So far in this blog I’ve written a lot about positive things and not a lot about the things that have challenged me and helped me grow. With the kids especially, there are times when situations arise where it’s hard to know how to respond. There’s one in particular that sticks out in my mind that I wish I had handled differently.
All the kids were sitting together at a table coloring. It was Kelile’s 6th birthday. She always likes to be in the spotlight, but on this afternoon she was positively glowing, reminding us over and over “It’s my birthday!” and demanding special privileges (“I get to sit in the middle because it’s my birthday, right? I don’t have to help clean up because it’s my birthday, right?”). When her best friend Aditi walked in, Kelile burst out, “Aditi you have to come to my birthday party!” To which one of the other girls replied, “Aditi’s grandmother won’t let her come to your birthday party. We are Indians, and Indians never go to black people’s birthday parties.” [Kelile is black, Aditi is Indian].
Of course I should have said something. I remember my mouth involuntarily dropping open. I was so shocked. I already knew this sentiment (lighter is better, darker is worse) existed within the Indian community, hearkening back to the British colonial period and maybe even earlier to the Aryan empire and the advent of the caste system. But I have never heard anything so blatantly prejudiced, especially not from the mouth of a little child.
I knew right away that this was coming from her parents. I didn’t want to embarrass the girl in front of all the other kids by calling her and her family racist. I didn’t want to punish her if she didn’t even know what she was saying. And I never want to put the kids in a position where they have to decide who to believe, me or their parents. So I didn’t say anything. All I did was stand there gaping like a fish before clumsily trying to change the subject.
Kelile didn’t say anything either. She just looked a little bewildered. Normally Kelile has no problem asking a million questions when she doesn’t understand something, but this time she just went back to her coloring without saying a word.
I was reminded of the incident again this week while tutoring at another after-school program where the kids are mostly Hispanic. One of the sixth grade boys came in looking upset. “I really hate that guy,” he said. “Who do you hate?” I asked. “Donald Trump. He hates Mexicans, he wants to kick them out of the country. All my friends are Mexican.” It surprised me to hear a sixth grader talking about politics. It surprised me even more to hear the very genuine hurt in his voice. In my experience, when a sixth grade boy is feeling hurt, he rarely lets on.
But then I really thought about what it must feel like, to be hearing this kind of message demonizing you and your community from a major presidential candidate. That would be bad enough. But even worse, I think, would to hear the American people agreeing with him.
After all the kids had gone home, I found a crumpled piece of notebook paper while I was picking up the classroom. On it someone had drawn a gesticulating Trump in crayon with the caption “We’re building a wall.” It made me so profoundly sad. I folded it and put it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed he had drawn around Trump a full stick-person audience, and every one of them was wearing a big, adoring smile.
This made me think again about Kelile’s birthday party incident, and how I didn’t say anything when the Indian girls were talking about refusing to associate with black people. How hurtful it must have been for Kelile to hear that, even if she didn’t fully understand what was going on. And how hurtful it must have been to see me letting it happen, like a smiling stick figure at a Donald Trump rally.
Here at the monastery, the sisters gave me a calendar for Christmas featuring quotes from famous spiritual leaders. The month of February has a quote from Gandhi which reads, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.” It’s easy to agree with that while I am sitting in my comfy chair in the library writing this blog post, but harder to live it out in the moment, when a tense situation presents itself. I’m glad, though, that I have been exposed to this kind of tense situation, even if I didn’t respond correctly at the time. I believe it is just preparation for my next opportunity to non-cooperate with evil.
Note: I changed the kids' names in this post to be respectful of them and their privacy.