My oldest son—now 11 years old—was quiet when I picked him up from school through the car circle. He was in second grade at the time and sat with hands folded in his lap, staring out the window, lips pursed and body rigid. I studied him through the rearview mirror for a while.
“How was your day, Gabriel?” I asked, tentative.
“Fine.” His response was curt, abrupt.
“You look upset about something,” I said. And that's when the tears came.
"A boy in my class was being mean to my friend today. He doesn't like her because she's a different color. I didn't even know she was a different color. She's just my friend."
He sobbed as he spoke. I forced my eyes from the rearview mirror to the road, fighting back my own tears. I'd long known this day would come, though I had no way of pinpointing exactly when.
"Gabriel I'm really sorry," I started.
"I don't understand what's wrong with my friend's skin!" Gabriel retorted.
"There's nothing wrong with her skin," I said. "This boy probably heard an adult say something about skin color.”
"But it's wrong!" Gabriel exclaimed.
"Yes," I said. "It is wrong, and the best thing you can do is continue to love people for what's in their hearts."
"I don't understand why he has to be this way," Gabriel said, resigned.
"He doesn't, but he doesn't know that yet," I said. "When the people around you think that way, it's hard to see differently. And in the past, a lot of people have thought that way. In fact, a long time ago, your daddy and I couldn't be together because we have different skin colors."
"Mommy you and Daddy don't have different skin colors. Daddy is dark brown and you are light, light, light, light brown."
I couldn't help but laugh. My son's innocence was refreshing.
When my husband and I had first learned we would have a son years earlier, we made an agreement to be open and honest about race. As an interracial couple, we wanted to ensure our child could talk about race without apprehension. We also wanted to make sure Gabriel understood the truth of his heritage from both sides.
We do this through age-appropriate conversations about slavery, discrimination, and hate speech. But we also talk about our own experiences with race. My husband, who is darker than the majority of his family members, talks with frankness about his past struggles with skin color. I talk about the misdeeds of my race, and my own family's hangups around race.
In today's sometimes volatile environment, we don't shy away from the tough conversations. We talk about some of the harmful comments by politicians or people in the media have said about immigrants, people of color, and women. We explain to Gabriel why those comments are harmful to all people and we invite him to add his own viewpoint to the conversation.
We're careful never to chastise him for his views, but instead, invite him to explain them to us. We also do our best to present him with differing opinions. That way, he learns that people can disagree with him, and vice versa, in a respectful way.
In creating a safe space where race is a neutral subject, Gabriel feels free to be honest and ask questions.
Today, Gabriel's empathy toward others astounds me. Last year, a new student found it difficult to make friends, and Gabriel picked up on her anxiety. He decided to show her around for the day, and introduce her to his friends. One of his teachers was so touched by his actions that she emailed me to tell me about his willingness to set an example for others.
My husband and I know our talks about race are far from over. With an almost 2-year-old coming up in today's world, we'll have many more conversations ahead of us. We also realize our conversation isn't over with Gabriel, either.
Race is a layered, heavy topic, but I’ve found that the best way to create open dialogue is to make it a part of everyday conversation.
Today, Gabriel knows that brown and light, light, light, light brown are percieved a little differently than he once thought. He understands that he didn’t create the racial tensions that exist today, but he can be a catalyst for change.
Gabriel, and so many of the children growing up in this world, represent a chance for change, a glimpse of hope. They are our future, and while everything may not even be close to perfect in this country—I am hopeful because of our youth.