I’m white. Red headed, freckled, fair.
My husband was black. A beautiful shade of brown, actually. Big, strong, handsome. Larger than life.
I knew nothing of racism before I started dating him. He taught me, not only to recognize those feelings in others, but how to overcome them.
The first time I recall encountering the blind distaste of the uninformed by myself was a beautiful summer day in a small town where my husband was working for the season. I had taken two of my kids, my son who was aged six at the time, and my daughter who wasn’t yet two on the long drive into town. I wanted to stop in a country craft store to pick up a few things, and peeking in the windows, saw it wasn’t the kind of place to bring four very curious little hands.
The shop was in a small commercial building, its windows fronting on to the street, but its entrance located just inside the building, along a large wide corridor that led to other shops within the building. I left the kids together, baby in the stroller, 6-year-old proudly standing guard, and popped into the store. I was in there about fifteen minutes, found what I wanted, and was waiting in line at the cashier beside the door.
It was a feeling more than exact words that drew my attention from the packages in my hand to the customers around me. The cashier, who also happened to be the owner of the shop, was confidently discussing the lack of parenting skills it takes to raise such brats. My first thought was that I was going to catch it for leaving my kids alone outside, despite my white privilege knowing them to be perfectly safe.
But that wasn’t it. The cashier was doing her best to convince the other customers – there were four ahead of me – that (whatever it was that my kids were doing) was to be expected from ‘those’ children, ‘obviously raised by imbeciles who shouldn’t be having so many kids in the first place,’ etc. etc.
I could just make out the top of my son’s head from where I was standing; they were fine. So I continued to listen to this woman’s critique of me and my family. As the first customer in line left the store, I could hear my daughter laughing loudly, and knew her brother was doing his best to entertain her while he was in charge.
So I eavesdropped some more. The cashier went on with the next customer, and the next, and the next. While none of the customers outright agreed with her, there was the odd nod of agreement, and not one defied her claims. I was looking forward to paying for my items, my inner mama-bear taking a deep breath and prepping for battle.
And then I heard my husband’s words in my head.
Racism isn’t hate; it’s fear.
Some people just don’t know better.
Getting mad at them doesn’t solve anything.
Know when to walk away.
I got to the counter and the woman greeted me warmly, but with an apology for the ridiculous behaviour of that coloured (!) kid right behind her on the other side of the window. Despite all instinct to pull her eyelids up and over the back of her head, I reacted calmly and rationally.
“What exactly is he doing?” I asked.
“I just paid to have that window cleaned, and that kid is out there licking it. Licking it! All over, like a dog with an ice cream cone. ”
I cringed on the inside. Not one of my proudest Mom-moments.
She took a deep breath to begin again, but I stopped her, interrupting sternly. “I’m sure he means no harm by it. He’s just a little boy.” I smiled, paid quickly, and stepped away from the counter before she could go on. But she continued her tirade with the customer behind me.
I stepped out the door to find my son, face pressed up against the glass, blowing against it so his cheeks would puff out, and, yes, licking the window. As my daughter fell over in her stroller in peels of laughter.
He wasn’t being just some kid; he was being an awesome kid.
I crouched down beside him and hugged him tight.
“I love that you’re such a great big brother,” I told him. “But the lady who owns the shop is really angry that you messed up her window.”
He looked at me with bright eyes, clearly considering the window for the first time. He looked at it, all smeared and lip printed, not sure if he was in trouble.
“Oh Sweety, I’m not mad. But I think someone needs a lesson here.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I won’t do it again,” he promised earnestly.
“No, not you. The lady inside.”
He looked genuinely confused.
“That lady got mad that you messed up her window. She didn’t care that you were making your sister laugh. She didn’t care that you were having fun. She didn’t care that you’re only six years old. She only saw that you’re black. So she thinks you’re bad.
“Now it’s our job to go change that. It’s not ok for people to treat you like that. You have to teach them how to treat you. And you do that by showing them that you’re a good person.” He seemed agreeable enough.
So we went back into the store, waited patiently in line, and I will never forget the look on that poor woman’s face when she recognized me, connected me with the kids, and realized what an ignorant fool she’d been.
Before she could apologize, I pushed my son up front and centre. He was amazing.
“I was the one licking your window. I was only doing it to make my sister laugh. I’m sorry I made a mess. If you can give me a cloth I’ll go clean it up.”
The woman looked at me and my mama-pride screamed loud and clear that he had come up with that on his own.
She looked back down at him and visibly melted. I felt the win.
She came around the counter, squatted down to him and my daughter and apologized to him for thinking he was a bad boy when she didn’t even know him. They swapped names, had a bit of a talk, and then she happily returned his great big little boy hug. She told him not to worry about the window, apologized to me, and we headed home feeling like we’d made the world just a little nicer that day.
Dad was pretty proud of us, too.
We saw that woman around town several more times that summer. She always stopped to say hi, introduced us to whomever she happened to be out with. And I am positive that she’s shared this story with others over the years as well.
Now, fifteen years later, all five of my kids know that they are ambassadors for their people. All of their people: the black, the white, the mixed-race, the short, the tall, the overweight, the underweight, the disabled, the mentally ill; they cover quite a few subgroups!
It’s a big responsibility; and they’re ok with that. They understand that they are role models, whether they like it or not, whether they want it or not. The minute they get out of bed in the morning, someone is watching them. Someone is making assumptions and opinions based on their behaviour, every minute of every day – and more so these days. And while they’re certainly not perfect – did I mention one of them spent 15 minutes licking a shop window once? – they make me proud.
And maybe, just maybe, one of the best things they’ll ever teach anyone, is how to teach others how to treat them with respect and dignity.