Last night my 4-year-old, Isaac, told me he hated his skin color.
Two weeks ago, my boys started full time daycare after being home with a nanny. I knew there would likely be a tough time of adjustment, but Isaac seemed to be acting out in especially angry/mean/ frustrated ways over the last few weeks. My husband Tony and I have been overwhelmed by his behavior. We have been talking to him about how he is feeling regarding this transition to see if there is anything he can tell us so we can help him feel less anxious. But he just pushes us away and continues to be upset and act out. I mean, he is only 4, so I realize that he isn’t really mature enough to be able to process and discuss his thoughts in the same way adults do, but we still want to pursue that connection and model how to talk about our feelings with him.
After another long, hard day of acting out, I sat with him in his room for a long time at bedtime to see if he would talk to me about what is causing him to be so angry. After spending some time reading books, he said this to me, “Mommy, I wish I wasn’t here. I wish I wasn’t built. I want to be turned off and disappear or be rebuilt into some different boy. I wish I didn’t exist. I want there to just be nothing.”
Shocking, right? He doesn’t fully understand the concept of death, but he does understand how electronics and robots work and he was basically telling me he felt like he wanted to be turned off. I can’t explain the shock I felt at hearing him say this, but when he began to explain “why” he felt this way, I was even more shocked.
The first thing I did was tell him I was so sorry he was feeling that way and calmly asked him why. He sat quiet for a few seconds and then said, “Because I don’t like my skin. I want to be white like you. My skin is too dark and I want to be rebuilt into a new boy with white skin.”
My 4-year-old said this to me.
In the past Isaac has pointed out that he notices differences in skin color and we try to talk about how awesome differences are and how cool it is that we aren’t all the same. So he’s not new to understanding differences. In my shock, the first thing I told him was that he was perfect just the way he was and his skin is beautiful—that all skin was beautiful no matter what color. I knew this feeling had to have come from someone telling him his skin color was bad, because he has never ever said anything like this before.
And I was right.
My skin is too dark and I want to be rebuilt into a new boy with white skin.
I asked him who told him his skin color was too dark and he went on to explain that a little girl in his class had told him that she didn’t want to play with him or be his friend because he wasn’t white. She told him she only plays with white people and that she doesn’t like dark skin and that dark skin is bad. Another boy in his class told him the same thing.
You all, my heart broke right in half and a rush of anger welled up in me as tears filled my eyes. I wanted to pick him up and put him right back in the womb where no one could ever make him hate himself so much that he wanted to not exist, or be rebuilt, or run away.
Four. Years. Old.
I’m going to be totally honest with you — I did not see this coming. Isaac’s features are certainly unique and represent both his dad and me, but his skin is quite fair. It’s not like it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be treated differently because he comes from a multi-ethnic background, but it still took me aback. I did not expect my 4-year-old to tell me he was rejected because his skin was too dark.
He went on to tell me that she told him this every day and that some other kids in the class told him this as well. I did my best to talk him through all this, but I was totally unprepared to have this discussion and knew I needed to get his daddy. When Tony walked in the room Isaac pulled the covers up over his head and hid. He refused to talk to his daddy about it and said he only wanted to talk to me. Tony gave him a quick kiss and went back downstairs.
I asked more questions to try to get as much information from Isaac as possible, and he went on to tell me that dark skin was bad and he didn’t like it, except for his daddy, and that he didn’t want to have dark skin and wanted to be white so he could have friends. He told me he wanted to be friends with this girl because he liked her so if he wanted to be her friend he would have to change.
In middle of our chat, Isaac walked over to the lamp by his bed and put his arms in the light and said that he liked the light because it made him feel like his skin was lighter, but he didn’t like to be under the covers where his skin looked dark.
Then it got even worse.
He told me he wanted to not exist anymore and be made into another boy or he was going to take his backpack and run away from home.
Four. Years. Old.
I stayed and held him for a long time telling him how much I love him and how perfect he is the way he is and that I am just so sorry for how he is feeling and what was said and how very wrong those things are that were told to him. He just told me he was so sad and didn’t like people anymore.
