White Like Me

Over dinner last month, my 4-year-old asked, “Are the new neighbors white-skinned or brown-skinned?” As I pondered how to answer, his big sister chimed in, “I hope they’re white-skinned.” I paused, barely chewed. Could I answer without scolding or shaming them? I hazarded a question:

“Why do you hope they are white-skinned?” I asked.

“Because then they’ll be like us!” she gushed, with a grin.

Honesty. It made total sense. If the new neighbors were white-skinned, they would be like us. We are white. That’s the truth. And this wasn’t the time to talk generically about how many beautiful colors skin comes in. My child was looking to categorize “like” and “unlike.” She also was hoping the new neighbors would be as fun to play with as the two little children who’d moved out. She missed them. They’d been white-skinned, too. Like us.

“Well,” I said, trying to buy a little more time by speaking slowly, “If the new neighbors were white-skinned, but they hated to play outside and didn’t like to sing or make music, then they wouldn’t be very much like us, would they?” She cocked her head, but didn’t interrupt. Where was I going with this?

“But if our new neighbors have brown skin, but love to ride bikes and play outside and the Dad makes music in a band, they’d be a lot like us, wouldn’t they?”

She smiled, then laughed, “Yes.”

“So, our skin color isn’t the only thing that makes us like someone else or not,” I said. “Everybody is a people, a human being. We have to get to know them. Then we will know if we enjoy playing together or not.”

And maybe at this point I got too serious, with scenes of Ferguson, Mo., and offensive white defensiveness, hateful social media posts, and photos of militarized law enforcement boot-stomping through my mind. I couldn’t hide the urgency I felt.

“This is really important, sweetie, because lots of people get treated badly because of a difference like skin color. But it’s not right.”  “Whether someone is like us a lot or not at all, we give them the same kindness, the same respect. They get the same chances. Make sense?”

She nodded. She’d been quiet, a sign of brain gears working, I hoped. Then she asked for the bazillionth time how she could earn another dollar to go buy a particularly eye-catching piece of plastic junk she’d seen at Family Dollar.

Teaching moment over.

I wanted to tell her more: that the little classmate she’d wanted to come to her birthday party last year has the racial deck stacked against him, and that one sign was how difficult it was to get accurate contact information for his parents or guardians to invite him. I wanted to tell her that her next-door playmate is almost the age when other parents will fear for their preschooler playing in the yard if he happens to walk past, just because he is a brown-skinned male, even though he is ever gentle and generous with the small children who are mine. I wanted to tell her more, but even what little I’d said made my heart hurt. It was the best this mama could manage this time.

Half my daughter’s classmates are, in her words, brown-skinned. Half our neighborhood and her next-door playmates are, too. I don’t want her to be colorblind. I want her to be colorwise. I want her to be able to see difference and injustice. I want her to keep telling the truth. But I want her to see her friends and neighbors as fully human, as people, too.

A week afterward, we found out our new neighbors are white-skinned, like us. But they have no children. They never ride bikes. We haven’t heard any music wafting across the street or drumming from their back yard.

As far as my daughter is concerned, they are not much like us after all.

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