It was the final evening of a lovely week at Grammie’s in Charlotte. Grammie makes sure we have the best time possible in her city, a city that has southern hospitality to spare. With such an inviting combination, how can anyone on vacation lose?
Grammie thought it’d be nice if we went to Maggiano’s on our last day before returning to our routines in Chicago. Somewhere between the discovery of the best artichoke dip I had ever had and bites of fried zucchini, my then 4 year old says aloud, “I hate white people.”
Mind you, our server was white as were the dinner guests at the table next to us, and the majority of the dining area. As I recall, my toddler son did not yell the shocking declaration. There was no anger in his voice. Instead, he made his announcement with a sad resolve and perhaps resignation.
The three adults at the table, myself, his father, and his grandmother were stunned to absolute silence. “Where did this come from,” I panicked internally. “Have I given him a reason to hate white people?” “Has he heard hate come from my mouth or seen it from any of my private actions?” I was literally stupefied.
My first external reaction was to vehemently dismiss his words and to protest, to chastise him for making such an “obscene” statement. “No, Bryce!,” my face grimacing. “No! You do not hate white people!” Bryce, a wonderfully expressive child, who heard my reprimand and took in the perplexed faces around him, immediately began to cry.
I then knew that chastising him was the wrong response and frankly not at all consistent with the way I had been parenting him. I’ve always encouraged Bryce to speak the truth, that there is nothing at all wrong with telling the truth about how he feels. Sometimes, I even go so far as to reward Bryce for telling the truth. This time around, because I was embarrassed by Bryce’s truth-telling, I reacted in fear.
The wisest of the bunch, our dear Grammie, naturally found the words to ask the reasonable question, “Why, Bryce? Why do you hate white people?” Bryce responded matter-of-factly, “Because they killed Martin Luther King.” It was interesting to me that he said that “they,” white people, killed Martin Luther King. He saw fit to tie the actions of one white man to all white people…a generalization that causes me to question the role we all play in our complicity when an unjust crime occurs. Grammie’s non-verbal response was priceless. She nodded and said nothing at all.
What was great about the moment was that there was nothing to be said after Bryce’s answer. Bryce had been learning in school about the work of Martin Luther King and about the Civil Rights Movement. He goes to a private school that is intentional about African American history as well as Christian principles. So Bryce learned that an innocent man, who used his life to challenge, oppose, and resist hateful violence, oppression, injustice, and savagery was murdered because of his race, because of his life’s work. Why wouldn’t that cause anyone to feel deeply and to have strong feelings against the perpetrator and his actions?
As Michael said in his post, we knew that Bryce didn’t hate white people. He calls his godparents, Aunt and Uncle, not because we make him, but because it’s a natural term for him…they are family. When Mommy and Daddy cannot pick him up from school, and Uncle David or Auntie Maggie shows up, he runs to them and greets them with a hug. He eats food from their hands, he shares a bed with their son, he is comforted and consoled by their hugs, and their words of love. The same is true for Aunt Sheila and Uncle Alan, and “Bonsai” and Ms. Wendy…Bryce has love for people in our lives who are white.
But the truth of that moment and what made me so proud of Bryce for saying what he said, is the courage it took for him to say how he felt. He knew it could be problematic for him to say aloud how he was feeling, hence his preface, “I don’t want God to be mad at me.” But he pressed through the baseless facade, something that I couldn’t do as an adult of 36 years, and he spoke his truth, which gave us an opportunity to clarify his feelings.
He doesn’t hate white people, he hates whatever it is that causes people to treat other people so dishonorably. I marveled at how he could make such an honest connection at his young age. It reminded me that one of the gifts of a child is to remind us what the truth really is, to face it, and to uncomfortably sit with it…something that frankly seems like the honest thing to do concerning race in this country.