We were sitting on the couch together, bowl of cereal in hand, channel surfing on a Saturday morning. I was in search of a cartoon that would entertain a four-year-old boy but wouldn’t send me to the kitchen to hide all the pointy objects before a lisping cartoon animal broke out in an obnoxiously catchy and repetitive tune. (Lisping cartoon animals are the leading cause of parental self-injury, you know.)
I stopped on a relatively innocuous Disney cartoon and turned to him for approval.
“I don’t like this cartoon, Mom. I don’t want to watch shows with brown people.”
My son is very precocious. I’m not sure I can recall a time he wasn’t speaking in full sentences and he never hesitates to say exactly what is on his mind. He once announced during dinner at a family reunion that my grandmother was a girl and therefore had a vagina, and I have learned the hard way never to ask him if he has to go to the bathroom in public where we can be overheard. His high volume and consistent answer? “There’s no pee in my wiener, Mom!”
I have grown accustomed to the mortifying “kids say the darnedest things” moments we all suffer as parents, but I have never felt embarrassment like what I felt in that room, in that moment, just the two of us.
I switched off the television and turned to face him. “Why don’t you like shows with brown people, buddy?”
“Because…brown people are mean, Mom.”
“Being mean has nothing to do with skin color, son. Why would you think that?”
We talked at length that morning. He had recently begun pre-school and he told me about the boy in his class, the brown boy who made him eat dirt who sometimes pushed him. This was my son’s first experience with two things—bullying and children outside of his own race—and they had become linked in his mind.
We talked about bullying and how to cope. We talked about new phases in life and new environments and we talked about brown people and white people and yellow people and how none of it really mattered. Physical appearance does not dictate a person’s character. I impressed that upon him in as many ways as I could, phrasing and rephrasing it. In the end he nodded his head, assured me he understood, and ran up the stairs to play in his room. I took our cereal bowls to the sink and then sat down at the kitchen table feeling like I had failed my son.
Success in parenthood is something that we all must personally define. If you asked a group of parents for their definition of a good mother or father, I am sure you would get a wide variety of answers. For me a major criteria that must be met, a quality that must be instilled in my children as adults in order for me to consider my job as a mother as one well done, is to raise tolerant, accepting, and open-minded individuals.
In a society that openly boos when a gay soldier poses a question during a political debate, where simply being a part of a certain religion qualifies you as a terrorist in the eyes of many, where an American citizen can be stopped and questioned because he or she doesn’t look like they’re from around here, how can my voice be the voice of reason to my child? The answer to that is clear to me now. My voice must be the loudest and I’m going to have to talk pretty loudly (and often) to drown out all the hate in the world.
Racists aren’t born, they are created. I have never been as certain of that as I am after this innocent interaction with my son. I cannot stop the evil that exists in the world I must raise my children in, but one day I hope to release into society two people who will never add their voice to a chorus of hatred, who will instead join me in drowning out the ignorance and intolerance.
It’s never too early to teach your child to love, to accept, to forgive. After all, it’s what they do best.
Amber Doty is the managing editor of Go Mighty, as well as a slightly eccentric wife and mother of two. Her interests include eating meals she had no hand in preparing, making formerly professional business meetings awkward, and perfecting the emotional outburst. One day she hopes to travel to all seven continents, but for now she lives in North Carolina happily equidistant from the mountains and the beach. You can read more from Amber on her blog, The Daily Doty.