“Wouldn’t it be funny,” asked my 5-year-old, “if there was a restaurant that wouldn’t let blonde-haired people in and Wyatt couldn’t come in and I could?”
“Um…” (Inner dialogue: “Holy crap! What do I say? Do I talk about segregation? Discrimination? Slavery? Ignore the question? Offer pie? BEEEEEEEEEEEP. Parenting overload. All systems shut down in 5…4…3…)
“Do you think that’d be funny?” I replied, stalling.
“Yeah,” he giggled. “Then I could be all, “ha, ha you can’t come in!”
“Well did you know,” I began, knowing full well the rabbit hole I was about to go down, “that a long time ago, but not too long, people made rules like that all the time?”
He didn’t believe me at first when I told him his Grandma went to school in a place where only white children were allowed to attend. He scoffed when I said that people who weren’t white couldn’t go to the same library, visit the same doctors or even use the same restrooms.
“But that’s not fair!” he insisted. “Why didn’t they change that?”
“Well, people did, eventually. Some brave people stood up and said ‘This isn’t right! I know in my heart this isn’t right!’”
“Well that’s what I’d do,” he offered.
But he still had questions. On what basis did people think other people weren’t the same? I scrambled for an answer. We talked about germs and skin color and whether people are different when they have different pigmentation.
“No way!” he said, for which I was proud. But the actuality is something a lot more complicated. In the eyes of the law, I told him, we should all be the same. But in real life we are all the product of everything that makes us, us: our color, our nationality, our religion, our culture. While we want the law to be colorblind, our being so would be pretty short-sighted. (This is a nearly impossible concept to explain to a 5-year-old, but I persisted.)
“If a person was from India, they might have brown skin and that might make them look different from you,” I explained. “But what’s more important is everything that went into making them who they are. Their families, their traditions, their friends. That skin might help you know a little about them, but it will never tell you the whole story. “
I told him he should never make a judgment about someone based just on what he could see—whether it’s hair color, a disability, or race—but that he was always free to bring questions to me about people’s differences. As a society, I think we’ve been trained never to speak about difference, lest we discriminate. But I think sometimes the most insidious discrimination comes from silence.
I’m going to reveal something fairly embarrassing here, by way of example. Try not to judge too harshly; I attended a southern elementary school in the early ‘80s. When I was 7, my best friend and I tried to peak into the restroom stall while the only black girl in our grade was peeing. We wanted to see if she had the same equipment. I’m pretty sure we weren’t successful, and I don’t know if that poor, sweet girl noticed, but what I remember most was that it was borne of simple curiosity and the knowledge this was not the kind of question to bring to our parents.
So this conversation with my 5-year-old felt like it bore extra weight. Like, if I didn’t get it right, my kid would be the creeper in the locker room checking to see if Central American equipment was built from the same set of standards.
“Do you have any questions?” I asked him, hoping in equal measure for a yes or a no.
“That’s all done now, right? Everyone has the same rights?”
I explained that all over the world, people fight every day for their rights and for the rights of others. I told him about countries where women can’t drive, or places where some people can’t hold certain jobs, because of the families they were born to.
“But here in North Carolimerica, we’re all equal now, right?”
(Mental calculation: Is 5 years old too young to talk about gay marriage? No! But will the inequality make Elliott super sad? YES! Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.)
“People still are fighting for equal rights,” I told him. “And that’s something many wonderful people work towards on a daily basis. Whenever I vote or donate money to a cause, I often do so in the name of civil rights. Many of the decisions your daddy and I make, even here at home, sum up to ‘Is it fair?’”
“I’m glad you do that,” he smiled. “I think I will too.”
(And then he proceeded to rip a comic book out of his brother’s hands and shouted “na na na boo boo.” But let’s all pretend this story ended 30 seconds earlier.)