I signed all three of my “big kids” up for a basketball class. I thought it would be really fun to put them in a class where they could learn together, so I searched for one that accepted kids age 3-5. The class was held at a upscale community center in one of the swankier areas of Newport Beach.

(I was also hoping to get India interested in something other than dressing up in princess costumes. This is here “I can’t believe you are making me wear pants” face.)

As soon as I pulled up, I got a knot in my stomach. I just had this feeling – an intuition – that this may not be the most welcoming place for two black kids. I literally had this thought as I walked through the door, and had a moment where I tried to put my cynicism and paranoia in check.

The other kids started arriving, and everyone played for a little. India was suddenly feeling shy and clingy, so I was standing in the middle of the court, holding a baby and trying to loosen India’s grip on my pantleg, while most parents were in the bleachers. There were two young coaches, and they called for all of the kids to circle up and hold hands.

And that’s when things started to move in slow motion.

I see Jafta grab the hand of a boy nearby. We’ll call him Jimmy. Jimmy looks at Jafta, and laughs nervously, and said, “That’s a black kid!” Okay, no harm. He is a black kid. But then Kembe tries to hold Jimmy’s other hand, and he refuses, saying “Another black kid? I don’t want to hold hands with another black kid!”

I am mortified. I look at the coaches, but can’t tell if they have heard. Another kid moves into the line and grabs Jimmy’s hand. He reluctantly remains holding hands with Jafta. I don’t think Jafta caught what he was saying. Kembe looked clueless. Since he still speaks primarily Creole, I don’t think he understood. Crisis averted. Sort of?

But then . . . enter another boy. We’ll call him Timmy. Kembe is still standing there looking to hold hands with someone, and it’s the only opening in the circle. Timmy sees this, and the coaches encourage him to grab his hand. But Timmy says, verbatim, “No! I don’t like the brown. I don’t want to hold hands with the brown kid.”

I am stunned. I say, to no one in particular, “We can all hold hands with each other, no matter what color.” One of the coaches coaxed him to hold hands with Kembe. He is still protesting, but holds his hand and finally quiets down when the coach starts talking.

At this point, I’m having of those moments when you can feel the back of your neck getting hot, and your heart rate increasing. I was PISSED. But also, really hurt for my kids. I needed to do something. I took a deep breath and identified the parents of Jimmy (the first kid). Once the kids were distracted and playing, I approached Jimmy’s dad and quietly told him what happened. Jimmy’s dad got immediately defensive. He told me I was wrong – that it hadn’t happened, even though he wasn’t standing close enough to hear the incident. Jimmy’s mom approached and when she heard what I was saying, she got even more hostile. She basically took a “how dare you suggest my son is a racist” approach. I tried to calmly tell her that I didn’t think it was an indictment on her parenting or a reflection of their views. I tried to explain that kids sometimes experiment with power by being exclusive over gender, disability, and race, and that they just need encouragement to be more inclusive. She was totally angry with anything I had to say. It ended with them basically calling me a liar.

Another mom standing nearby approached me to tell me that she heard the whole incident, and that I was right. (Not sure why she couldn’t say that in the presence of these other parents to back me up, but whatever).

At this point, I thought about just scooping up my kids and leaving. It’s one thing to have your kids treated poorly, but it is entirely another when parents refuse to acknowledge or hold them accountable. But my kids seemed to be having fun – I’m not so sure they were even aware of what went on.

I thought about approaching the other boy’s mom, but I just felt defeated from the first conversation. There have been a few times where I’ve had to approach a parent about this kind of behavior towards Jafta. It always goes the same way. Parents are always incredulous that their child could behave in such a way, so they accuse me of lying or exaggerating, or throw my kid under the bus as somehow “bringing it on himself”. After a while, it doesn’t even feel worth it to engage with other parents. It never ends well. No one wants to believe that their kid could be exclusionary about race. Even though most of us watch kids of this age spend a considerable amount of time excluding each other on gender. But somehow, people assume the school-aged sorting and exclusion game magically glosses over skin tone.

After the practice was over, the kids had some free time in the gym, and Jimmy’s mom approached me again. Not in an attempt to apologize, but in an attempt to defend her kid. Because, in her words, “he needs to be protected, too”. (Not sure from what).

What she said next, in my opinion, illustrates the root of the problem. She told me that her son has always been instructed to never point out another person’s skin color – so she was having a hard time believing that he said out loud that my son was black. This was the point where I might have lost my patience a bit, and through gritted teeth I reminded her that he IS black, and that pointing out that he is black is perfectly fine with me and NOT AN INSULT. What was insulting is the fact that he didn’t want to hold the hand of another child because he is black. Probably because he has been taught at home that saying someone is black or brown is something taboo. Therefore, the message sent is that black people are inherently problematic and scary. Too scary to even talk about or name.

Needless to say, I went home feeling pretty sad, and worried about how this dynamic will play out for Jafta as he starts school next year. I won’t always be there to protect him, and teachers are not always equipped to deal with this stuff, either. I’ve certainly sat in a parent-teacher conference where a preschool teacher patted my hand and assured me that “these kids don’t notice that stuff.”

I will say this: if you read this and it makes your heart hurt a little, and if you have children of your own, think about how you can prepare them to be better citizens of the world. I truly believe that our colorblind era of denial is not serving our children well. Kids do see color – and when parents ignore it, the result is that MY KID gets to become the object lesson when parents finally recognize the narcissism and xenophobia in their own child. Children are social beings, and one of the first social lessons they learn is to sort and group. Boys hang out with boys. Girls hang out with girls. If your children shows these preferences, chances are they have racial preferences, too. This doesn’t make them little racists. It doesn’t mean they have a future in the KKK. It just means that they need some gentle guidance from you to be a little less self-centered. And really, is that last sentence what parenting is all about? Training our kids to move from a self-centered infant into a more respectful and empathic person . . . that’s the stuff of raising kids. Racial acceptance should be a part of that.

At a certain age, all kids are prone to leaving others out based on external factors. This can be gender, race, disability, etc. I think kids need help to overcome this natural tendency to seek out “sameness”. I also think they need intentionality, especially when living in non-diverse areas. The kids who were so cruel today? I bet they’ve never played with a black child before. They’ve probably never been in a situation where they were the minority – which is such a valuable experience. The parents have the privilege of thinking that none of that matters, because it doesn’t affect their child.

There is a new book called NurtureShock that puts this well:

How to Raise a Racist
Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.” Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two. Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that [insert your race here] is better than everybody else.

What NurtureShock discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The rule is that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it.
It’s kind of like the sex talk. If we never talk to our kids about sex, they are gonna have to figure it out on their own. Which will probably lead to some not-so-great influences filling in their gaps of knowledge.
So talk to your kids about race. Please. Have an ongoing and frank conversation, and observe their interactions with children who are different. Assume that they will have biases, and confront them when they emerge. Before another humiliated child becomes a public object lesson.Oh, and by the way. Those brown boys that got rejected in the circle? They had a great time.