“Whether we like it or not, we have all been born into this world as part of one big human family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, to one religion or another, adhering to this ideology or that, ultimately each of us is just a human being like everyone else. We all desire happiness and do not want suffering.”–Dalai Lama
“The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.”–Jimmy Carter
Like many of you reading these words, I have been experiencing a great deal of turbulence of the mind and heart. From COVID-19 to the seemingly never ending struggle for racial equality, the world–from both the macro to the micro–is feeling a bit upside down and sideways. There is so much political and societal divide that I cannot pretend to fully comprehend it all.
In my early adulthood, my grandmother shared a story about a time my papaw and she came to my elementary school to pick me up. Since this did not occur with any regularity, I must have eagerly anticipated this event. Grandmother did not remember why they were picking me up, so I can only assume it was to help my parents.
It is my understanding that I exited school skipping in excitement and holding hands with another girl. Grandmother explained that, as she took my hand, she asked a question.
“Why were you holding hands with that colored girl?”
According to my grandmother, I replied, “What color was she?” I was around seven years of age, and up until that moment, I had not noticed the shading of skin.
What a marvelous thing to realize that kids are not born with innate prejudices. As a professional educator, I have spent all of my adult life devoted to the classroom. From Kindergarten to grade 12, and every grade in between, I have spent over 30 years instructing children, ages 5-20, and I can tell you that kids, especially the younger ones, do not make assumptions about skin color, or other dividing factors unless it has been taught/modeled by someone or something.
Specifically, 15 years of my career were spent with kindergartners, the overall most eager, curious, and loving age group as a whole. While I can only speak to my experience, the majority of five year olds that I encountered were too focused upon themselves, and who or what they were going to play at recess, than to care about so-called differences. However, they were certainly curious about what they perceived as differences for which they may not have been exposed, such as when a fellow classmate began to wear glasses, had to wear an insulin pump, or was sporting a cast. However, if as the teacher, I allowed for both structured and organic conversations about the change to occur, within less than a day, the so-called difference became inconsequential.
That is not to imply that the conversation of skin color, or other differences, never came up because kids are observant and inquisitive by nature. For example, one school year, a white male kept playing with the hair of one of his black female classmates. She always wore it in braids with colorful beads, and he often chose to sit beside her if he could. This shy, quiet girl did not like him touching her hair, and I often had to remind him to keep his hands to himself, and I encouraged her to use her words to tell him to stop. On and on this boy’s obsession with the girl’s hair continued as he specifically loved to take his hand, place it gently on the top of her head, and “pet” the braids from top to bottom in a repetitive motion.
Finally, the girl had had enough one morning, and blurted out during opening circle activities, “Stop it! Why you always touchin’ my hair?”
The boy burst into tears, covering his eyes with his hands. Eventually, he explained to her with great gulps of breath in between each word, “I like your hair. It’s not like mine.”
True enough, the boy had medium brown hair that was closely cropped to his head except for his bangs that hung straight over his freckled forehead.
A few days later, I overheard the same two students talking as they practiced writing their names with scented markers.
“Do you want me to see if my mom can fix your hair like mine?”
The boy emphatically nodded his head and added, “Ask her when you get home.”
Reflecting upon my own family, specifically my nine nieces and nephews, they reflect a variety of appearances, interests, and beliefs. From very dark skin to the palest pale; from light blue eyes to black; from curvy to trim body shapes; from pink to black, brown to blonde, curly to straight hair; from conservative to liberal views, and all variances in between, these special family members reflect a wide cross-section of young adults. Yet, when we gather together, whether it’s in person or virtual, the only thing that matters is mutual respect and love.
We certainly do not see eye-to-eye on all subjects. We do not have the same interests, jobs, hobbies, and so forth. Differences abound. What we do possess, though, is a bond–the humankind connection, with emphasis on kind. Sure, we are linked by family, but we are also woven into the web of humanity. And like all webs, the resiliency of it is dependent upon the strength of every strand–and each strand of this human network, it is worth remembering, is a unique creation of God.
Neither my nieces and nephews, nor my past and current students had any control over who would be their parents. They did not get to choose their address, their family income, their family make-up, their family circumstances, much less control the color of their skin, eyes, hair, and so forth. In fact, none of us could, so why should we judge one another by circumstances for which we can not control?
Why should I be more likely, as a white, middle-aged female, to be given a warning if stopped by the police for a traffic violation? Why should my white, 58-year old husband be stopped by police over 14 times during the course of his life and not be ticketed? It wasn’t until his 15th violation–forgetting to turn on his turn signal at the foot of a local bridge–that he actually received more than a warning.
I’ve watched Spanish speaking, brown skinned students play side-by-side their mostly white peers. While they weren’t able to verbally communicate, they were still able to construct the “tallest, most awesome block building ever!” Similarly, I observed a student, originally from Jordan, with only rudimentary English, being taught to dance by his English-speaking cross-country teammates. This year, I further observed a group of middle school boys notice a new Chinese student standing by himself during an extra recess. Eventually, despite the fact he did not speak the same language, the boys were able to coax him into playing basketball with them. While he did not participate for the entire game, for the ten or so minutes that he did play, the smiles and high-fives abounded. My point? Children find a way to discover common ground. Why can’t adults?
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . .
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.”
So do I, Dear Reader, so do I, for all the world’s children, including the newest members of our family, my great-nieces and nephews.