Published on January 27th, 2016 | by Richard Black0
I like to think I’m a good parent, not great but decent. My five year old daughter doesn’t vivsect cats, she’s not in a cult and she hasn’t developed a taste for human flesh. It’s a low bar and one with which I’m quite comfortable.
In general small children have small problems. For the most part here’s a direct relationship between the issue at hand and the age of the child, a rule I’ve dubbed “Richard’s First Rule of Parenting. Occasionally however there are exceptions and a few days ago my daughter Darcy came home and provided me with one such moment.
“Daddy?” my daughter asked before pausing.
“Yes honey,” I answered and prepared to impart some bit of trite fatherly wisdom, “what’s on your mind?”
“People with brown skin smell funny.”
…and just like that I was completely out of my element. For the next thirty seconds I had what can only be described as a full on mind shart. I think I managed to utter the word “Uhhhh” a few times in an attempt to stall and even had the presence of mind to throw an “Ummmm” in there every once in a while for variety.
“Honey OK,” I started, “OK”, I started again trying to gain some momentum, “OK first things first. It’s not all right to say that you don’t like the way a group of people smell just because they have the same color of skin. It’s mean OK? Besides I’m sure that other people with darker skin don’t smell the same right?”
It was about as much wisdom as I was able to mount at the spur of the moment and it didn’t work.
“But daddy,” she said with quiet resolve, “they do.”
I was spared from another bumbling response when Darcy followed up her statement with a request to watch television. I’ve never been thankful for the short attention span of five year old children but it’s amazing what we can be grateful for in dire circumstances.
It was a welcome distraction and, because I’m not a bigot, I turned on BET to give my daughter a taste of African-American culture while I considered how incredibly ill-equipped I was to deal with this issue.
Like most white middle class people I’ve only dealt with the idea of “race” as a theoretical concept. For the record I’ve put the word “race” in quotation marks because I find the idea of multiple “races” within our species to be a divisive idea. There is only one “race” of human beings. We’re all called homo sapiens and it is a category that includes every single one of us regardless of the color of our skin.
I have my biases. People with more than one cat are just plain strange. I also don’t really care for the Dutch and the Japanese are doing some really weird things with game shows these days but I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly open minded person despite my background.
I grew up in a rural area in the middle of Indiana that was about as diverse as Switzerland. There were a few families from Vietnam, a token Asian couple or two and maybe a sum total of four black families in the town. There may have been a Samoan but I think he left after a few months. It can’t be easy having people take your picture every time you go out in public or asking you how much you like visiting America.
My parents weren’t overtly prejudiced at least no more or less so than anyone else. From an early age I was taught to never judge a person based upon the color of their skin and I thought I’d done the same with my daughter. Her declaration gave me the opportunity to consider the fact that, over the span of my entire life, I had only one person I could ask about this remarkably awkward issue.
It turns out that I’m the white guy who has one black friend. I’m not kidding. Unfortunately she’s also Puerto Rican so I’m not entirely sure she counts. In my desperation I almost gave her a call before I…well I didn’t. I briefly imagined how the conversation would go and quickly realized that nothing good would come of it.
“Hi Maria, it’s Richard. How are the kids? Good. Good. Listen I’ve got a weird question for you. Darcy came home the other day and said that brown people smell funny. I’m pretty sure it’s not an issue of cleanliness but could it be the hair products your people use? Maybe something to do with your skin? I hear that ashy skin is a thing with African-Americans could that be it? No I haven’t thought about fucking myself. Hello? Hello? Are you still there?”
For better or worse I was on my own. I put BET on pause and turned to my daughter.
“Darcy,” I began, “not all people with brown skin smell funny. Remember that boy you were playing with at the park last week? He had dark skin.”
“He smelled funny too,” Darcy said petulantly.
I’ve never had a stroke but I’m pretty sure I know what one feels like. A surge of blood rushed into my brain causing my vision to fade and blur. If the top of my head would have popped off and landed in front of me on the floor I wouldn’t have been surprised. All of my lofty thoughts quickly went by the wayside and I dove immediately into damage control.
“Darcy have you ever told anyone with brown skin that you think they are stinky?”
“No daddy,” she replied with an exasperated sigh, “Can I watch a cartoon now?”
“This is important,” I said and turned her to me, “I want to talk to you.”
I began by asking if she thought that Maria’s daughters, the girls she considers to be her very best friends, smell funny. She said that they didn’t. I pointed out that they also have dark skin. I even had the presence of mind to ask her how she would feel if they told her that she smelled funny because she was white and was rewarded with a look of horror on my daughter’s face in response.
“So it’s not true that all people with brown skin smell funny is it?” I asked hoping, praying my daughter would give me the answer I wanted.
“No daddy,” she said after giving the question some thought and I breathed a sign of relief before turning the television back on.
There will be clearly many more conversations over the next few years about prejudice. With time I believe Darcy will learn with time that her thoughts were inappropriate and downright wrong. In this day and age it’s ridiculous make gross generalizations about a group of people simply because they share something as arbitrary as a skin tone, particularly so many other ways to make assumptions are at hand like type of car one chooses to drive or where they vacation in the summer.