I was in one of those ultra-hip, overstuffed mall stores,
checking out a "Mister T says stay in school" T-shirt. I asked
my daughter if she thought I should get it. She said no. When
I asked why not, I had hoped she would have a good reason,
like saving me from pointless nostalgia. But instead, she
offered that she did not like him. Her friend agreed, and
added: "he's brown". "What?" I asked, thinking I heard wrong.
Then they both said: "I don't like him--he's brown."
I guess they could have said something much more embarrassing,
or they could have been a lot louder about it. I said, "That's
not cool" and left it at that.
Back home at the dining room table my daughter offered that
a "big brown kid" had shoved her on the playground. Her friend
claimed that his arms and legs used to be brown, but now they
Since whiteness had been brought up, I thought I'd point out
that they weren't actually white. Both of them are half Euro-American,
and half Japanese. My daughter pointed out that she was whiter
than I am. Technically, she had me. She has very fair skin--frequently
strangers compare her to a "China doll"--while I am, shall we
I explained that white, black, and other colors, when applied
to people, are not literal colors. It was a tactic totally lost
on kindergartners, who tend to be highly literal.
So I adopted the strategy of naming "brown" kids that they knew.
"What about so-and-so in your class? What about what's-his-face
who was at your birthday party?"
"Yeah, we like them."
"Well, so you like brown people right?"
"Um. . .yeah." (A small victory).
But as I tried to proceed they agreed that "No, they don't like
people just because they're brown."
Touché. I went after them for a few more rounds, then finally
just got them to agree that it wasn't cool to say that you don't
like brown people, or you don't like white people, or you don't
like yellow people, or whatever.
It turned out that the instigator behind the color talk was
Martin Luther King, Jr. Or rather, the kids were preparing for
assemblies at school for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
The talk of race was part of trying to explain his significance.
My daughter came home singing the song her class was going to
do for the assembly. Then she told me that the reason Martin
Luther King Jr. got shot was because he didn't like brown people.
We sat down for another series of questions and answers, interspersed
A few days later, my wife was volunteering in my daughter's
class when a student raised her hand and stated that her mother
said that everyone in class was white. The kid who said this
was actually of Middle-Eastern descent. There is only one fully
"white" kid in the class. Again, the literal interpretation
of white, versus the racially motivated concept of white came
up. When one of the kids stated that he was black, many of his
classmates offered up that he was not black, but brown, as if
they were consoling him.
Eventually, my daughter raised her hand to say that her dad
told her he didn't want her to talk about brown people. My wife
said nothing, feeling that it was unfair for her to clarify
what I actually said, when the other kids were saying things
that were most likely not clear representations of anything
their parents said. I ended up talking with my daughter's teacher
the next day. As someone who had racially mixed kids herself,
she understood the complexities of trying to explain race to
kids before they could really understand it. We agreed that
the difficulties we were having were an unfortunate consequence
of trying to explain important figures like MLK to students
whose own experiences of race were rather benign. How do you
explain the Civil Rights Movement to a bunch of six-year-olds
who are unaccustomed to thinking about such things?
I talked to the father of my daughter's Mr. T-disliking friend
about this same thing. He was having problems with the odd form
of indoctrination that was surrounding the MLK holiday. We came
to the basic conclusion that the kids needed to be learning
about Martin Luther King, Jr., even if it was confusing to them.
It would all be sorted out in time, we hoped, when the kids
were more able to understand the issues, as well as what they
were saying themselves.
After all, encountering some of these hard truths at a young
age was probably better for them than getting the kind of "I
cannot tell a lie" cherry-tree stories we got as history when
we were kids--the kind of sanitized history that results in
disillusionment when one finds out it was all candy-coated B.S.
fed to us because we were too young to understand the larger
History isn't just harmless fun like Santa Claus or the Easter
Bunny. It's not something we can pretend now, and then let kids
grow out of. But still, there is a difficult line to walk when
giving children an idea of what is important, without fogging
up their heads with information that just doesn't compute. I
am glad that my child is learning about MLK, but I am getting
a headache from trying to explain things that she cannot possibly
understand, particularly when she's been raised to see people
as individuals rather than as representative colors.
Copyright © 2001 Jonathan C. Schildbach.
All Rights Reserved.
Jonathan C. Schildbach lives.