Looking yesterday at the picture of a Native American Vietnam veteran being harassed by a group of young boys, I felt such sorrow. What is taught to children through the media, at school, and at home impacts not just the student and the teacher, but everyone who comes in contact with that child.
It was an encounter with a white toddler that taught me that respect for others has to be taught. I was visiting my best friend, Patricia, in her new apartment in the early 1970s. Patricia was unique at the time, in that she had no problem being the only black or one of a few blacks to reside in a community.
That day, although I was reluctant to enter an all-white neighborhood, I went with her to see her new place. Patricia advised me that she had been graciously accepted by her neighbors.
When we arrived, her next-door neighbor came over to meet me, and she brought her toddler son, who was about age four. As he came through the door, he spotted me, and he stopped in his tracks. His mother tried cajoling him forward to say hello and give me a hug, but he just stared at me and would not move.
I smiled at him, trying to put him at ease, but that made him cower more behind his mother. Finally, he pointed his finger at me and declared, “Mama, that woman has a rash all over her body!” Well, she went red as a beet, mortified by his statement. She started to scold him, but I stopped her.
His actions were representative of someone who had not been up close and personal with a black person, and Patricia, being lighter skinned than me, was not viewed as different to his young eyes. I told her that I was not offended, understanding that he was just a child and that he did not mean any malice.
He feared that I was contagious, being brown all over. I didn’t blame him, for humans tend to fear people whom they have never encountered. I told her that he was simply speaking the honesty of children. Thankfully, I did not have a cold with a cough, or he might have taken off through the door!
She bent down to his level, and she told him that I did not have a rash, that brown was the color of my skin. She also told him that I was a nice lady, and that he did not have to fear me because of the color of my skin. She reminded him of how much he loved Patricia, who baby-sat him sometimes.
He never gave me a hug, but he did stop hiding behind his mother’s skirt. I thanked her for teaching him that I had value and worth, regardless of my skin color. She was teaching him to respect others, even if they look different.
Respect and disrespect must be taught to children. I remember seeing pictures of lynchings in which people brought their children to witness the brutality and violence, as if it were a Sunday family outing. Those children were being taught to hate and to see themselves as different and superior.
Reading this morning that the young boy’s mother blamed his actions on “black Muslims” at the anti-abortion rally, means that we can predict that he will continue to think his actions were okay. If parents do not hold their children accountable for disrespecting another person’s culture and humanity, then as a society, we will never get past racial hate, prejudice, and discrimination.
It is not differences that divide us, it is the perception that different means less than. Let’s change the rhetoric.