My son, Elijah, just turned six. We have never taught him about race or ethnicity; we never felt the need to. From a very young age he was exposed to people of all different races and there was no need to call attention to the differences. In his childlike mind, they were all people. One day, Elijah will grow up and learn the cold, hard facts of life; that our society feels the need to place labels and separate everyone into their own “special” group based on superficial differences. For now though, he is clueless, and it is beautiful… and occasionally awkward and amusing.
Tonight we read the book “Something Else” by Kathryn Cave. If you have never read this book, here is a brief synopsis. It is about a creature called Something Else who is treated poorly by everyone because he does everything differently, or the “wrong” way. Later in the book, a strange creature comes to his house, where Something Else lives alone, and the creature is very excited. Something Else at first turns him away because he is strange and very different. Then he comes to realize that it’s okay to be different and he changes his mind and invites the creature to stay. They do things together and even though they don’t do things the exact same way, they are happy because they are doing them together. The message is very obvious but still profound. We should not just accept differences, we should celebrate them!
I decided that instead of just sending our son of to bed with a kiss, which is our usual routine, we should talk about what we had just read. I asked Elijah what he thought the book meant and he said, “It’s good to be different.”
“Yes, Elijah, you’re right. It is good to be different. Mommy and daddy don’t like the same things or do things the same way, but we still love each other.” I had no intentions of discussing race, religion, creed, or other specific meanings, I was just trying to make a general point and shuffle him off to bed; but then he said something that made me pause and made my heart swell with pride. “Some people are brown and some people are white, but they can all still be friends.” Wow. My six year old son has managed to figure out something that so many people in our country are still struggling with. The color of your skin doesn’t matter. Not only that, but he doesn’t even know that some of those “brown people” are most often referred to as black (or other more offensive words).
Some people will claim that he hasn’t had time to learn prejudices for himself and just because he hasn’t learned it at home doesn’t mean he won’t learn it on his own. To that I would just have to laugh. My son is exposed to people of different “color” every single day. He goes to school, he participates in sports, he meets people at the grocery store, and he talks to strangers at the park (not something we really encourage but he has a mind and personality all his own). He has the ability to make generalizations and knows how to categorize people and objects. Yet when he places the people that he meets into categories, it is by their interests and their strengths.
Johnny and Chris both like basketball. Sally and Jane are both good at art. Jimmy and Sam are mean to me sometimes.
Elijah knows that people aren’t always nice; he knows that people don’t always make good choices, but because he is observant and smart, he hasn’t made the connections between not so nice people and what a person looks like, the color of their skin, the way they dress, or even what God they believe in. He hasn’t made those connections because they do not exist. Children seek patterns, they notice them more readily than adults. So if that pattern was there for him to find, he would have noticed it, and in his unfiltered manner, he would have pointed it out for all the world to see. Yes, he is going to learn that people from Mexico are called Mexicans, people from African countries are often called black, and that people with light colored skin (despite their country of origin), are called white. However, I am willing to bet that he will never think negatively about a person based solely on the color of their skin. People do not simply learn to be prejudiced, they are taught.
Elijah’s complete lack of knowledge about racists and bigots can occasionally have awkward and hilarious consequences. A few days ago, we took in two puppies from a rescue to foster. One of them has mostly white fur with a few small brown spots and his brother has mostly black fur with a few white spots. While discussing names, Elijah kept strongly advocating for the names “Blackie” and “Whitey.” My husband and I tried suggesting other names, but to his young and logical mind, nothing was better than the obvious and appropriate names he had come up with. Eventually we threw in the parent card, which any parent is familiar with. The card you pull when the parent vote automatically outweighs the child vote and the matter is decided. The puppies are now named Atlas and Orion, but I am anticipating a time in the very near future that Elijah will ask us why we couldn’t name them Blackie and Whitey and we will have some splainin’ to do.