I pride myself on being ready for most questions my kids might ask. I usually do OK, though it should’t be surprising that sometimes they catch me short and I tell them I have to get back with them with an answer. Occasionally though, they really throw me for a loop with a question so unexpected that it takes a moment to recover.
It was a nice evening, though a little cool, when I took my daughter (who was seven at the time) to her karate class. The dojo was very near our house so we really hadn’t had time to get a conversation going. As I parked the truck, my daughter said in her clear, beautiful voice, “Daddy? I don’t like Mexicans?”
Panic mode. Where could she possibly have come up with that? I thought. Is that something she got from school? Did she see something on the news out of context and come up with that. Is this something one of her friends said? Chrisie and I try so hard to keep bias and prejudice from creeping in to our children. Where, where, where did she get this? Certainly not from us! Why, we even have good friends who are Mexican. No, no! You can’t think that! That’s the kind of phrase that comes right before something inappropriate or mildly racist. Wait, I’m not trying to justify something I’m about to say, I’m trying to figure out why my daughter said that. It’s not about me. Just calm down. It’s time for some Serious Parenting. You can do this. Don’t jump to conclusions, ask good questions, figure this out, then bring it home with the Serious Parenting, maybe even Amazing Parenting.
I collected myself, turned off the engine, and took a deep breath. I decided to get more information. If I could determine why she said what she said, then I would know how to handle the situation. I considered a few possibilities for the genesis of her statement and prepared.
“Honey,” I began, my voice a little hesitant. Get it together man, you got to Parent! “Why don’t you like Mexicans?”
“Because they flew the planes into our buildings on 9/11,” she answered. OK, I hadn’t remotely considered that answer.
“What, honey?” Maybe if I stalled for time, something brilliant would occur to me.
“The Mexicans flew planes into our building on 9/11.”
“OK, first of all, that is completely inaccurate. Mexicans did not fly any planes to any buildings on September 11.”
“No. Where did you hear that?”
“From whom?” Please don’t be a teacher, please don’t be a teacher, please don’t be a teacher. I never really though a teacher would have said that, but I was already considering worse case scenarios.
“Just a friend.” Whew.
“Well, your friend is wrong. Mexicans and Mexico had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.”
“So who did fly the planes in to building?”
“Well, they were terrorists. They were bad men.”
“But what kind of men were they?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, playing dumb.
“I mean, if they weren’t Mexican, what were they?”
Here was the dreaded question. I didn’t want to brush aside her question, but I also didn’t want her to get the idea that everyone of any specific ethnicity should be labelled based on a few. You can do this. You’re ready. No I’m not! You are, and stop thinking to yourself, it’s weird.
“Honey, the people who did that came from the Middle East and could be called Arabs. But it’s really, really important that you understand something. Just because a handful of people from the Middle East did this horrible thing, it doesn’t mean that everyone from the Middle East is bad. There are good and bad people from there. Just like there are good and bad people here. Just because someone from a certain race or ethnicity does something, it doesn’t mean everyone of that race or ethnicity will do the same thing. You can’t judge and entire people based on a few individuals.”
“Daddy, I’m confused.”
I desperately wished for simpler times when she was younger and not asking such difficult questions. I wanted to go back to when I would throw her in the air and she’d laugh as her corn silk hair flopped up and down. Inspiration! I turned around and put on my Serious Face.
“Honey, what if one of you friends at school got told a lie by a little blond-haired girl? This lie hurt her so much that she decided all little blond-haired girls told lies. She just assumed that anyone with blond hair tells lies. That means that she would think you always told lies even when you told the truth? That wouldn’t be very fair would it? She should find out if you tell lies, not just assume you do because of your blond hair. It’s the same way with what you talked about, you have to decide what individuals are like based on who they are and what they do, not what someone of a similar ethnicity’s done. Let individuals show who they are, don’t decide for them.”
I sat back, highly pleased with myself. I imagined my daughter accepting the Nobel Peace prize far in the future and thanking me, her father, who taught her to judge individuals based on their own actions, not on the actions of others who shared their ethnicity. Good job, you! I thought. Yeah, we did pretty well, huh? We? I thought you didn’t want me thinking to myself and now you’re using “we?” Let’s just ignore this and accept the award Amazing Parenting. We deserve it.
My reverie was cut short the moment my daughter spoke next. She looked very thoughtful, so I prepared for her gratitude at my impartation of wisdom. I readied myself for her adoring words. She said, “You know, Daddy, I don’t really have blond hair anymore.”
Guess we don’t have to dust off that trophy shelf yet, huh? Oh, shut up.