This is a very personal experience to recount. It’s very hard for me to, so I might go on a few tangents, while my brain is trying to escape from speaking about this experience, because it is not only embarrassing, but also a painful experience.
It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and I regret it ever happened.
But it did, and it has a somewhat happy ending I think.
There’s also a moral to this rambling story: Tell your child about racism when they are young, it helps keep them out of trouble.
In short, this is the story of: Why trying to raise your kid colour blind can backfire and cause them more harm than good.
*Trigger Warning* This story does contain some violence
One of the hardest topics to handle when raising children is race and racism, and yet it is something that must be done.
The world is still full of grudging, mistreatment, mistrust, based on skin colour. Prejudice, to have judged someone prior (pre) to knowing anything about them as a person, is common.
The world is also full of people who don’t know how to deal with it, or aren’t fully aware of it.
It’s this last group which I was part of as a child, even knowing about one type of racism (towards native peoples, which my father had made me quite aware of, and which I had experienced and we’d spoken about) I was unaware of other types of racism, at least those in my own country.
Unaware, truly ignorant.
It’s really painful to even write those words —I am ignorant of many things, everyone is because that’s the state you are in before you know stuff, and learn and try as I might, there will always be things I don’t know— but I really wish I’d known more on this topic, so much sooner.
Lets set up some context particular to me, give you a bit of an idea of how I was at before I give you the chance to be mad at child me.
I was around about 10 years old, and I spent lots of my time, once I had finally learned to read, reading. I read lots of things, including my moms old university and college textbooks.
An attempted little erudite in the making, I was trying to absorb as much information as possible, and trying to make sure it was from sources that were established. I trusted the textbooks to be correct because they were textbooks, everything in school had textbooks and they had lots of information and answers. Also because my parents trusted them, and most of the time I trusted my parents.
If you know anything about old textbooks you’ll know that they are not always correct.
This includes everything from having old science, to having outdated terminologies.
(Perhaps not everyone has actually handled or read old textbooks, but those who have are already cringing I’m sure.)
So there was this boy, and I had a crush on him.
He was also pretty much the only person to talk to me for quite a while when I changed schools half way through the year. We were in different classes when I switched schools but we were the same age and we played soccer together (not a team, just the two of us) everyday after school.
This meant a lot to me in so many ways, he was nice to me, and that was a rare experience in my school life thus far. Most kids my age would torment me, spit balls, gum in hair, nasty names, pointed ignoring. The works.
I’ll call him Julian, because he had a pretty average name but I’d rather not use it.
So Julian and I became friends, at least in school, and the next year we were in the same class together. I was thrilled of course.
It turned out that he and I also both struggled with our homework. In our class when we didn’t manage to finish homework that was due, we had to stay and finish it after class. So often it was the two of us alone after the teacher had left, and often even after the janitor had been round to clean things up, we might still sitting there working, just us unsupervised.
(That raises problems in and of itself, but supervising kids only goes so far, it wouldn’t have prevented the initial damage I was about the cause, only the aftermath)
Because we’d play soccer together after school anyways, if just one of us had to stay late, the other might stay and chat while waiting or try to help.
We got along, so for the longest time this wasn’t an issue, and then one day I made a mistake.
I tried to ask him about his family, which is innocent enough on it’s own, but I was an ignorant little girl who had never been told what you can and can’t say, and my most frequently encountered model for asking about family ties was adults asking me “So who is the Indian blood from?” I thought this was the kind of question people just asked because it had been asked so many times of me.
Stupid. I should have long ago been told this is a sensitive issue.
More stupid, I should long ago have been told there are some terms which hurt peoples feelings. With a list of the terms.
This is, as they say, where shit gets real.
He was sitting there smiling and laughing as we talked about something we were working on, and I said:
“Can I ask you something?”
He replied “sure” nodding with a grin.
So asked the kind of question only a person completely ignorant can ask, because I knew he was biracial, that one of his parents is white, and one is black.
I asked him: “Which one of your parents is negro?” I was trying to seem smart using a textbook term, I did not know this was an outdated hurtful term, a “bad” term. There was no malice in it for me, because I was wholly ignorant of peoples maliciousness with this term.
But Julian knew, and he was furious.
Furious and no longer smiling, scowling with fury he demanded in an angry but surprisingly normal volume tone:
“What did you say?”
Time seemed to slow, my own face fell as I struggled to think, and he was already moving.
He was up out of the desk and coming at me angrily before I could answer, everything was a blur happening quickly. I scooted backwards out tripping over my chair to get away, I caught myself and then scooted round a desk. Backing up quickly against the dry erase board with no where to run and no knowledge of if I should run, he closed in seconds. Pinning me to the board, clasping his hands around my neck, he started to lift me and I tucked my hands around the lip where the erasers sit pushing my bum on it so that I would have purchase .
Shock and confusion filled me, internal questions flooded me ‘I have done something very wrong and I do not know what.’
‘what is it that have I done wrong?’, ‘why is this happening?’, ‘will he stop?’, ‘will he ever speak to me again if I fight him?’
I didn’t understand, but I knew that I couldn’t stay this way and I was beginning to choke, my mind swirled wanting oxygen. In a sort of partial reflex brought my legs up and kicked him squarely in the chest, he went flying backwards hitting desks, his weight shoving them back in an arc.
Since he was no longer holding me I dropped, knees bent but standing, throat hurting and not knowing if I now needed to fight, and especially not why.
