I was in college in the ’60s when a classmate told me about a little child who had never seen a black person before. My classmate had been traveling with her husband, a U.S. soldier stationed in Europe.
“Mommy, look! A chocolate lady!” the little girl exclaimed, much to my classmate’s amusement — and relief.
Those five words spoke volumes about the child — and her mother.
That child’s innocence was beautiful. Apparently she hadn’t been taught the N-word that little white children outside homes near my Catholic high school chanted as I ran by with a black classmate. Monica Taylor and I were participating in the John F. Kennedy physical fitness program, running laps around our school.
But children are not born racists. They learn this attitude from adults and others around them. I doubted even back then if those precious little ones even understood the profundity of what they were saying.
Fast forward to today when whites and people of color around the world are marching together in protest against systemic racism. Many protesters are bringing their children along with them in an effort to teach them to stand against social injustice.
I favor teaching young children about race relations and the pitfalls of making assumptions based on skin color by being ever vigilant, listening for their questions.
Questions will come when the child yearns for understanding. Adults can even observe a child watching news on television, for example, and begin a talk by asking what the child is thinking.
To sit a child down and bombard him or her with complex information can be very confusing.
One of my sisters met a little neighbor while walking her dogs recently. The child admired her dogs and asked their names.
My sister then asked the girl’s name. She replied, “Freeya.”
“That’s not her name!” said a boy nearby who said he was her brother. “It’s ‘Free Up’!”
His own name, he added with pride, was “Make a Way”!
Their parents embodied their hopes in the names they gave their children. How well those children express who they actually see themselves as being will rest on the clarity of answers to their own questioning that no doubt will continue as they mature.
In anticipation of race-related questions, parents, older siblings or other adults in a child’s life should do their own homework. This isn’t a time for opinions. Being white or a person of color doesn’t make one an authority on race relations.
Seek out those whose objectivity is sharpened, who can point out what subtly and historically has influenced our attitudes about race.
I highly recommend an article written by Fordham University theology professor Father Bryan Massingale, titled “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it.” His commentary examines why the assumptions of Amy Cooper, the white woman who in May called police on Christian Cooper, an African American man in Central Park, hold the key to how race works in America.
“To create a different world, we must learn how this one came to be. And unlearn what we previously took for granted,” writes Father Massingale, also the author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church,” another revealing read. He continued, “This means that we have to read. And learn from the perspectives of people of color.”
When a friend urged me to go online and listen to historian Carol Anderson’s talk on “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide,” I did so. The professor and chair of African American studies at Emory University documents how subtle and corrosive what she labels “white rage” is when it operates through the judiciary.
I am interested in this topic considering some of the angry responses I received over the years when writing my column on race relations. It was clear that these readers were tired of being the bad guy. They wanted the Achilles’ heel of blacks to be acknowledged forthrightly.
After listening to Anderson, who, like Father Massingale, is black, I clicked on another video featuring a white sociologist, Robin DiAngelo, a professor at the University of Washington. That video was about her book, “White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
A major hurdle, DiAngelo explains, is the emotionally charged defensiveness felt by many who contend only bad people are racists and they themselves aren’t bad. Better still, she shares how reparation can be achieved when people across racial lines are willing to participate in it.
It is that reparation that I want to be a part of by listening to frustrations without condemning and seeking common ground.
The lives of little ones will be shaped by what we show them and tell them.
Carole Norris Greene was an associate editor in CNS’ special projects department for nearly 22 years.
Photo illustration: Shutterstock.com