When my son Zach started kindergarten, he made friends with two boys named Sam. One day in September, as we walked home from school, I interrupted his report on a particularly complex game of tag to ask which Sam was involved. "Sam from 101," he said, referring to the boy's homeroom. I felt a pang of guilt because in my mind I had unconsciously categorized them as "black Sam" and "white Sam" and had expected my son to do the same.
My 5-year-old still saw the world through rose-tinted glasses where we are all the same color, but I had to learn to differentiate them as Sam from 101 and Sam from 102.
I'm a big supporter of Black History Month. I believe in celebrating every culture in this wonderfully diverse society. Yet when I look at my young son, I find myself wishing to postpone the day when he loses that rosy view of the world - to hold on just a bit longer to an innocence that seems to pass so quickly.
Last February the kindergarten class put together a play about Rosa Parks for Black History Month, and Zach was called upon to be a racist on the bus. At the same time, I noticed whenever he summed up the day's African-American History Month lesson he often followed up with, "But lots of white people supported Dr. King, too, right?" I reassured him that his grandparents marched with Dr. King, they had fought for open housing in our all-white suburb, and both his father and I had worked to elect the first African-American mayor of our city.
He seemed so eager to hear this that I wondered whether it bothered him to have to pretend to abuse his friends every day in rehearsal. But when I asked him he said no, he only wished he had more lines. "It's not fair that Tessa gets to be the policeman, and I only stare out the window," he said resentfully.
All of this laid the groundwork for a lot of discussion at the dinner table, and afforded us the opportunity to talk about important values we want to instill in our son.
But I still had a nagging feeling we were tearing something down prematurely, because Zach seemed to be naturally color blind. "What happens if you have a white mom and a black dad?" he asked me one night after one of these talks. I pointed out two sets of friends who fit this description - whom he sees often. But he'd never noticed that one parent was black and the other white.