“My husband is from India.” That’s what I tell people to distinguish the fact that he is Indian rather than Native American. When people first meet him, he is frequently asked “where are you from?” I always chuckle inside a little when he replies “Oh I’m from Jersey. I went to school at Rutgers,” when I know damn well they’re trying to ask about his ethnicity. I’m sort of sad to let the cat out of the bag by sharing this with you. Hopefully he’ll continue breaking the ice by talking about his Jersey roots.
I have plenty of stories about surviving the culture shock of our courtship and engagement that I’ll share on another day, but lately we’ve encountered something surprising about our son–he’s not nearly as colorblind as we expected. Mr. Spreadsheet and I walked down the aisle to “Colorblind” by Counting Crows, mostly because the song mentions coffee, but also because we take some pride in the fact that we’ve managed to beautifully blend two cultures within our home. We have also been very careful not to verbally pass on any biases or stereotypes we may have, and have enrolled him at both a preschool and elementary school that are fairly culturally diverse. It came as quite a surprise, then, when he started making comments about race and ethnicity.
Before I continue, I should clarify that we don’t actually want our son to be colorblind. We don’t want him to deny or ignore the fact that different colors, religions, or ethnicities exist, or that they shape our perceptions and behaviors. In Kindergarten, one of Aries’ teachers told me at the end of the day that he’d had a rough day, and that he and a few of his mischievous friends were talking about race and color and comparing themselves. She said this as if it were a bad thing. I told her that I’d talk to him, and I DID want to talk to him, because I was curious how the conversation had started and ended, but I didn’t think there was anything wrong with race as a topic. When I questioned my 6 year old son (hereafter referred to as “Lock,” his blog nickname of choice), he told me that he and his friends had been putting their arms next to each other and comparing their skin tones. When I asked why, he shrugged his shoulders and said that some were darker and some were lighter. I asked if that was a good or bad thing, and he just said “I don’t know. Good, I guess.” I told him that it was kind of fun to talk about differences, and that those things made us special. He agreed, and life went on.
This year, something has changed. I don’t know what happened exactly, but Lock has a friend at school whose mother is Chinese. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard Lock tell his friend that he probably had Chinese food in his lunchbox, and that he must have been born in China. His friend corrected him, but was really irritated at the assumptions. The most baffling conversation took place yesterday, when Lock asked his friend, “if you could have a girlfriend, who would it be?” Lock’s friend named a girl in his class who happens to be Chinese. Lock replied, “Oh I knew you would pick her, because you both play piano, and you look the same!” I was horrified, but kept my cool, and tried to explain that our friends don’t have to look like us.
Call me crazy, but I’m flabbergasted. Lock has an Indian Father, Grandparents, family friends he calls Kaki and Kaka (Auntie and Uncle), a friend with a muscular challenge, a “girlfriend” with two Hispanic Mommies, and a Mother who works with people with disabilities. We talk about differences in people ALL the time, and yet a few weeks ago he told me he didn’t want his lunch to look “too Indian.”
We are all wired to form pre-judgments about people and life. Our brains generalize, because without some modicum of predictability, we’d be unable to function. We have to assume certain properties of a chair exist in every chair, or else we’d never trust one enough to sit in it. It’s natural to group things together in order to make sense of them. It just seems strange that Lock continues to do this despite his own personal experiences with cultures, religions, and varying abilities.
Mr. Spreadsheet and I may not be totally faultless. Our families both did their best to rid our generation of stereotypes and biases. India was still shaking off the residues of an ancient caste system, and our country seems like it will never quite exorcize the ghosts of slavery and indentured servitude. In addition, I grew up in schools that separated people with disabilities, and basically warned us to leave them alone. I carried irrational fears of physically disabled people until my career put me face-to-face with some of the most amazing people I’d ever meet.
It is despite, and maybe because of these experiences that Mr. Spreadsheet and I encourage questions and an open dialogue about people who are different. It is important to us that Lock grows up feeling comfortable enough to ask questions of anyone he finds strange or intimidating, because when you get to the heart of it, prejudice and bias are just fears based on misinformation. The best way to counter that is with questions. Wouldn’t you rather a child asked you why your body was covered in tattoos rather than pointing and staring? Wouldn’t you rather he ask why you have two daddies instead of making fun? Isn’t it better to ask a Vet how he lost his leg rather than shouting, “Oh that poor man!”
Plastics…I mean, questions. That’s the future. That’s our lesson for Lock. Don’t assume–ask questions. Otherwise our world would just be filled with billions of mysterious, unused chairs.