At seven years old, Olivia is beginning to understand the meaning of the civil rights movement in this country and the importance of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During a recent trip to the library, she selected a book on Rosa Parks to learn more.
“If I had been born in the olden days,” she said, “I would be a slave.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because my skin is brown.”
Our conversation presented an excellent opportunity to discuss the history of slavery in this country and around the world. We agreed how ridiculous it is to enslave someone simply because they have more pigment in their skin.
I didn’t think any more about the conversation and Olivia didn’t bring it up. I assumed she had forgotten it, too. Then this past Monday, when I met my daughter after school, I was alarmed to see her walk out of her classroom bent over and shaking. I took both her hands; they were freezing cold.
“Are you sick?” I asked as I led her to a sunny spot on the playground. “What’s the matter?
Olivia started crying. That morning, her class had gone to see a play about Harriet Tubman. One of the scenes depicted a reenactment of the whipping of slaves. “What they did was so bad,” she said, gasping. “That could have been me.”
I held her close and tried to soothe her. The play would have disturbed me, too, but not in the same, personal way it did my daughter. I’m a white woman who lives, primarily, among other white people. Olivia’s experience of the world—and the way she responds to it—is completely different from mine.
After a few minutes, Olivia dried her tears and skipped across the playground toward our car. Our conversation was ended, for now.
Tags: skin color