My daughter came home from school recently with a worksheet that described life before and after Martin Luther King Jr. One side of the sheet had statements like, "Before Dr. King, African American children couldn't go to the same school as white children. Was that fair?", while the other side said, "Now African American and white children can go to school together. Is this fair?" The point was obviously to have an at-home discussion about prejudice, but what it sparked with our daughter was a discussion about the concept of race itself.
Emma is just in kindergarten and in both preschool and kindergarten she has been one of maybe three or four white children in classes of 20-25 kids. Just going to our neighborhood grocery store or park is like attending a world cultures assembly. Needless to say, she is just used to everyone around her looking different. When she describes her friends at school, she never mentions skin color and instead differentiates her friends by the sort of hair they have. She knows and celebrates that different cultures have different holidays and types of food, but until now she has had little need to understand the construct of race.
So in discussing the world before and after Martin Luther King Jr., we had a hard time introducing her to the concept. At first we tried to explain that segregation meant that she wouldn't have been able to be in the same school as her two closest friends (who happen to be African American). She then wanted to know who had done something wrong to prevent them from all going to the same school. Then we tried to explain about skin color and race, but she really wasn't getting it. As far as she knows, it is perfectly normal for everyone around her to have different colors of skin (and to speak with all sorts of accents). Trying to understand that this didn't used to be the case was beyond her 5-year-old mind.
While I completely understand the need to teach the sins of the past so that they will not be repeated (and restitution can be made), I had to wonder if this lesson on race could do her more harm than good. If my daughter sees no reason why people would ever be different because of skin color, I don't want to be the one explaining to her the alternative (and I completely realize here that this may be a dilemma only those in positions of cultural power wrestle with, which adds a whole different dimension). As I faced this dilemma, I was reminded of the time I read her the (controversial) book And Tango Makes Three about a baby penguin that was adopted by two penguin daddies. The book that had adults all up in arms for presenting the existence of same-sex relationships to children was for her no big deal. To her a book solely about a penguin getting two daddies was boring -- what others saw as extreme she accepted as normal. In that instance, I decided very quickly that I wasn't going to try to convince her that her definition of normal wasn't universal.
But I'm uncertain in this situation how to best guide her through these issues. I know I need to teach her truth and expose her to reality, but I don't want to corrupt her heart by being the one to teach her about racism, bigotry, or sexism simply because I am speaking against them. I assume the evils of the world will make themselves known to her eventually, but I'd rather her think being kind and loving to all people regardless of differences is the normal way to be for as long as possible. But I am still left with days like today and school worksheets asking me to teach her about a great man by destroying what she thinks is normal. And I don't know what to do.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.