He yelled at me to NEVER say that again. I don’t know if he said anything else, it’s a blur, I was dizzy.
Then he stormed out.
I fixed the desks, and I cried.
The thoughts I had at that point while fixing the desks, would later be good reasons for me to carefully obsess about red flags for potential abuse in friendships and relationships because I thought things like:
Now he’s really never going to speak to me again, did I have to kick him? Did I have to kick him so hard?
I’ve ruined the friendship and made an ass of myself how am I going to come back to school after this?
He’s such a wonderful person, this is so not like him, and I like him so much I wonder if there’s anyway I can make things right…
I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that I’d maybe almost been killed.
That kept coming through my mind actually, but because of who and how I am, it just didn’t rank over thoughts of how mad at myself I was. I was mortified, this was the most embarrassing mistake in my entire life.
Our friendship was essentially ended, we no longer spoke except tersely, a ‘hi’ now and then. I did eventually get to talk to him about it years later, and more on that shortly.
So further and back to the real point: Why did this happen?
In reflection technically both of us made mistakes.
His are easy to understand, he didn’t need to act aggressively, although that certainly got the point across and I actually didn’t (and don’t) begrudge him it. He had every right to be angry. His actions weren’t a good choice, but he was 10, what do you really want from him? Tons of restraint when he thought he’d just been horribly insulted?
My mistake was a choice I wasn’t even aware I had, and that is not to be ignorant.
Yes, I was 10, and so was he, kids can get into very serious situations. Being 10 doesn’t mean that either of us didn’t hurt the other, feelings or otherwise.
The terminologies were the biggest trouble, of course. The anthropology texts were in particular misleading, in my attempt to use the most correct term (where as I otherwise would have just said Black) the result was that I used a worse term.
It is my firm belief that having an open discussion about the fact that some terms can be hurtful, is necessary.
Providing some examples, especially ones your particular child might encounter would probably also be helpful.
It’s good to check all definitions carefully from more than one source before using a word on a person, but realistically, that’s a hard value to instill in a 10 year old. (Not to say that parents shouldn’t try)
Remember as much as I had asked him an inappropriate question, it wasn’t because I was cruel, and the only reason I treated him any differently than other kids is because I had a crush on him and he was nice to me.
In fact I thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread (as the saying goes) I didn’t even stop liking him after he tried to choke me, I actually blamed myself for the whole incident from the get go.
(Please also talk to your children about violence, and let them know that they are not responsible for other people being violent towards them. Even though I was wrong to ask the question, I shouldn’t have had to feel like I’d caused him to attack me. Julian being a wonderful person in my mind shouldn’t have stopped me from being aware of my right to physical safety and security from him. Okay?)
And none of those matter because I still was wrong to ask that question, and should have already known not to say that in the first place.
My intent was nothing but pure curiosity, it was earnest. My choice of terms was because I was trying to show off to make him like me more, sounding smart seemed to be something he had liked about me before.
Intent doesn’t stop racism. I was racist, even though I didn’t mean to be, and I didn’t know I was, in fact I was nothing but confused; but I used a term that hurt him and destroyed our friendship because I was so wholly colour blind as to only see him as another person like me, and not know that there were specific non-swear (to my knowledge) words that could hurt people.
This term was used as an insult and I didn’t know it because I didn’t know there were struggles, and my ignorance with terms was just the tip of the iceberg. I shudder to think what I might not have learned and known if this incident had not acted as a catalyst pushing me to learn about Black history and modern struggles.
What else would I not have learned if I hadn’t looked into racial struggles? Many things I’m sure.
So now back to Julian and me. I spoke to him about this years later, when I finally had the courage, as an adult. We met on a bus by chance, and he greeted my and started chatting to me about childhood stuff. We talked amicably, and he asked why we’d stopped hanging out anyways, so I asked him if he remembered at all, and when he didn’t seem to I recounted the events in brief summary, and he said
“Wow, we were really crazy kids weren’t we?”
“Yes.” I said, and I remember those words because then we sat in silence for about 30 seconds and thought.
I tried to tell him I was sorry for all that, and I think I remember that he apologized too, and somehow we smoothly moved into talking and joking about a whole bunch of other things and spent at least another half an hour on the bus together chatting.
It was good, it was cathartic.
It was also, in reflection, sad. He didn’t remember, it was such a big thing for me and he didn’t remember.
I considered what this meant for a long while and came to a depressing conclusion: It was probably just one of many times he had to deal with someone unintentionally or intentionally being racist to him. Because of that, for him it may have been just one of many incidents.
Oh sure he probably hadn’t had many instances where it turned physical, he just wasn’t really that sort of person, he always liked to be relaxed, and that had been one of the many things I admired about him.
Even if after that horrid moment after which my admiration was always through a thick invisible wall of emotion. (Mostly intense internal shame.)
For him on the other side, our friendship had clearly meant something to him, he’d remembered me well enough on the bus and talked about when we used to hang out, but the fight had slipped his mind.
It’d be almost funny to have forgotten something like that, if I didn’t believe it was symptomatic of a larger set of problems he probably experienced in his life.
So this is my most embarrassing moment, and hopefully nobody hates me for it.
It was a bit traumatic for me (a bit I say. Cue laugh track at understatement), so perhaps people will be lenient on me for that reason.
Also I was 10, it was still the 90’s, and I’m not the same person I was at 10. (I should hope not)
Snip– I posted my aside about terms in another post.