Saturday, March 26, 2011

Primary Lessons With Race

Apparently, it's never too early to learn how to get along with others who may appear different from yourself.

My son attends a pre-school with a high minority enrollment. It's a wonderful place and has been the best learning environment that he has experienced to date. One of the benefits of his attendance at this pre-school is that, due to the number of minority members in his class, he has become friends with many kinds of kids. Children here range from low-income to upper middle class. They reside in the beautiful historic district and the modest ranch homes on the edge of the city. Their parents span the labor range--from house painters to lawyers, regardless of race. Families also come from all over the world--not just the States, but Mexico, Asia, and Western Europe. I love seeing that this group, with its diverse dynamic, works together.

One day, I sat with my son at school breakfast. Across from him sat two little children, one lean little blonde haired fair-skinned boy and a chubby, taller girl of African American descent. The two children could not appear more different. Nor did they share the same accent or dialect. The little girl flung her arm around the boy's neck.

"He's my brother!" she announced proudly.
"Of course he is! I can see the family resemblance!" I said.

Later, I took my son's teacher aside and shared the story. As we stood there laughing, she said that this place taught the children one of the finest lessons--there are obvious differences, she said, but we are all friends here. So this past weekend, another classmate, Briana, asked my son to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. My husband happily escorted our little fellow to see his friends, but because my spouse is not in the school as often as I am, he does not know the little faces and names of all these wee children.

"Which one is Briana?" my husband asked Tiny.
"The brown one," answered our boy simply. My husband laughed and sent me a picture, my sandy haired son happily engaged with a dozen brown faces. I hope these days of getting along stay within the hearts of all these children forever. I wish it were always this simple, too.

The following day, I took the children roller skating at a rink in a predominantly black neighborhood on a different side of town. While we were among the few white folk there, what I noticed most of all was the enormous number of families skating together--moms and dads with children. I loved watching my little almost-five-year-old son, who could barely skate himself, stop to help other children that had fallen. He made friends with a number of moms and dads who coached their kids from the safe outskirts of the rink. My daughter clung to the rink rail and giggled with other kids who tried to scoot past her without falling themselves. We had a delightful time.

When we left, a gentleman stopped me for conversation, passed me his business card, and invited me to an adult skate night that the rink holds weekly. I ended up contacting him later. He emailed me to say that had he thought of saying so when we met, he would have recommended a rink in a neighborhood where we "might feel more comfortable" (as he so eloquently stated). I responded that my children and I are comfortable anywhere people are polite and welcoming, and that frankly, I thought it was important that my little ones experience city life, a place where real people exist, not just one socio-economic dynamic.

I am not blind to cultural differences, to problems relating to race or income levels, and I don't tout the phrase, "It's just color." History is deeper than appearance alone. Neighborhoods are still segregated in a rather unspoken way.  Children of  less-fortunate families and neighborhoods are bused into the better districts in hopes of providing better environments for one group and providing a well-rounded social education for all. (Busing--a difficult topic, and one for another day). My son, being so young, so unselfconsciously discusses color, while my daughter hesitates and expresses concern. My hope for my children is that they recognize they are ambassadors for all they represent, not just their own fair skin color, but their family history, their home, their schools, and for crying out loud, their mother's hard work to rear them with manners, education, empathy, and social graces. I hope that their ability to be at home in a variety of social settings and environments comforts not just them, but those around them.

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