Any post about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has to start in my childhood. I am a person who likes to think that I’m not racist, but I have put my big foot in my mouth (I wear a size 10, incidentally– big feet) several times on the subject of race. And some of my cringiest moments occurred when I was young and innocent.
For example, I had two plush baby dolls when I was a tot. They were exactly the same, except one was white, and the other was black. The white doll, I named “Pinkie.” The black doll I named “Pinkie Brown.” Oops. And not just because I named my toy after the villain of Brighton Rock.
On another occasion, I was given a black plush horse for Christmas. I already had a stuffed dog named “Blackie,” so I decided (having a somewhat limited capacity for names) to call the horse “Darky.” My parents immediately vetoed that name, but they refused to say why. Later I found out the reason. Oops.
The trope “innocently insensitive” comes to mind. I had no idea at ages 2 and 9, respectively, that my actions could be considered, at least, microaggressions, and racist at worst. But I learned better. My parents were too amused by the cute babydoll named Pinkie Brown to correct me on that one, but they put a stop to my naming the horse “Darky.” They probably should have explained why, though. Dad explained why my brother and his best friend couldn’t call their comic-drawing partnership “the SS” (for Sherwood and Smith), though he made it 5th-grader friendly enough.
All these instances lead to my conclusion that tolerance and peace are, at least in part, learning experiences. Everybody probably says something stupid at some point, and then there’s Cards Against Humanity games (which may or may not count), but we have to learn from them. And we should be exposed to diversity to make the lessons really sink in. I was lucky. My parents lived next door (literally– it was a duplex) to a black family when I was little, and one of my babysitters was Jewish. I got to see early that people whose skin was a different color than mine, or who practiced a different religion, were just people, and that nothing was inherently wrong with them because of that. “Why would someone want to hurt Jimmy because of his skin?” “Why would someone want to hurt Marla because she goes to church on Friday?” (For a Christian toddler, every form of worship is “church.”) And I answer my littler self now– no one should. People who would want to do that are bad, and one can only hope that someday they learn better.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech mentions his dream that “my four little children will one day be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that. And to achieve that dream, we must all make sure our little children know that while differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) exist, they are not the criteria by which we are to judge other humans. If we are to love one another and raise our children in that light, we must lead by example.
We honor one such example today. And we should do likewise the rest of the year.