into something that will loom in the mind of a 5 year old, making it turn into something even bigger for him because it was such a big deal for us? If we take his thumb out of his mouth he instinctively puts it right back in, laughing at (and more importantly, filing away) his ability to get our goat.
If a 5 year old likes something, if something is a Yes, that makes the other thing a No. If a 5 year old likes something, than he hates the other thing. Everything is about love and hate all the time. If Tony Sr or I take more than 2 minutes to go see his new cool dance move, than “Mommy and Daddy hate me.”
So for him, in that moment that had nothing to do with the other moments in his life, curly-haired, light-skinned Tony Lucca was awesome, and that meant that bald, dark-skinned Jermaine Paul was stupid and gross. And that girl, Juliette Simms, was a dirty dump truck.
Today, with time to process it, I could bring myself into his mind. Of course, he sees an adult man on tv that looks like him, and he thinks “He looks like me. I could be him when I grow up. That is cool.” Every time Tony Jr meets someone named Tony, or sees someone with reddish-brown curly hair, he feels an instant connection. Hell, I’ve done the same thing...
My world was a lot different before J-Lo taught people to embrace the curvy figure. I used to be thought of, all through elementary up through high school, as fat and gross because of my curves. J-Lo changed other people’s perception about what is beautiful, and while I always thought I was beautiful, I saw myself in her and instantly felt sexier. I even got the nickname J-Lo given to me at work (and J-Le, and later J-La when I got married...)
And it is true for all kids, I think. I loved the picture of President Obama letting a young boy rub his hair. Kids see a grown up that looks like them and that person becomes someone that they look up too, and that an african american boy can look at Obama and say "That could be me someday." Young African-Americans can look at him and see their future in him.
And yet, of course, it isn’t that easy. Because if we don’t use this opportunity- and I do think of it as an opportunity- to help him understand the complexity of it, if we don’t give him opportunities to think about the shallowness of that kind of thinking, then he will think that that is the RIGHT way of thinking...
One of the first things I did was say, “You know who else has a different skin color than you? Mommy. And Daddy. And Charlotte. Look.” And we all put our arms up next to each other so we could see the difference. Right? Wrong? I have no idea, but I was thinking of that picture of the skin-colored crayons that came out on Facebook and the impression that it left on me. It seemed like something immediate that he could see and touch and feel.
This morning we watched an episode of Strawberry Shortcake where she tells her cat, Custard, that life would be “Berry, berry boring” if everyone had whiskers and a tail.
And we had serious conversations too, Tony Sr with him last night and me today on the way home from the store, about how it is not okay to not like someone because their skin is a different color of because they are a girl. But it is such a delicate thing to do, to give him the tools and knowledge without giving him a weapon to use as an instigator...
Everyone always talks about their surprise at how young kids are when they bring things up... and it is true. And if you don’t acknowledge it, I think it leaves an imprint that will stay when they are 15. And 35. And 60. And then, how do things ever get better?
So I could definitely use some help here. Parents out there- what do you say to your kids? How do you keep the dialogue open? So that these thoughts don’t stay with our kids through their whole lives? One of the first things babies learn is how to recognize difference. So how do we help our children use this positive aspect of their growth as an instrument to see difference as a beautiful thing, instead of allowing it to grow into (even unintentionally) as a tool for discrimination?