I may or may not be dealing with a delicate parental situation.
Yeah, I need to unpack that statement. Here’s the deal. My daughter Charlotte has been making friends around the neighborhood this summer. Among those friends are a classmate from last school year, Daniel, and the two kids next door, whom we’ll call Vera and Jose (not their real names). They’ve had a lot of fun running around our yard or going up and down the block on their various wheeled conveyances.
Recently, though, a rift has appeared — between Vera and Jose, and the rest of the group. Jose has picked up a habit of using foul language, and Vera can be pretty harsh in dealing with other kids. But that’s not the major issue. The major issue is their (and their family’s) treatment of Daniel.
Now, Daniel is a nice boy — maybe a little intense and bossy, but that’s a good balance for Charlotte (who can often be the same). By and large, he’s quiet, polite and doesn’t cause anything resembling trouble. But you’d never know it from how the next door neighbors treat him. At one point, he was simply banned from playing in their yard, no reason given. Later that changed, but then Vera and Jose weren’t allowed to go over to his house (that may still be in effect, I’m not sure). And last weekend, Vera and Jose were grounded … for allowing Daniel to join them in their swimming pool. Again, no reason was given.
I have a guess as to what the reason might be … and I really, really hope I’m wrong. You see, Daniel is black …
… yeah, I don’t like the thought of it either. But it does seem to be the way the evidence is pointing.
I was raised by a mom who was as close to being color-blind as one could be while growing up in the 1950s. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a truly multicultural environment. She had close friends that were of African, Asian and Hispanic descent — I have a picture of her third-grade class that looks like it was taken at the United Nations. One of her best friends was a Japanese girl (the name escapes me) who in the course of a conversation once mentioned that she had been born in North Dakota. My mom (naively in retrospect) wondered what a Japanese family was doing all the way out in North Dakota. Like Mom, her friend had been born in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Unlike Mom, she had been born in an internment camp. Mom was thunderstruck — she couldn’t imagine why anyone would put people in camps just because of their race.
My dad also grew up in San Francisco, but in a slightly different environment — a family of hard-bitten Italians, many of them alcoholics. Dad’s views of race were formed by his father’s prejudices and by his own tour of duty in one of the Italian gangs in the City. (Think West Side Story, only with no soundtrack, fewer deaths and more “acting tough.” Everything in California was more laid back then, even the street thugs.) And his gang’s biggest rival was the black gang. You can draw your own conclusions from there.
Still, Dad’s views on race had little effect on me except to drive me more toward Mom’s more enlightened ones. At one point, I fully expected that my future wife would be of a different skin color than mine — my great crush in college was on a friend who was Mexican, and one of my actual girlfriends was half-Dutch, half-Hindi. My mom was a little shocked when I ended up picking my long-stemmed Irish rose, Nina. (Actually, the Supermodel is Irish, Scots, Prussian and Czech, but let’s not quibble here.)
So my daughter playing with a black kid is a non-issue for me. And the old race-baiting question, “would you let one marry your sister/daughter?”, is a non-issue as well. If she someday chooses to marry a black man, I’m pretty sure my questions about him will involve his spiritual state and his future career plans, not the pigmentation of his skin. (I just wish they’d be able to have children — see here for why — but with Charlotte being a carrier for the Leigh’s disease gene, that’s out of the picture, alas.) And like my mom back in her high school cafeteria in 1958, I’m thunderstruck that other people would see it differently.
Even though I know they do. I have my father’s testimony on that. And my mom’s stepfather, who almost threw her out of the house was she was a 17-year-old volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and who refused to attend her wedding because she was marrying a (decidedly nominal) Catholic. Or all I’ve read about the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or the great Negro League players, or basketball stars like Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkins, or even the works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Wiley and Francisco Jimenez. And if that weren’t enough, I’d only need to check the headlines — Arab vs. Jew, Hutu vs. Tutsi, Sikh vs. Hindu vs. Muslim, Republican vs. immigrant. I know discrimination exists.
It just seems like so much “bovine fecal matter” to me.
I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with the situation. For the last several days, Vera and Jose have been mostly playing at their own house with their cousins — which, given the behavioral issues I mentioned earlier, has been fine with us — and Charlotte and Daniel have either gotten together at his house or (more commonly) ours. But we do live next door to Vera and Jose, and I have a sneaking suspicion the problem will come to the fore at some point. I’m not sure if I should ask their mom, or maybe their grandfather (Vera and Jose’s dad is only around intermittently), or see if one of them brings it up first, or ignore it and hope it goes away, or what. And I’m really worried that if they do actually come out and say “we don’t want them playing with blacks,” undiplomatic me might respond with “why not — I let my daughter play with Mexicans!” (Meaning Vera and Jose.) That’s not the way to win friends and influence people, I know.
Hopefully things will work themselves out. I hope they do. But if history has taught me anything, it’s that stupidity never really goes away. And racism is stupidity with a vengeance.