A dark cloud cast a chill over our cozy liberal hearth a few months back. Four-and-a-half-year-old Dashiell and his 9-year-old sister, Nadja, were watching cartoons on TV while we parents sat self-exiled in the living room. Suddenly Nadja raced in, flushed, dragging her little brother by the hand, insisting that he repeat the comment he'd just made to her during the commercials. Bewildered by the fuss she was making, he was prodded into mumbling: "I jus' said I din't like black people."
Françoise and I exchanged glances. I gulped, bracing myself for yet another Difficult Parenting Moment while Françoise, unfazed, simply reminded Dash of Robert, the extraordinarily gifted teacher at his preschool, and a couple of black playmates. He conceded that he liked them fine, but still innocently elaborated that black people weren't as good or pretty as us, somehow dissociating the people he knew from the idea of blackness. Rallying, I launched into a lecture about the danger of judging people as a group and about the tribal fear of otherness, illustrated with a quick gloss of my own parents' experiences as Jews in Hitler's Europe (using a Dr. Seuss-approved, 225-word vocabulary) and I capped it all with some G-rated variant of the old rhetorical question: "Who would you kick out of bed: Lena Horne or Kate Smith?" When the dust settled, Dash seemed contrite, though restless, and the kids adjourned back to their cartoon show.
Now, whether Nadja was motivated by sibling rivalry, knowing that her brother's passing comment wouldn't play well, or by a genuine sense of moral outrage (she has always been an exceptionally empathic kid), or -- most likely -- by a combination of the two is beside the point: I'm trying to dive into my own psyche's deep water here, and only by extension my kids' and America's. Françoise seemed mildly amused by the incident; having grown up in France, she is remarkably colorblind about American race matters (though she has her own culturally manufactured demons to ward off when North African Muslims are the issue).
I was left deeply discomfited, guilt and muck oozing to the surface. How did this racist virus get to flit through Dash's head in our nobly intentioned peaceable kingdom? To what degree am I the direct carrier? The kids are both relatively unexposed to mass culture (despite this anecdote's implication, they log in well less than three hours a week of rather supervised television time), and both are enrolled in New York's very ethnically diverse United Nations International School. In fact, the first public figure I ever heard Dash refer to was Martin Luther King Jr., although it's true that his actual reference was to Arthur Luther King and the knights of the Round Table. I cursed myself for once unthinkingly taking him to a screening of the 1932 Tarzan, the Ape Man; it was billed as a kiddie matinee, but the colonialist wet dream of a white jungle god among the subhuman savages left me unhinged and clearly made a strong impression on my son, who has fantasized ever since that he is being raised by apes.