I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, the crucible of the Civil Rights movement. Montgomery race relations had come a long way by the time I was born, 24 years after the bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks and 14 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma to Montgomery marches.
Nevertheless, the world I grew up in was still distinctly black and white. The city was largely divided along racial lines that mirrored economic lines. The black side of town was poor; the white side of town was (relatively speaking) rich. Most white children went to schools with other white children, and most African-American children went to schools with other African-American children. There was crossover in certain settings, but it was the exception rather than the rule.
I’m now raising my family in the San Francisco Bay Area. The world here could hardly be described as black and white. My daughter’s peers from her preschool and now her kindergarten class are from many different racial groups. Quite a few of them are from mixed race families. In fact, it is probably my daughter’s ivory skin and curly red hair that stand out more than most.
Over the holidays, my family returned to my hometown in Montgomery. During our visit, we toured a number of historic spots in the Civil Rights movement: Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Civil Right Memorial, among others. My husband and I didn’t talk much to our daughter about what we were seeing on our short tour. She was content to roam and explore and entertain herself while we read about the history on plaques and signs.
In fact, it is probably fair to say that I had been avoiding the “Civil Rights conversation” for a long time. I sensed that although my daughter could obviously perceive differences in skin color, she had no real sense of racial or ethnic groupings that are significant to us as adults. It was refreshing and liberating. I didn’t want to taint her childlike innocence by creating classifications and groups where she didn’t see a need for them in her own life.
When we returned home to the Bay Area, one of my daughter’s kindergarten homework assignments with Martin Luther King Day approaching was to discuss Civil Rights. It was a well-timed gentle nudge. With our Montgomery travels fresh in my daughter’s memory, I knew I should avoid that conversation no more.
The challenge in talking to young kids about tough topics is to explain matters in honest yet simple terms they can understand. I told her that years ago, when her grandmother was a girl in Montgomery, many people believed that white people and black people should not be treated equally. That black people could not eat at the same restaurants as whites. That they could not use the same drinking fountains. That there were protests and marches and bus boycotts to change things to create the world she lives in today.
Her jaw dropped in disbelief. She became immediately indignant. “That’s not right!” she exclaimed. She launched into a story about how she picked her friends at school. She made clear that skin color had no part in the calculation. Other seemingly random distinctions, of course, mattered a lot, as is the case with 5 ½ year olds.
I’m so thankful I didn’t put off the conversation any longer. The reality is that someone will introduce her to these distinctions very soon. She needs to know to be just as indignant as she was upon that initial discovery and to stand up for what she inherently knows to be right.
Selfishly, however, the conversation turned out to be even more valuable for me. It was an enlightening experience to see the world through the innocent eyes of someone who didn’t even realize she was “white” or “Caucasian” and who didn’t see her friends as “Asian” or “Latino” or “African-American.” I realize that children from minority backgrounds don’t have the luxury of that innocence for as long as my daughter did. But it made me wish and see a glimmer of hope for a world where those differences will matter less and less; where innocence like my daughter’s need never be shattered, because children and adults of all ages will simply quit seeing the distinctions.