I sat with my two kids at the dining room table. My 8-year-old daughter’s eyes were huge and round. My 10-year-old son repeated gibberish, his fingers in his ears, cringing.
Out of my mouth came horrible, hateful words. The kind intended to stab deep, then finish with a cruel twist. Words with the power to destroy.
I never thought I’d be saying those words to my little kids. It goes against my grain to utter things that are absolutely prohibited in my home.
But, therein lies the problem. If my kids don’t know what the words are, how do they know that they must be avoided? Or more importantly, why.
It all started when a kid pulled a prank on my son. The kid pointed at a globe, and asked my son to read the name of the country he pointed at.
It takes little imagination to imagine a mispronunciation of this particular country’s name. The kid then announced to the rest of the kids who were present — a multicultural group — that my son had said the “N” word.
Kids aren’t as familiar with that word these days, and I fully believe my son’s story — that he had never even heard this word, and had no idea what it meant. At least one kid knew, it, though, and they took care to educate him on it. He was mortified — enough so that he asked me to contact certain parents to be sure everyone knew it was nothing but a horrible, miserable mistake. If he’d known, he would have never.
Ignorance is bliss. That is, until someone points at a globe, suspecting your ignorance.
My husband and I have not taught our kids tolerance. We’ve demonstrated it. We welcome those from other cultures and sexual orientations into our lives. We explore other cultures. But we don’t discuss it. We’ve fallen short by not discussing our differences — as if they’re not obvious upon sight.
When I was a kid, things were different. Everyone had a racist relative. Our parents had lived through the pains of the civil rights movement. Legally sanctioned racism was fresh in the minds of many.
It was the schools who went to bat — aware that the teachings of embracing a multicultural society, for some, came in stark contrast to what might be heard at home. They taught my generation to ignore — or even argue with the racist relative, to try to convert the fearful grandmother, to cautiously bring home the boyfriend or girlfriend who did not match our skin color.
I was lucky to be raised in a home where people are not judged. Or if they are judged, it is by their actions, not their social class, skin color, fashion choices, hobbies, objects of romance, or other attributes that some might use in attempts to devalue others. My parents taught by example, as I have tried to do.
So where are we now, many of us a generation or more removed from the civil rights movement? It seems that we’ve sunk into a weird, uncomfortable silence. We trip over our words when trying to identify the acceptable way to refer to those of other skin colors. We’re afraid to say anything that isn’t politically correct. It leaves us saying nothing at all, which means we’re leaving our kids to sort things out on their own.
And my friends, it’s too soon to do that. Bigotry may be sleeping, but it’s not gone.
I was disturbed how the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., seemed to release latent racism. A certain faction of people seemed all too ready to make racist comments — subtle, though they were. But the sentiments still exist, and little ears still hear.
My son’s mistake came on the heels of a discussion I had recently with an uncle of mine, in town from Canada. He lived in many cosmopolitan areas — Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco before moving to Calgary, where, he said, one in four people is an expat.
“Is Kansas City very integrated?” he asked. It didn’t take long for me to answer. I shook my head “no.”
Are we diverse? Somewhat. Accepting? Fairly. But, integrated? Not much.
My uncle pointed out, true integration requires active effort, and segregation (even voluntary) creates mistrust, which leads to misinformation, which eventually could lead straight back to racism’s front door.
I didn’t know where to start, so I started where I had to. I started with the ugly word, and the crux of the hatred.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.