My 7 year old son, L, was telling me a story this week about the slip-n-slide at summer camp, and how much fun it was. He said the first time he went so fast he slid off the end and got so covered with mud he “looked like a black man.”
It was just the two of us, having a conversation at home, but I was taken aback by the analogy, and paused. As an actively anti-racist parent, what would even make L think of that reference? While certainly not intended that way, was his statement racist? What he said felt wrong to me. But why?
“I don’t think I would say that,” I started. With all of the studies in the media lately about unconscious bias and whites being afraid to talk about race for fear of offending, I didn’t want him left with an ambiguous sense of shame that might inhibit him from healthy conversations about race as he grew.
While I assured him I knew he was innocently trying to convey the extent to which his skin was covered in mud, which is dark, I was stuck on the fact that it was mud (e.g. ‘dirty’), and that there was something not right about the idea of covering oneself to look like another race (e.g. you don’t ‘dress up’ to look like a Native American). “Well,” I started slowly, “one reason might be that it doesn’t make sense to use an image that relates to someone’s skin color to describe something.” But I was still missing the “why?” (and any language that could actually be understood by a 7 year old.)
A nagging connection materialized from my subconscious. “Maybe it’s because a long time ago there was something called “Minstrel shows” where white people would put black, mud-like paint on their face and pretend to be black, but they would act stupid or in a way that didn’t make sense, implying that people of color weren’t smart, which of course isn’t the case, and of course it was offensive. We don’t have minstrel shows anymore, but maybe someone might make that connection, and of course you don’t want to say anything that might be prejudiced.”
Nearly a week later, I find myself thinking about a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston two decades ago. Critics condemned the exhibit as pornographic. Defenders said the photographs were innocent, it was society that was sick, and any pornography was the projection of our own disturbed thoughts onto the images. I remember one quote in the newspaper from a City Councilman that seemed particularly lascivious. “I’m going to go through every inch of that exhibit, and if I see anything dirty or nasty I’m going to shut that exhibit down.” You could almost see the drool at the corners of his mouth, imagining him walking through the exhibit searching for obscenity.
In the end, L understood what I taught him. But the bigger question was did I teach him a lesson, or did I perpetuate my own unconscious bias? Was what he said wrong, or was I analyzing too deeply and making a racist connection that wasn’t there? By describing a specific racist behavior and a little of the history of racism-did I teach him not to be racist, or was I actually teaching him to look at people differently, which he might not have thought of before.
Honestly, I don’t know. But perhaps I did teach him the “power of one” and “personal accountability” and how our words really do matter. Politicians and media personalities make offensive comments out loud and in public, unfortunately, all the time. I say by the time it gets to the mouthpiece, the underlying prejudice is already ingrained.
I do know that my intent is to start at the core…with “L’s” heart and mind. I tell him it’s because when he grows up he might be a great arbitrator who finally brings peace to the world. Why not? Someone’s got to do it. Why not start, today, at home, with me and L?