The First Day of Christmas: How a 3-Year-Old and I Exchanged Unconventional Gifts

12/10/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I had my first gift exchange this year with a three-year-old child that I don't know. It was memorable, if a little uncomfortable.

I found myself in a long check-out line at the grocery store. There were patrons in front of me. Behind me were a mother and her three-year-old child, and behind them a woman of colour, like me. The child was chatting away with his mother. The lady of colour noticed the exuberance. I heard her say, "Who's this happy little boy?" The child looked up at the lady and said, "My arms and face are white and yours are brown." For a split second everyone froze in check out line. It seemed an awfully strange way to introduce oneself. Everyone in earshot of the comment tried to appear preoccupied.

The mother was so horrified at what her literally blond-haired, blue-eyed child said that she nervously launched into an "everybody's equal" speech to the distracted child. With a look of disappointment, the lady of colour stepped back into her place in line. I know that look. It's been on my face in the past. I wished I were in the express line.

It's not that the mother was insincere, but it was hard to tell in that moment what we were witnessing: a child indexing his environment, or echoing distinctions made along colour lines he learned in the home. Clearly the mental debate had shifted from the child and the lady of colour to a consideration of less defined spaces of race relations, which as a society (and, to be honest, as a global community) we've not yet mastered. Further, based on the uneasiness in the check-out line, I was not the only one suddenly feeling compelled to ponder these imponderables.

I started to feel annoyed. I told myself that I had forgotten an item. I turned in the line to head towards the imaginary item and away from this discomfort. I caught a glimpse of the kid's face out of the corner of my eye. He, of course, looked perfectly fine, but I had an overwhelming sense that the ambient tension was being filed in his little developing mind under the baby version of "race relations."

If I walked away from this situation, I would be complicit in normalizing this toxicity. While we adults have grown accustomed to this field of toxicity, we need not pass it on. I'm sure readers must now be wondering what illusions of self-import would lead me to believe that I had something life-altering to offer here, but I did -- there's always something to do. The problem was that I wasn't sure I wanted to be bothered; after all, I was only here to pay for almond milk and grapes!

I looked down at the little boy and said, "Hey buddy, I like your sneakers." I wanted to see how he would respond to me. He looked down at his shoes with pride, then he said, much to his mother's horror, "Your eyes are brown," and I said, "Yes, and your eyes are blue. Pretty cool, huh?" He smiled, a huge smile. I smiled back at him. As I passed the lady of colour in the line we exchanged genuine smiles of encouragement.

This, believe it or not, was a gift-giving exchange, unorthodox but meaningful. Firstly, I gave myself permission to suspend my concerns about my responsibilities to the past long enough to impact the present. Secondly, I gave the three-year-old boy a temporary human shield from adult spaces of confusion. Thirdly, his genuine smile gave me a reminder that things are not always as dire as they seem and that we have the power to affect history, as we create it everyday. Fourthly, the lady of colour in the line no longer had to feel disheartened by her exchange in the store. Finally, I hope that when the little boy goes to school and meets up with other little people of hued complexion, he will reference this "file" as a basis to feel confident enough to celebrate the human assortment he encounters, like he and I did in the grocery store.

Sometimes leadership and impact are simply about leading yourself to places you'd rather avoid. Personal decisions can have positive public effects. The spirit of Christmas gift-giving and good will toward men made an appearance at the grocery store. Who knew? I'm thrilled; who doesn't like gifts?

On behalf of Cheryl's daughter, our health- and education-focused non-profit foundation and me, a very merry early Christmas to everyone.