01/29/2007 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Free to Judge By the Content of Her Character

It's funny what jars a memory. For me, it was the brouhaha going on across the pond from Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother." Maybe the issue will calm some now that Bollywood's Shilpa Shetty managed to hold her own to the conclusion. I haven't seen the program, either America's or London's version, but the topic of racism had my interest and got me to thinking about a time from my childhood when I had my first encounter with someone whose skin was a color different from mine.

I lived in an extremely rural area in upstate New York where most everyone was a farmer and was Caucasian. Early one summer evening, my parents sat my siblings and myself down and told us that we were going to be having company the following Saturday; my Mom's cousin and her husband would be coming for an afternoon visit. They would also be bringing a little girl that this couple was temporarily taking care of. The little girl was black, which was the reason for the sit-down. After all, the year was 1963 and the country was in an uproar over skin color. It was the same summer that Medgar Evers was gunned down. Chances are we wouldn't have been aware of the riots and deaths, except my parents made it their business to watch Walter Cronkite every night. My parents stressed that the little girl was just like we were except her skin was a different color. It turns out she was eight years old, the same age as I was. For that reason, entertaining her suddenly fell to me.

Finally, the weekend arrived, as did our company. I was prepared to make the little girl feel welcomed. I was prepared to make sure that she knew I didn't judge anyone by the color of their skin. I was prepared to share my toys with her and make her laugh, since I usually tend to rely on humor in an attempt to put others at ease. I figured she probably was sad most of the time, in light of what I saw from the news.

The tentative little girl that I was expecting did not show up. Instead, a headstrong and pushy girl told me what we were going to play, when we were going to play and for how long. She took my dolls, undressed them, and scattered them out in the hay barn. I asked her not to be so mean to my babies while being fearful that anything I said or did would be misconstrued as a judgment of her skin color. As an eight year old, I wasn't quite sure what racism meant, but I knew it was not acceptable, so I figured if I were patient and kind, I couldn't be culpable. If anyone else had done what she was doing to my dolls, I would have certainly told my mother. But she got a free pass because she was black. By the time it was for her to leave, I was relieved, but waved good-bye, as though my long lost friend was going to be sorely missed. I never mentioned to my parents or anyone else for that matter how cruel the little girl was to me; how she pushed me down and made me cry. How she pulled the dolls' arms out of their sockets and thought it was funny. If I said anything unkind about her, I was afraid I'd be like some of the white people I saw on the nightly news who made me ashamed of being the same color. I was too young to process everything that had transpired.

Soon, I put the episode behind me and a month or so later, Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream Speech." I don't think I grasped much of what he was saying until years later.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Now, without any hint of racism or prejudice, I can safely say that little girl's character was, indeed, lacking.

Tragically, that fall, a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama left four little black girls dead. I couldn't fathom that kind of hate, then or now.

And, so, thinking about the supposed sublot that was occurring in Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother," I wondered if maybe racism wasn't the issue on the program but simply rude behavior. Again, I haven't seen the show, and there may be something to it. A way to get ratings, perhaps? Either way, it did call to mind that little girl from long ago. I have no idea whatever happened to her, but I am old enough now to realize that perhaps her cruelty toward me was a defense mechanism for pain already experienced. Or maybe she just took pleasure being mean. Nevertheless, I should have responded to her like I would have anyone else and refused to play with her until she treated me the way every human should be treated.