"Bigotry, Blindness, and Basketball"

We can't teach our children about race if we never talk about it.

Talking to children about race from an early age is important

As soon as I pulled up, I got a knot in my stomach. I had signed up my three “big kids” — five-year-old Jafta, adopted domestically, three-year-old Kembe, adopted from Haiti, and three-year-old India, my biological daughter — for a basketball class. It was held in one of the swankier areas of our city. As we walked through the door, I had a feeling that this may not be the most welcoming place for two black kids. But I tried to put my cynicism and paranoia in check.

We can all hold hands

After the other kids arrived, the two coaches called for all of the kids to circle up and hold hands.

And that’s when things started to move in slow motion.

I saw Jafta grab the hand of a boy nearby. We’ll call him Jimmy. Jimmy looked at Jafta, laughed nervously, and said, “That’s a black kid!” OK, no harm. He is a black kid. But then Kembe tried to hold Jimmy’s other hand, and he refused, saying, “Another black kid? I don’t want to hold hands with another black kid!”

I was mortified. I looked at the coaches, but couldn’t tell if they had heard. Another kid moved into the circle and grabbed Jimmy’s free hand. He reluctantly kept holding hands with Jafta. I don’t think Jafta caught what he was saying. Kembe still primarily spoke Creole, so I don’t think he understood. Crisis averted. Sort of?

But Kembe still needed to hold hands with someone, and there was only one opening in the circle. The coaches encouraged that boy, we’ll call him Timmy, to grab Kembe’s hand. But Timmy said, “No! I don’t like the brown. I don’t want to hold hands with the brown kid.”

I was stunned. I said, to no one in particular, “We can all hold hands with each other, no matter what color.” One of the coaches coaxed Timmy to hold hands with Kembe. He continued to protest, but quieted down when the coach started the class.

A disheartening conversation

I could feel the back of my neck getting hot and my heart rate increasing. I was pissed. And really hurt for my kids. I had to do something. I took a deep breath and identified the parents of Jimmy (the first kid). Once the kids were distracted and playing, I approached Jimmy’s dad and told him what happened. Jimmy’s dad got defensive. He told me I was wrong, even though he hadn’t been standing close enough to hear what was said.

Jimmy’s mom approached and, when she heard what I was saying, she became hostile. She basically took a “How dare you suggest my son is a racist” approach. I tried to tell her that I didn’t think this was an indictment of her parenting or a reflection of their views. I tried to explain that kids sometimes experiment with power by being exclusive about gender, disability, and race, and that they just need encouragement to be more inclusive. She was totally angry and wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. It ended with them basically calling me a liar.

At that point, I thought about scooping up my kids and leaving. It’s one thing to have your kids treated poorly, it is another when parents refuse to acknowledge that or to hold their own kids accountable. But my kids seemed to be having fun; I wasn’t sure they were even aware of what went on.

I thought about approaching the second boy’s mom, but I felt defeated by my first conversation.

Kids see in color

During free time, after the class was over, Jimmy’s mom approached me again. Not to apologize, but to defend her kid. Because, in her words, “He needs to be protected, too.” (Not sure from what.)

What she said next, in my opinion, gets to the root of the problem. She told me that her son has always been instructed never to point out another person’s skin color. That’s why she was having a hard time believing that he said out loud that my son was black. This was when I lost my patience. Through gritted teeth, I reminded her that my son is black, and that pointing that out is fine with me and not an insult. What was insulting was the fact that her son didn’t want to hold my son’s hand because he is black. Probably because he has been taught at home that saying that someone is black or brown is taboo and, therefore, thinks that black people are inherently problematic and scary. Too scary to even talk about.

I’ve approached parents about this kind of behavior toward Jafta a few times. They’re always incredulous that their child could behave in such a way, so they accuse me of lying or exaggerating, or even imply that my kid “brought it on himself.”

Children are social beings, and one of the first social lessons they learn is to sort and group. At certain ages, all kids are prone to leaving out others based on external factors. Boys hang out with boys. Girls hang out with girls. Parents accept this. But somehow, people assume the school-aged sorting and exclusion game magically glosses over skin tone. It doesn’t.

In their book, NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman list the “steps” involved in raising a racist: “Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be ‘color blind.’ Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two. Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that [insert your race here] is better than everybody else.” The authors discovered, through various studies, that most white parents never talk to their kids about race. They say things like, “Everybody’s equal,” but never get more specific than that. If a child points out someone who looks different, he is shushed and told that it’s “rude” to talk about race. But kids do see skin color, and when parents ignore it, the result is that my kid gets to become an object lesson.

Those kids who were so cruel today? Maybe they’ve never played with a black child before. And they’ve probably never been in a situation where they were the minority. Their parents have the privilege of thinking that none of that matters, because it doesn’t affect their child. I think it is a parent’s duty to help their children overcome this natural tendency to seek out “sameness,” to offer gentle, but explicit, guidance to be a little less self-centered. Because, really, isn’t that what parenting is all about? Training our kids to move from being self-centered infants into respectful and empathic children and then adults?

Oh, by the way — those brown boys who got rejected in the basketball circle? They had a great time.

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