The other day when I picked Evy up from preschool, she told me the story of Rosa Parks. Up until this point the topics she learned about, or at least told me about, were fairly simple, like the seasons of the year and how to write her name. So it really surprised me when she described Rosa's brave act in detail. She indignantly said "it wasn't fair mom. They made black people sit in the back of the bus and white people couldn't be friends with black people."
This was all explained with a very concerned four-year-old face.
For a moment I didn't know how to respond. Part of me winced. I mean, why even go there? She has absolutely no idea that skin color has categorized people in any way. Our neighborhood and the school she attends have children from all colors of our American melting pot and she has never mentioned how certain friends look differently than others.
It reminded me of when I took Evy to the play Cinderella at a local theater in Raleigh. A relative, with good intentions, called to warn me about the black woman playing the lead role. "You might want to prepare Evy and explain to her that Cinderella will not have blonde hair and white skin like her own." I had a hunch Evy wouldn't notice the difference and I was right. Her only comment about the talented lead actress was "mommy, her dress is SO pretty! It has sparkles!"
I couldn't have been more proud of her oblivion.
So I'll admit I was initially uncomfortable with a lesson on race relations for my four-year-old. Why does she have to know, at this young age, how horrible human beings can be to each other?
The sad truth is though that someday soon Evy will be confronted with the cold harsh facts of our human reality. She'll hear a mean comment toward a friend or she'll see how groups of people are treated differently in similar situations. It will happen in a subtle and slow way, but she will realize that people are oftentimes categorized according to something they were born into, something they had no control over from the start. And those categories have been and still are treated unequally.
When she sees this, I want that very concerned face to return, along with a burning, indignant belief that it is absolutely unfair.
I remember when I first experienced overt racism. It was my first week at the University of Missouri. A bunch of us were hanging around on the stoop outside of our dorm and one of the guys referred to a black man walking by as the "N" word. Up until that point, I had never heard the word used in real life. I didn't go that far south for school, from Minnesota to Missouri, but the difference in culture was obvious from the start. Sure, the suburbs of Minneapolis are snowy white in more ways than one (I think you could count the number of non-white kids on one hand in my whole high school of 2,000 students). But when I arrived in Columbia, MO, I couldn't help but feel a shift toward more openly expressed prejudices.
I still remember the feeling of disgust that shot through me when I heard that derogatory term. I couldn't believe it. I almost looked at the racist guy as a novelty, or some sort of freak, because I couldn't believe people still thought those things, let alone said them openly. I went back to my dorm livid. I told my new roommate, Anne, and she said there was an upcoming forum on campus where leaders and students were discussing racial issues. I was fired up and wondering how to handle this new world I lived in. I wanted to be part of the discussion on race and how to educate people like the guy on the stoop.
So, with all our freshman idealism, Anne and I went to the forum and listened to super smart people discuss the problems with race on campus. They opened the discussion up to the audience and this is precisely when things went downhill for me. I don't know why, but even though I'm more of an introvert and a horrible public speaker unless I have everything memorized, I always feel this internal pressure to say my piece in situations like this. In my head I formulated a brilliant comment about the racism I witnessed and just knew these people HAD to hear what I HAD to say.
My heart started pounding. Sweat began changing the color of cloth under my armpits. That weird twitch that only appears when I'm ridiculously nervous took over my facial features. And even though I had all of these warning signals telling me to NOT GO TO THE MICROPHONE, I stood up. I glanced at my roommate and she had an expression that should have drained all confidence from me. I could hear her thoughts saying "are you seriously doing this?"
I walked with a nervous, robot-like gait to the podium where they asked me to state my name and year in school. And it was in that moment when my mind went blank. That brilliant comment was seemingly swept away in a puddle of underarm sweat and I was left in a panic. I've faced this decision many times thanks to my compulsive public speaking behavior - should I run or maybe pretend that I stumbled in from the bar?
Of course both of those options would have been better than what I did. I jumbled some words together to explain my encounter with racism, then I said...
"I wanted to kick that guy in the face."
That's right. In front of a room of hundreds of people discussing non-violent solutions to mending the racial divide, I said "I wanted to kick that guy in the face."
I stood there in disbelief for a few seconds and walked back to my seat in a daze. As I returned, I saw my roommate's expression of horror. I could hear her internal thoughts begging me to sit somewhere else so she wouldn't be associated with what I just did.
My cheeks still blush at the thought of it. I imagine, if Rosa Park's, a devout woman of faith, would have been there for my comment, she would have said a prayer for me. First off, that I would stop sweating so much and secondly that I wouldn't have such violent thoughts run through my head.
Looking back I know the younger, awkward me was simply trying to express that it's not fair. None of it. Rosa riding at the back of the bus or the guy on the stoop. The older, equally awkward me still believes this, especially when even our president is someone I want to kick in the face because of his remarks.
Since these injustices continue to exist, I'm so glad Evy's school reminded me of how important it is to teach her about Rosa and the history of racism in our country. By knowing the stories of our past, she'll be able to see the world from different perspectives and also view how exemplary characters like Ms. Parks reacted non-violently in situations. I want Evy to imagine Ms. Parks standing at the bus stop, waiting for her daily walk of shame. That piercing injustice Rosa felt every time she walked by the white people sitting in the front. The way she battled the internal whispers that told her she was unworthy as she looked into the condemning eyes that watched her go by.
Hopefully she'll attempt to feel how Rosa's heart pounded as she built up the courage to say "no". The prayer she said, asking God for strength to do something that had undeserved consequences.
And most of all I wish that Evy imagines God's sweet answer. That not only would He give Rosa strength to stay in her seat, but He would also give her the guts to change the world.
I hope Evy feels that she has that power too, but with a bit more composure than her mother.
The shot below is of my girl hanging out with neighbors in our front yard. These beautiful faces are another reason why we love our new home in Durham, NC.