I am so beyond upset about this right now I can barely stand it. We are going to do all we have to do to right this wrong for Isaac, but let me be really clear on this: Racism is still here. It is here and being modeled to our children.
This little girl and any of the other kids in Isaac’s class were not born disliking anyone because of their skin color. It is not her fault and I am not mad at her. But I am mad at the situation and what caused a situation like this to happen in the first place.
I can’t tell you how many people I have recently seen say they don’t hate black people. They say that hate is wrong. They say they know black people or other people of color and they don’t hate any of them.
Hate isn’t really the biggest problem here, is it? That little girl didn’t say she hated my son. She just didn’t want to play with him. She realized they were different and she didn’t want to spend time with someone who wasn’t like her. And that was enough to make my son feel inferior. To the point where he wanted to be rebuilt and if he couldn’t be, he would just run away.
After what happened in Charlottesville, we can see that there are many people who are filled with hate towards another race. People who unabashedly believe that their race is superior. It’s easy to see that rhetoric and say, “That’s not me. I don’t hate anyone and I don’t even see color.”
And that’s the problem. When others experience injustice, it’s easy to ignore it because it doesn’t affect us personally or just say, “Wow, that’s terrible. I’m glad I’m not like that.” And go on about our day.
But the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy.
It’s our unwillingness to truly care about what happens to people that aren’t like us. If we don’t care enough to allow deep (sometimes painful) self-reflection, lay down our own need to be right or heard, move towards those who are different from us—with no other agenda other than to love and learn —and just believe what they have been telling us all for WAY too long, that there is a problem, then we are part of the problem.
Our apathy keeps us and everyone around us in bondage. My shock over all this tonight only highlights the fact that I will never fully understand the pain and torment black parents in this country go through worrying for their children before they were even born and then forever after. But I did get a small taste of the experience.
And I hated it.
The word “privilege” has been thrown around so much that people immediately dismiss it, but just because folks won’t acknowledge its existence, doesn’t make it untrue. But I realized that because of my own privilege, I never once had to feel rejected, left out, or hated just for my skin color. I have never truly deeply hurt in my heart, mind and body over racism until last night. Because it had never affected me so closely before. I was totally unprepared to have this talk with Isaac last night because I have spent very little time worrying about how racism and apathy will affect him. Since I don’t experience this kind of treatment—ever—I don’t think about it unless I see a news story scroll across my feed.
My shock over all this tonight only highlights the fact that I will never fully understand the pain and torment black parents in this country go through worrying for their children before they were even born and then forever after.
That is privilege.
And that privilege isn’t a bad thing. It’s not a dirty word or something to feel guilty about. But it is a responsibility. When I see others who don’t have the same privilege as me, I can ignore it (APATHY) or advocate for them (LOVE).
Seeing the anger and hurt overflowing from my son this week—in his own way trying to handle all this in the only ways he knew how—I feel devastated for his heart. My son with the beautiful light in his heart who has never met a stranger, who loves people and will talk to anyone, has been told he isn’t enough because of the color of his skin. He wanted so badly to make new friends at his new school that he decided to hate his color and be angry to be stuck in his skin.
If you don’t have to watch someone you love with all your heart, struggle to accept their skin color and love who they are…
That is privilege.
It’s the small, mostly unspoken ways we tell our children and the rest of the world that skin color or differences in general are to be feared. That people who look, talk and think differently are dangerous. It’s the times we see someone a few shades darker than us walking down the sidewalk in front of us and then quickly grab our child’s hand and hurry to cross the street. It’s the times when we think our children aren’t paying attention to every single thing we say and we have no idea our children are taking that information and forming their understanding of those around them with it.
So please — please — acknowledge it. It’s not about shame. It’s about acknowledging that by no virtue of your own, you have something that many others don’t have and will never experience. Because if you don’t, your apathy will offset your love.
Tony and I are going to talk to the daycare about this, make an appointment with a therapist for Isaac so he can get some help with his feelings and be much more purposeful in talking to him about diversity, race, differences, and what really matters when it comes to friendships.
Sometimes our heart has to break wide open to unleash a well of compassion we didn’t know was inside. And that compassion will flood out our apathy and move us to truly see, value and love those who aren’t like us.
This essay originally appeared on Facebook.