What A 3-Year-Old Taught Me About Racism
I was 6 years old when I was introduced to racism.
It happened in first grade. Before my elementary school was predominantly black. Before white flight. Susie introduced me to it.
A chubby white girl with brown hair and a round face. She wasn’t the nicest kid. In fact though I can’t recall having issues with most kids my age back then, Susie made it a point to remind me that she didn’t like me.
Imagine a 6-year-old coming home to unsuspecting parents in tears because, “Susie said that Ronald Regan is sending all black people to the moon.”
I was terrified. This was what Susie said to me early on in the school year of first grade.
Ronald Regan is sending all black people to the moon.
I didn’t understand why he wanted black people to go to the moon.
Why would all black people have to go to the moon? How were we going to get there? Would I see my friends there? Would it be safe there? I didn’t want to go. I was mortified.
My mom assured me that I had nothing to worry about and that there was no way possible for all black people to be sent to the moon. Mom’s words and affection brought me comfort, but 30 years later I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of a 6-year-old introducing me to the realization that some adult in her life must have explained that to her.
Sure, we’ve since had a few black astronomers share stories of their experiences in the firmament. And the stories are fascinating. But still. I have no business on anybody’s moon. Hard pass. No thanks.
In 2004, I worked at my undergraduate university’s on campus daycare. A place where students and staff could leave their kids in the capable hands of certified teachers and students aspiring to work in early childhood education.
Though I had no interest in being a teacher, I enjoyed working with children.
I got my first job at the age of 15 as a daycare provider at a sports complex. I’d been babysitting my younger siblings since I was 10, and I was in the psychology program. I had plenty of experience.
I was a teacher in the three-year-old class room and worked with kids from different backgrounds.
One kid, Charlie, enjoyed hiding under the lunch table. Scaring us to death because he’d randomly disappear for his own amusement. Cute kid, but the panic of losing someone’s child is something serious.
A girl named Ellie got Jelly Belly jellybeans after using the bathroom on her own. She hated that I called her Ellie-Belly. I thought it was a cute nickname, but I respected her wishes.
Chabuka cut my hair during an arts and crafts lesson. This was the day I realized child care was NOT in my foreseeable future.
Andrew insisted on being called Batman and mocked my fear of cicadas. (I STILL don’t care Batman, they’re gross! Now go wash your hands.)
Titan, was the bravest barely-3-year-old I’ve ever met. As soon as the doors opened, he’d run to the “big kids” monkey bars and flip upside down, jump off the bars, and remind me that he was Spider-Man.
After my fifth heart attack I realized Titan really did have skills and instead of trying (and failing) to direct his attention to a safer choice for little-ones, I just started playing along with him. My attempt at making sure he didn’t bust his head open. Lord, how would I explain that to his parents?
My favorite kids (because they’re not biologically mine so it’s fine to have favorites) were two little boys Alan and Cameron. Alan was a sweet little brown skinned boy with the first gluten allergy I’d ever encountered. Cameron was equally sweet, and understood that his friend had special dietary and health needs. These three-year-old boys had been best friends since the 2-year-old class. That’s a long time in kid years.
They played together, got in a little trouble together but not too often. They were really good kids. I’d occasionally catch Cameron hugging Alan if he were having a particularly rough day. They enjoyed playing in the loft together with trucks (Alan’s favorite). They sat together during lunch, they ran around the playground together. Then one day they stopped.
Now, two things I learned for during my time as a daycare teacher is that kids are pretty serious about their toys and their friendships. So when I started my shift and noticed Cameron in the loft alone, I immediately recognized that something was wrong.
Why had two kids, that had been inseparable for nearly two years of their little lives, suddenly stopped playing together? It didn’t make sense. So I asked Cameron what happened.
His response chills me to this day.
Without looking up. Without putting his toy down Cameron said to me, “Ms. Leslie, I’m salt, and he’s pepper and salt and pepper don’t mix.”
From the mouth of a three-year-old.
Something in my soul died that day.
A baby, who had spent days laughing and playing alongside his best friend, told me that he can’t do that anymore because he’s white and Alan is black.
It hurt me to my core.
How was I supposed to respond to that?
How was I supposed to discuss racism with a child who would barely spell his own name?
I needed to respond, it needed to be quick, and whatever I said needed to make sense to his young mind.
I responded, “Well Cameron, that’s not true. Salt and pepper makes everything taste good. Salt and pepper do mix, especially in this classroom.”
Cameron looked confused. He went back to playing.
Though the two sweet boys would occasionally talk and play, their relationship changed exponentially.
Cameron took more to playing with the other white kids. And Alan played mostly by himself or with whomever else was near.
I don’t know what became of these two boys, but I think of them often and I pray that they’re well.
What bothers me most is knowing that an adult in Cameron’s life taught him that salt and pepper don’t mix. Someone with years under their belt and hate in their heart planted a seed in the mind of a three-year-old that white people should not “mix” with black people.
To this day I try to imagine how that conversation went down. What prompted it? Who said that to him? What darkness was lurking in his family history that would shape his perception of black people?
At three years old, naps are the only thing kids naturally hate. But even after a nap they happily wake up to a snack, and war against quiet time was as if it never happened.
Someone taught Cameron, just as someone taught Suzie, how to think like a racist.
My heart still breaks for them.
Today I wonder where my two sweet boys are.
They should be almost 20 now, old enough to have their own opinions about life and the state of the world in 2020.
How is Alan coping with the lynching of black men and women?
Is Cameron posting pictures mocking the death of George Floyd on social media?
Sure I could go down the Internet rabbit hole, I’m a computer security professional after all. It wouldn’t be hard to find out. But I’d rather not know.
I’d rather believe that at some point in life they recognized the hate that someone attempted to plant in their still growing minds and learned to fight against it.
I’d rather believe that they grew up to love all people no matter how someone identifies.
I need to believe that my two sweet boys grew up to be kind, loving, compassionate young men that recognize how racism destroys lives and kills helpless bodies. That racism is unnecessary and evil.
I pray that my two sweet boys, are still sweet.