For my daughter the moment came in kindergarten. Even though she was the only African American girl in her classroom, she made friends easily, adored her teacher, and was growing in confidence as a student. Then in May, just a few weeks from the year’s end it happened. She and a little white boy were playing together at recess as they had done all year when he looked at her and said, "You know, I would like you better if you would take off your brown skin and put on some white skin."
It was 2008 and we live in a liberal enclave in the Northeast.
She was confused, hurt, and surprised when she told the story. She wasn’t completely sure what it meant, but I could hear in her voice the creeping, sticky shame of inferiority. I sat listening with my stomach in my feet and a voice in my head screaming, "Not yet. It’s only kindergarten. Not yet. Not yet."
I had a similar reaction when I first heard the story about the racism at a pool just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . A group of black and Latino children from Philadelphia’s’s Creative Steps Summer Day Camp were turned away from the predominately white Valley Swim Club because "There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club." They were turned away despite the fact that the day camp paid $1900 and prearranged the swimming period. It appears the core resistance to the presence of black and brown children came from white adult members of the pool.
When I read the story I felt that familiar sick feeling that black adults have when we witness our children encounter nasty, old-fashioned racism for the first time. So many of us have these stories ourselves. Whether we grew up in black communities, mixed ones, or largely white neighborhoods, in the North or the South, urban or rural, we remember the first time. The first time we were called "Nigger." The first time a teacher explained "Nigger means black person." The moment our friends declined to invite us over because their parents didn’t want us in the house. The first brutally racist joke whose punch line we still remember decades later.
Because we have these stories we suspect that a similar day of encounter will come for our nieces, sons, sisters, and grandkids, but we hope we can delay it. We hope it will be softer for them than it was for us. We allow ourselves to hope that maybe, just maybe, this generation will be different. We keep believing the doors we opened will stay open long enough for them to pass through unscathed. Then some racist, selfish grown folk turn our precious children away from a pool in the heat of summer as though their blackness is an infection that will spread through the water.