â€˜Ba-LACK Man, Mama, Ba-LACK Man!â€™: My Kidâ€™s Not Racist, She Just Isnâ€™t PC
Our daughterâ€™s first words, after â€œmom,â€ â€œdadâ€ and â€œbottle,â€ were colors. We found it funny how she pronounced the word â€œblackâ€ with two syllables â€“ so dramatically, as if she knew it represented the macabre.
And then, one day, as I carried her on my shoulders down the street to our home: â€œBa-lack man.â€
I froze, then did a 180 in time to see a dark-skinned man do the same, his forehead scrunched up, probably wondering if heâ€™d heard right.
Okay, fair enough. We were in China, a country whose population is 99 per cent Chinese, with the remaining one per cent mostly Asian. Black men in China are a minority among minorities.
But it happened again back in England, in line at the post office. Noticing a man near the end with dreadlocks and a knit cap, she let â€™er rip: â€œBa-LACK man!â€
He smiled knowingly. Heâ€™d seen this all before.
Donâ€™t kids say the darnedest things. And in the whitewashed West, alas, Afro-Caribbeans receive the brunt of our childrenâ€™s plain-speaking. A New Yorker I know says her son, a Young Democrat in the making, identifies all African American men as â€œObama.â€ There are worse tales, of course, unprintable here and mortifying to parents who rush out to buy Sesame Street videos, or â€œNappy Hairâ€ by Carolivia Herron.
Hey, even Iâ€™ve been on the receiving end of my daughterâ€™s bluntness, as a brunette in a family of blondes. â€œMom,â€ she complained one day, â€œI donâ€™t like your hair. Itâ€™s dirty.â€
Children call it as they see it, and skin colour is the first thing they notice in a person. (Though my daughter has also been known to describe friends as â€œthe one in the purple dress,â€ as though it were a second skin.) And theyâ€™re just as apt to breach our well-honed political correctness in New York or Vancouver as they are in Des Moines.
Piaget called them â€œpre-operational,â€ the brains of toddlers and pre-schoolers. Between the ages of three and five they absorb the most about racial and cultural differences, not to mention make the most mistakes. If their black acquaintances are all male, they may not realize women can be black too. Or they may worry a darker skin colour will come off in the bath.
So what do you do? Grab the hand of the nearest minority and start a chorus of Kumbaya?
â€œYes, dear, weâ€™re all different in our own special way.â€
â€œAnd, er, weâ€™re all the same.â€
Thatâ€™s all Iâ€™ve ever been able to muster and itâ€™s confusing even to me. Still I hope my children can reach a point in their cultural education when all these visual become the norm, Joan Baez or no. I certainly wouldnâ€™t want them to wind up like my university housemate: after two years living with another girl of Indian descent, this small-town Canadian still assumed she was black. (She also admitted she didnâ€™t know canned tuna was fish, but thatâ€™s another story.)
Kids deal with physical â€œdifferencesâ€ just as abominably, whether theyâ€™re handicaps, injuries or simply eccentricities. Both my children are convinced that the barfly at our local pub â€“ notorious for his uniform of eye patch, Stetson and scowl â€“Â is a real pirate. And they holler as much whenever we check in. He is not amused.
Then thereâ€™s the mother at the school gates who suffers from dwarfism. Noticing her recently prompted this nugget: â€œLook, mom, a giant baby!â€
But thereâ€™s still hope for improvement, at least in our little community. A while back the local childrenâ€™s channel hired an anchor with one arm, and within weeks the station registered complaints from parents who worried she â€“Â a beautiful, vibrant, reassuring young woman â€“ was the cause of their childrenâ€™s nightmares.
Not long after, we happened to spot her at our playground, pushing her daughter (a little girl with dark skin and corkscrew hair) in a swing. I heard no nightmarish screams from the other children in the playground; instead the excitement was palpable. This would have been the first celebrity sighting for most kids in the park that day. And you could tell the anchorÂ and her daughter had got used to the stares.
But these ones were for all the right reasons.