Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Mommy, why would white people want to let Black people be equal? And other stories
So, my kids are learning a fair bit about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as they should.
Their limited world experience and faint grasp on big-picture ideas, however, combined with curriculum that could probably be improved, has thrown them for a bit of a loop.
Last week, one of my kids came home talking about this amazing "lesson" their teacher had them learn.
"Mommy, he split the class up in half, and he put us in two groups, then he told one group we were going to have a party, and he told the other group they couldn't come. They had to sit in another classroom. I was in the party group. I was sad because my friend was in the not party group. I was almost crying. But then he didn't do it, mommy. He didn't do it. He told us it was just a lesson."
Now, something sat funny with me about this lesson, but coming from my white-person frame of reference, I couldn't put a finger on what it was. So, we talked about what the lesson was supposed to be, and how unfair that would have been, and we applied it to the political, social and cultural backdrop of that time in history.
A wonderfully patient woman online soon explained to me why this lesson is off-base.
The approach is incredibly white-centric as it assumes that all the children in the class need to learn the lesson of discrimination through a cutesy classroom activity. It assumes that all children in the class don't already know how this might feel. Meanwhile, children of color already experience this on a daily basis throughout their lives, and don't need to play-act it to get an idea of what discrimination could possibly be about. And it's certainly not about parties.
Flash forward to today when my children were talking to each other about how funny Dr. King's voice sounded during his famous speech. I cut in to explain that he spoke fervently to evoke passion in his listeners and get support for the very important action he was trying to help facilitate.
We talked about how brave he and others were for standing up to the status quo without any power to do so, and without any guarantee of their safety. We talked about how very important it was to stand up for equality for all people, no matter where we fell on that spectrum.
Then one of my daughters comes out with this, after sitting silently for a moment, thinking it all over.
"Mama, why would the white people then want to give equality to the Black people? You know, since they had it all? They would want to keep it."
So, that was a really insightful and legitimate question. I answered with a grandiose speech about how all people were very important and the white people who were kind and good and thoughtful and smart knew that it was wrong to treat other people like they were. And they wanted to give equality because it was the right thing to do, and we must always do the right thing.
Another brief silence.
"But, mama, you always tell us that life isn't fair, and that we can't make it fair."
And, man, can I just tell you I am not smart enough to be a parent?
I thought a while about how to simplify the different between fairness on an individual level and equality on an institutional level.
Eventually I settled on telling her that even though life wasn't fair in many, many things, it was up to us every day to try to make it more fair for those around us who had it harder. And I threw in a few "plus, that's a totally different thing, it's just the words are the same," for good measure.
The world is hard. Concepts are hard. The fact that we still live in a world where discrimination, inequality and oppression exist is hardest of all.