I’ve spent these last few posts cherishing the time I’ve been able to spend with so many wonderful children in my life, and remembering the incredibly honest utterances of a few of them. This particular story happened about a decade ago with a little boy I’ll call Mickey, who was four years old at the time.
Mickey’s uncle and I were best friends then, both living and working as performers in the fun West Hollywood area of LA. Uncle and I had grown very close, and one of his many attractive qualities was that he was as close with his family as I was not with mine, but he didn’t mind “sharing” his, so to speak. Over the years, I had accompanied my friend to many holiday dinners and family events, and watched Mickey grow up and eventually welcome a baby sister into the family. My friend had grown up about two hours outside of LA, in an area remote enough to have a small-town feeling despite its general Southern California geography.
Mickey was a beautiful and brilliant child, and I was all too happy to entertain him so that my friend’s older brother and sister-in-law could have a little break when I was around. As I spent more time around the family, I learned that there were a few undercurrents of darkness swirling through the often idyllic picture. My friend is gay and an outspoken scholar on queer art and theory, which was largely embraced by his parents, but not quite so comfortably by his brother and sister-in-law. Age, religion, location, lack of exposure, and the other usual suspects were all at play, and also please bear in mind that in the last ten years, we’ve come a long way, baby.
My friend’s dad was caucasian and his mom had Spanish heritage, which he honored but which didn’t always come first in terms of the family’s overall ethnic identity. As for his brother, sister-in-law, and little Mickey, in appearance and comportment they were completely and wholeheartedly white.
Mickey’s parents never said a single racist or biased word to or in front of me, but you could tell they were the sort of people who had, shall we say, a few societally sanctioned preconceived notions around race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. They were blessed with a brilliant brother who made it his life’s work to shatter those notions, but their religion and resistance were palpable. I’m a religious person myself, but my time hanging out with Mickey was when I first became aware of certain Christian propaganda that’s marketed as children’s animated fare, which he watched regularly.
I don’t want to paint these people as pure bigots; rather I think they’re lovely people with limited interaction with people “not like them,” as well as some very antiquated notions, like so many people are. The danger is when they reject new information and cling to biases that grow roots instead of flying free of their minds.
On one particular weekend, my friend and I had driven out to his parents’ house and were just hanging out with the extended family. Mickey and I were off on our own, playing on the floor in my friend’s old childhood bedroom. Mickey was distractedly fishing through a pile of toys when he quietly said “I have another brown person in my life, you know.”
He wasn’t looking at me and he didn’t break his concentration on the toys. I was a little taken aback, but certainly interested, so I just said, “You do?” He answered “Yeah but Mommy said don’t talk about it.”
Hmmmmmm. His mommy was just off in the other room and I wasn’t sure what to say next because I really wanted him to say whatever else he might have felt like saying on the subject, but it’s a terrible thing for an adult to ask a child to keep a secret or intentionally disobey his mother. We continued playing with the toys in silence for another moment, and then Mickey continued his thought. He told me that there was one “brown boy” at his nursery school, and that he was his friend. Apparently he had identified the little boy as “brown” and been admonished for doing so, being told not to talk about that. Naturally, he processed this as him having done something wrong, when all he had done was try to talk about a boy at school that he had made friends with, identifying him conversationally by a clear and obvious signifier. Mickey wanted to talk about his new friend liking peanut butter but not jelly, and the songs they sang together. He wasn’t being racist in identifying him as “brown,” just … noticing. Children notice things, which is fine. Declaring yourself better than someone else for the things that you notice about them is not.
For adults who have a fraught relationship with race, to hear someone referred to by their ethnicity is a problem because it often triggers their own bias and they can’t not automatically hear it as negative. Little Mickey had no negative association with his friend’s brownness until his mother gave him one. It is absolutely possible to identify someone’s race without being prejudiced toward them; value judgment of our word choices is largely determined by context, as is so much else about our socialization. Had his mother not internally flinched and shut him down, she might have simply learned about Mickey’s friend without teaching Mickey to never mention him or being “brown.”
As bright as Mickey is, a short lesson from his mommy that his new friend may be brown and that’s cool because people come in all different colors, (and shapes, and sizes, etc.) could have started him off on an enlightened path. Instead, he learned shame and confusion around his friend’s brownness that I couldn’t quite undo in a casual conversation one afternoon.
But I tried anyway.