Martin Luther King, Jr. day has a special place in my heart for many reasons. My mother was among the first teachers integrated in the North Carolina School systems. My sister was in one of the first integrated graduating classes in 1981 in Greenville County, South Carolina. That’s right. 1981. And my son, Max, came home from kindergarten in Merton, Wisconsin, on MLK Jr day in 2005 with indignation in his heart. “Mommy,” he demanded, arms akimbo and fire in his eyes, “Did you know that there are some people who will not be friends with other people just because of the color of their skin?”
“Yes, Max,” I reply, “I did know that, and it makes me sad.”
He continues with no loss of fervor and a bit of impatience that I don’t seem to know a rhetorical question when I hear one. “For example, there are people who would not be friends with my friend Asha because of her beautiful chocolate skin.” (Author note: Max has Asperger’s, and I pick my battles, so please don’t judge me for not addressing the chocolate skin description right away.)
I nod sagely because I am a fast learner.
“And,” he continues, “It is even the case that people with black skin had to use different bubblers and bathrooms.”
(Author note: “Bubbler” is Wisconsin talk for “water fountain,” which, as I think about it, is South Carolina talk for “drinking fountain.”)
There is an expectant pause, so I say, “Yes, Max. That is true. And it makes me sad and angry.”
“Well, what I want to know is,” my then five-year-old son says, looking me straight in the eye, which is an uncommon occurrence, “…….. Who are these white people, anyway?”
Stunned silence on my part. I realize that he does not know that we are white. He is white. And, I’m really happy about his color oblivion for a split second because it comes to me what that means. Until Max, every generation of my family grew up in the racially saturated South. That was a part of our struggle and our coming-of-age story, and for better or worse it made us the people that we are. So, for just a second, I am happy that I have a son who has no idea what race means, and I am enjoying the irony that he learned what racism is on MLK Jr. Day. We are not there yet, but we have come a long way in three generations. But his expectant look does not go away, and so I take the direct approach as I have learned to do with Max and say, “Max, we are white.”
He gives me that long-suffering look of a kid that has to put up with parents that are just not that bright. He inspects his skin. He looks at me and says, “I’m not white. I’m kinda peachy pink.”
I smile, realizing what white people must look like in his mind’s eye. I realize that Max is not white, and Asha is not black, but they are each their own beautiful and unique self; our categories again do us in. Oh, they can be useful. They can be important, and I am not suggesting for one minute that race or racial prejudices are not socially real. But they are real because we have made them so, and we can unmake them as well.
“You make a fair point, Max,” I say, and I can tell that he is relieved.
“OK then,” he says, “If I see any of those white people, I am going to tell them about Asha and what a great friend she is and that they are really missing out.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” I say, “and I know you will.”
He’s satisfied for the moment, and I’m left to contemplate the wonder-filled, awe-filled journey that is parenting. That is life as an excommunicated Southerner who is still struggling with the complexities of the pride and regret I feel in my heritage and the love, loyalty, and disappointments I feel in the people that I looked up to as a child. I wonder about the racial legacy in my own heart and know that the trust and expectation in my son’s face is my call to introspection and self-improvement. If there is still a white girl in there, I need to find her and color her peachy pink.
Enjoy this dramatic reading and video blog of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream,” speech delivered August 28th, 1963.