Children are awfully adorable and really hilarious. They laugh at silly jokes and cry at small annoyances. Perhaps the best part about them is that they are pure, and brutally honest.
I work at a job that involves interaction with kids, and as a result, I witness quite a few amusing incidents. I’ll see a two year old’s eyes light up at the sight of a shiny sticker or a baby giggle with delight after a game of peek-a-boo. Recently, I experienced a moment that wasn’t as lighthearted, a moment that is so significant it is etched in my memory.
A sweet, three year old girl, clad in a cute dress and floral headband, was playing house, and when I went over to check on her, she asked me in the most naive and straightforward voice: “Are you black or white?”
I guess she had had never seen anyone like me before, with my caramel-colored skin and dark, black hair. In that immediate moment, of course that insecure, “adult” part of me was offended. I realized it was just an innocent child talking to me, yet I was still upset that I didn’t fit into those two neat little boxes in front of me, and that my identity was being reduced to race. In my flustered state of mind, but obligation to answer, I simply said, “Neither.” I walked away, able to laugh about the moment with a coworker, but still a little peeved.
In hindsight though, I admire that little girl, for having the courage to ask a difficult question, for not yet being blessed and at the same time cursed with that veil of political correctness. I learned that even at such a young age kids see race, and that they mostly see the world in black and white. It’s up to us to teach them about the gray areas.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the legendary Atticus Finch says:
“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
I did my best not to evade that unexpected conversation and make the moment a teachable one. The most difficult part, which I think Atticus does so well in his parenting with Scout and Jem, is balancing the hard truths with delicacy.
I wish I could have said more than “Neither,” something more poetic or inspiring. But I hope my response helped broadened a small mind. Maybe it won’t matter right away, but maybe one day it will. I hope down the road, sitting in a classroom teeming with diversity or in a business meeting with executives of all backgrounds, she’ll see that people aren’t just black or white, and most importantly not treat them any differently because of it. I hope her candidness and interest in the new will carry with her. I hope she’ll recognize and appreciate the inexhaustiable variety in our beautiful world.