Anyone who grew up in the early '90s like me probably recalls Bart Simpson being strangled by his loving father Homer in just about every episode of The Simpsons. Sure, it was violent, but it was also cartoonish and hilarious: the gurgling sound of his voice, his eyes bulging out of his head, the wobbling to and fro of his seemingly weightless cartoon body.
Well, one day in Kindergarten, my friend Jamie, a little Black boy, and me, a little white girl, decided to act out that scene from The Simpsons on one another. We took turns being the strangler and the strangled, seeing who could make the more realistic glottal sounds in the back of our throat and doing our best to make our little eyes pop out of our heads. We were cracking up loudly -- obviously not hurting one another, and there was no one aggressor.
Suddenly, we were spotted by the teacher. We turned our unique shades of red and hid our strangling hands behind our tiny bums. We were both "good kids." Not used to getting scolded. And the next thing we knew we were being marched to the Principal's Office, just like Bart Simpson, except we were not serial troublemakers and both felt sick to our stomachs as we marched our tiny legs down the hallway.
As soon as we got to the office, things shifted. I, little white girl that I was, got sent to see the nurse, while Jamie, little Black boy that he was, had to sit with the Assistant Principal until we could both go in and see the Big Lady together. I was confused but figured we'd trade places shortly. That trade never happened. In fact, when we made it into the Principal's office -- after confirming that no damage had been done to my precious trachea -- Jamie was forced to call his mom and explain what HE had done while I sat there and watched like a poor, innocent victim.
HOLD UP!!! My little brain was spinning. I had a good 10 pounds on Jamie, as little girls often do at that age, and that's a lot when you only weigh, like, 50 pounds total. I was more aggressive. More assertive. And I was pretty sure I had won the who-strangled-best contest (and proud of it). Why was he being singled out as the bad, violent and guilty one?? This could only have meant one thing and even at that age I knew it: racism.
"Can I speak to Jamie's mom?" I asked the Principal. Things in public school were less rule-bound back then, so she allowed a very, very outspoken little 5-year-old have her way. "Mrs. W, hi this is Amanda. I strangled Jamie too. We were just playing a scene from The Simpsons . They only got him in trouble and not me because he's Black."
Oh no, she didn't. As you can imagine, his mom wasn't exactly pleased. The Principal yanked the phone away from me and explained that "they hadn't heard that side of the story or they never would have... blah blah blah," which was complete BS. They heard that story. From Jamie. And they didn't believe him... They didn't even ask me what happened other than to see if my poor little white neck was OK.
The good news is neither one of us got in trouble for this incident. The bad news is there was no apology, either. The teacher and principal tried to make themselves -- and us -- believe that this was just a case of misinformation. But even at 5 years old, we knew the truth. They saw him the way that cop in Ferguson saw Michael Brown: Black, male and guilty.
Flash-forward 25 years and I'm on the playground with my 3-year-old niece. We're rocking back and forth on the see-saw when an adorable little Black boy with long cornrows hops on and asks if he can play with us. My niece and I oblige and I ask him a few questions, finding out that his name is Davon and he had just turned 4. My niece was staring at him hard and for a moment, I wondered what she might say. This was two days after the Mike Brown shooting, and thoughts of racism and separatism were racing through my head. The flashback to my own kindergarten incident had reemerged from the recesses of my mind.
"I like your braids," my niece said emphatically -- breaking the silence. "Thanks," Davon said in a shy little whisper before skipping off back to his nearby family.
"He's a boy or a girl?" asked my niece. HA! I thought. "Yes honey, he's a boy. He just has long hair." "His hair longer than MINE," she exclaimed. And I couldn't help but smile at her innocence. She doesn't know about racism yet. She didn't know that he was Black. Heck, she didn't even know if he was a boy or a girl. She wasn't staring at him because he was different. All she noticed were his beautiful, long braids.
But I have to wonder how long this innocence will last. How long before she experiences racism in her own young life and understands that not all people love all people the way they should?What will she pick up from the media, friends and even teachers at school, and from humanity at large?
My mom and dad somehow instilled in me before the age of 5 that racism existed, and that it wasn't right. And we, as grownups, parents, teachers and role models, can't be afraid to talk about it, either. We can't treat racism and other "isms" like proverbial elephants in the room and stay silent, just because we'd like to imagine they don't exist. I was under the impression for the last decade or so of my life that racism was on the way out. MY generation didn't have to worry about it the way my parents' did. But boy, it seems that I was dead wrong.
Rather than become depressed, complacent, hopeless or even just angry -- although anger is merited, we need to use the events in Ferguson and around the country as an opportunity for discussion. Whenever horrible, tragic and very public things happen, they create an opening. An opening in our dialogue and hopefully in our hearts. Don't stop talking about it. Don't let injustice just get swept under the rug or explained away via the labels of "misinformation" or worse, "coincidence." Talk to your kids about what's happening in the news because even if they're not old enough to read a headline, they are old enough to learn this lesson.