Jen went to Washington state over the summer, and, on the way to the airport to pick her up, Lily and I stopped at Wawa to grab some of the vanilla cream soda for the ride back, because Jen really likes it. While we were checking out, Lily told the clerk "I like your shirt." The clerk responded that she liked Lily's shirt. I said, "Awwww...nobody likes my shirt" and we all laughed.
While we were walking to the car, Lily said "I like daddy because he makes people laugh." I said that I try to, and just like anything else, you can be choose to be nice or be mean when making a joke. Further, I told her that she probably made the lady happy when she complimented the shirt. That's something she always tries to do. Somehow, she got it in her head that service employees have terrible jobs (which is not incorrect, but it's an understanding that eludes a lot of adults), and she always tries to be very nice to them, and offer them a specific compliment when interacting with them. The kid's got a ton of issues, but this isn't one of them.
The conversation turned to Maya Angelou, and I paraphrased her quote that goes along the lines of "People will forget what you did, and what you said, but they'll never forget how you made them feel", and I told her that she should be proud, because she always tries to make people good about themselves.
Then Lily said, "I don't want to be racist, but...what color is her skin?"
"She has brown skin."
"Oh, that's so nice! Brown people finally get a poet of their own." She was in the back seat, so she couldn't see me wince at that. I didn't feel like unwrapping her unconsciously condescending middle class white views at that time, but that's another topic to discuss at some point in the future. "We should learn about her in Black History Month!"
It was as painful as the well-intentioned but incredibly tone deaf tribute to Martin Luther King from Marvel Comics in the 1980s.
|Sweet Christmas! I'd bet my tiara on it!|
I told her her that it's not racist to note physical differences among people, but that the problem arises that when we ascribe traits to people based on their appearances. Then she started worrying that she was racist towards pretty blondes, because they're always the villains in Disney shows. That gave way to feeling guilty for not cutting her hair and donating it to locks of love, because "Those kids need it more than I do!"Now, race is really a fiction, biologically it's trivial, and anthropologists are fond of saying that there are more differences within than between racial groups, but, just the same, it's a persistent and pernicious illusion that affects all aspects of our society.
We read a book today called Grace for President, about a little girl who works her butt off in a race for class president, only narrowly beating the boy who expected to coast to victory. We discussed the concept of institutional bias. The boy in the story didn't do anything overtly sexist, but just the same, he exploited the advantages provided by his gender.
I'm reminded of the words of Baba Dioum, who said, "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." Lily's problem here does not arise from a lack of empathy, but rather a lack of understanding. She has led something of a sheltered life, but as Dr. King says in the quote I borrowed for the title of this post, The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." Hopefully, we can help her find that education.