My Son and Racism

Today is the 50th anniversary of the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream.” speech.

It’s a work of eloquence and art. It’s something I admire and something that lifts me up when I read or hear it.

I didn’t want to write about this – because while it has a special place in my heart, and it has a special place in history, I simply don’t feel worthy of writing down my thoughts about such an amazing man and his words – all of them.

However, I really feel the need to share this story.

Coincidentally, my son and I started reading the next book in our Magic Treehouse Book series this week. It was about the Civil War. In this series a young brother and sister go back in time. It’s an imaginative way to learn about bits of history and to learn about other people and cultures.

Last night the part we were reading talked about a tent hospital on the edge of the battlefield. The children decide to help the nurses and one nurse sends them around to the tents with food and water to serve the wounded Union soldiers. In the first tent it talks about what the men looked like and what the children see. In the second tent it says “everything was exactly the same, except all of the soldiers were African-American.” The boy goes on to talk to one of these soldiers a little about the war and he learns what the war “was about” and what slavery was.

My son stopped me at this point and asked about slavery and war and a few other hot topics. And then he says “what is African-American?” Now my son has several black classmates and we know two families we have gotten together with regularly who are mixed race families. I said “you know, people who have darker skin like “Jacob.” He and his brother and dad are Black Americans” – not wanting to confuse him by saying African-Americans again, since he knows quite a bit about Africa and knows it’s on the other side of the earth.

He stopped and looked at me, shocked, and said “You mean “Jacob” is a black american??? Why didn’t he tell me?”

He had never seen a difference between himself and his classmates.

I didn’t want him to think about it. I wanted to keep him innocent to these things. We talked a little about how we are all really the same and we talked a little about slavery and the horrible way people have been treated in history. He told me “Mom, you know the only thing that matters is what you are like in here, right?” and he pointed to his chest and I praised him. I said “yes. Yes it is. It is the only thing that is important.” And I loved that.

I stopped. I wanted with all my heart to let it go – to let him keep not seeing the colors and races and creeds and gender and “differences” of people. I wanted to let him be, for as long as he could be, blind to these things. And I admit I did. I stopped and I let it go.

Tonight we read the next chapter. It talked about young boys in the war and the conditions on the battle field and how they didn’t have enough water and food. It talks about a young drummer boy.

My son brought up the slaves and the “black americans” again. I had thought about it all day. And I came to the conclusion that I am not helping him or anyone else if I allow him to continue not seeing how other people are treated.

It’s a lovely thing – a child’s innocence. A lovely precious thing.

However, it’s also a privilege in this case. It’s a privilege my son can afford and other children can’t. It’s an innocence children of color have to give up much much younger far too often.

The moment I realized that was the moment that I realized his privilege serves no one if he doesn’t learn how to use it to help others. So we talked. We talked about how people of color and different religions and women have been treated historically and we talked about how they are treated now. We talked in broad, general strokes, but we talked about how lucky we are to have what we have.

While I hope that one day there will be no reason for mothers to talk to their sons about the privileges they enjoy, that day is not today. I hope one day that little boys like mine have no more privilege than the next little girl or boy. I hope that one day when a child asks what a racial term means, mothers everywhere can say “Oh, that’s an old saying that we don’t use today” because we will be all one global family – no differences in how we are treated and how others are treated. But that day is not today. I hope that one day children will be taught about all of the wonderful civil rights people enjoy. Not just white people or black people or men or women or Americans or Europeans or heterosexual people or Christians – everyone across the world. I hope that they will learn of the fights we fought and the pain people went through. I hope it is but a distant gleaming memory of a time when humans overcame all of our prejudices and all of our fear and hatred and pulled ourselves out of darkness. I hope it is a mark in history when war and inequality ended. I hope it is celebrated near and far.

But tonight, tonight I talked to my son about how people are sometimes treated, and how wrong that is, and how he can help. How speaking up is one of the most important things he can do. We talked about how the voice our culture has given him is one of the most important tools he has and that when he sees inequity, he needs to speak out against it.

Tonight my son went to bed a little less innocent. Maybe, just maybe, he will be better for it.

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