SCENE: Getting ready for bed. Post-bath. Long day, long week, everyone's exhausted.
Me: Guess what we get to do tomorrow?
Me: Nothing! No school. We can sleep in and have some screen time. No school because it's Martin Luther King Day. Do you know who he is?
[Really? We're having this conversation now? I guess I did do this to myself. How do I answer this question? My adult mind is conflicted about so many aspects of this whole thing but this 4 and 5 yr old don't care or need to know. How do I answer this question honestly and simultaneously not become a hypocrite to myself (that only I will really know about but that's enough)?]
Me: Well, he was a man who helped people come together to make sure everyone had equal rights. It used to be that there were things that white people could do that brown people couldn't do. MLK helped to change that.
[At this point my 4-yr-old is jumping on my lap, not really listening to any of this, just really concerned about whether or not the Roku will really pick up right where he paused Oscar's Oasis before coming to bed. My 5-yr-old on the other hand, my ever-pensive always shockingly deep when you never expect a 5-yr-old capable 5-yr-old is staring at me. He's mid-dressing, twirling his curls in his fingers like he does, looking at me. And his brain is working in that way it does when you know he's calculating things you think far beyond his grasp but he totally gets. He does this for about 90 seconds. No ruffled brow, no whine, but not moving, not distracted. Concentrating. And he says:]
5-yr-old: I can't understand that.
Me: [without missing a beat because how can I] Good answer. You shouldn't. Because it didn't make any sense.
And we proceed to continue with the bedtime ritual.
But when it's over, it kind of all hits me. He didn't say he didn't understand. He stood there, in front of me and he did a bunch of calculations and his answer to me was honest. He was unable to calculate what I'd just told him. "I can't understand that."
This is the child who has a white daddy and a brown mommy. Brown cousins and white cousins. White grandparents and brown grandparents. A white nanny and brown babysitters, mostly white teachers and family friends of all shades. He watches Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins and Dora and the Power Rangers.
This is the child who, upon being read Ribsy last summer, declared that when he grew up he wanted to drive a bus that was solely for lost dogs looking for their owners because he felt it such an injustice that Ribsy was not allowed on the bus without a human in order to find Henry.
So I know he's capable of understanding the general concept of injustice. But the idea that his grandma and his other grandma wouldn't be allowed to do the same things? Can't compute.
And again, I say "good."
But at the same time that I say "good" (ok, no, really HALLELUJAH!), I get a few things:
- Reality exists, and "the world" will one day teach him this context
- Because of the way he looks, he may or may not have a choice as to how much of and at what level of personal depth he learns this context
- Many of the people he loves will not have this choice
- At some point, he will grapple with the nuances of all of the above
- I am in a position to help him be better prepared for #4
- I am in a position to totally screw him up re: #4
So I find myself, on this MLK Day (Observed) 2014 wondering about the balance of "the dream." My child is there. He has no context for racial inequality. So, dream realized? No, because he will go out into the world and someone will impose reality upon him. So, then what's my role? Literally break his brain in order to "prepare" him to face harsh reality? That seems wrong. Drown him in multi-culti bliss and pretend the rest of the world isn't institutionally imbalanced? That is delusional.
After being so plainly and directly faced with where he is, I feel like my challenge is to support him in discovering his own context: the context of a biracial child growing up in the early part of the twenty-first century. Something that can't be "shown" or "taught" to him because his context is unfolding around us. How to do that? As with all things, the answer is in the gray. Until tonight, I thought I had a much better grasp on where to start. As with all things, it's a process.