Seeing color

This morning, without warning during a conversation about work, Kalista asked me if my boss was a black person or a white person.

My heart was nearly broken.

It exposed an unsettling feeling I had back in February, when Kalista’s school launched its annual celebration of black history month. She learned about George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. Each night she’d come home relaying tales of heroism I wish she wouldn’t talk about.

She was 5. She wanted to know why it happened, this thing called slavery. She wanted to know how people could be so mean. She wanted to know what the difference was between black people and white people. There went her colorblindness – thanks to a poorly planned curriculum for the month – right out the window.

Again – she was 5.

What vindication was I to give her when it came to this stuff? The interpretation of slavery I learned at my school in New York – the one that made no excuses for people in the South owning slaves? Or was I to sugarcoat the topic like folks do down here – give her some “economic” justification that made the killing, raping and torturing of fellow human beings who were brought to this land against their will seem vital to the advancement of a society and, therefore, a lot less evil than it was?

With great uncertainty, I did the latter. She has to grow up down South; I did not.

But, really, I thank you, school and your lesson plans that deem it absolutely vital to strip children of a critical element of their innocence when it comes to race issues. I’m truly glad you opted to speed up the process by sending the following message to children like my daughter: there are black people and there are white people. She did not know this until you came along, dearest school.

(The preceding paragraph reeks of sarcasm.)

Does she need to learn history, even the stuff that makes us uncomfortable? Absolutely. Does she need to respect – even be inspired by – things Carver, Tubman, Turner and Douglass did? Without a doubt. But not at the age of 5. Wait until society’s nasty tentacles have grabbed her, and she’s learned through daily life that black and white skin colors depict a time in our history when Americans did some really awful stuff. Wait until she’s learned on her own that some white people don’t like black people … THEN teach these stories of courageousness.

Don’t worry – it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait much past the age of 7.

Debate time. Please don’t think less of me. Now hear this: when I was growing up, no one ever addressed there being a “black” culture or a “white” culture. That’s because there were neither where I grew up. Instead, what we had was “American” culture with circumstantial twists.

Sure, gaudily-dressed black teenagers tended to get more attention from mall security when they entered a store with a cockeyed strut. And, suffice to say, when you saw someone living in extreme poverty, it was likely he or she was black. Stereotyping exists everywhere. But there was no formal recognitiuon of two different peoples.

There were no Kwanzaa celebrations, for instance. Black history month didn’t so much as get a shout-out on those free desk calendars distributed by funeral homes each year, Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero to Americans of all skin colors and every word out of a person‘s mouth was a real, genuine element of a formal language – not some made-up jargon 99 percent of America didn‘t understand. That was how we rolled where I grew up – where everyone was classified as nothing more than “American.”

Not black. Or white. Or Southern. Or Mexican.

That has been the biggest culture gripe I have when it comes to raising a child here – everyone wants to classify someone as something beneath “American” on the pyramid of who we are. It’s awful, especially to a guy who’d like nothing more than that pyramid to be one triangle-shaped “humans” category.

I had a rarity for a while, when it came to this war. I had a daughter who judged people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I hope I may bring her back once she‘s older and able to comprehend this awful part of our history, but frankly, I don’t know. I’ll never have the social influence school has on her.

Segregation will never die until we let it.

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