Ivan Natividad: When the teacher becomes the student
When my son asked me why black people are so cool, I didn’t know how to respond.
We were getting into my car Friday morning to head over to his school and, as he buckled himself up, he said “They’re so cool,” and he began to do a dance in his seat mimicking a video he was shown of a black person doing a hip-hop dance.
“They’re the coolest,” he added.
I sat in the driver’s seat for a second trying to think of how to explore the unchartered territory of parenthood that I was about to delve into.
Let’s just say he was going to be late to school that day.
First off, I was surprised that it was something I would have to talk with him about at his age. As a child, I don’t think I was curious about anything in reference to race until an older age. It wasn’t really until I experienced racism in the third grade that I had my own questions, and they were questions my parents never really answered for me.
So how was I going to explain to my 5-year-old son that it is wrong to make generalizations about people of the same ethnicity because of a YouTube clip someone showed him?
How do I explain that sometimes stereotypes can kill?
And how do I explain to him that mimicking the way someone dances based on their race can be offensive?
So before I attempted to delve into all of that, I asked him a simple question — “What do you mean by that?”
He then proceeded to describe my cousin Jan Michael, his uncle, and how he dances cool like the person he saw in the video.
“Uncle Jan is like that too, black,” he said.
His Uncle Jan is not black.
Turns out he saw that video of the person dancing and it reminded him of his uncle because his uncle is a really good dancer, and in his eyes “really cool.”
He was still associating certain characteristics with the term “black,” which I had to explain to him was wrong, but it wasn’t a racial thing to him.
All of those questions I previously had seemed to fade into the background. I was overthinking as usual.
I realized my son, with his pure little brain, was seeing two people that he thought were cool and categorized them together, not because of their ethnicity or skin tone, but because they could both dance.
An assumption he made based on their actions, not some preconceived racial stereotype.
That said, I still thought as his father I had a duty to explore the thought of generalizations in a way he could understand.
As I drove off, I went into some spiel about him and his sister and about how just because they have similar physical characteristics as siblings, they are still different, and it’s wrong to assume something about someone just because they have the same hair, or skin color, as another person … and on and on and on.
He was pretty silent the whole time and I wasn’t completely sure that he was listening to me as he was fiddling with a toy he was bringing to school for show-and-tell.
“Are you listening?” I hollered.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I beckoned.
He responded saying “Papa … In many ways we are different, but in so many ways … We are the same.”
Before you start with the baby Buddha talk, he was quoting a song from the popular children’s television show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
Nevertheless, it was impeccable timing given the conversation. I responded saying, “Yes. That’s true too.”
The rest of the car ride was pretty silent. The song rang over and over in my mind and I began to think about my own pessimism and if it was playing a role in my parenting at all.
I couldn’t help but laugh about the fact that the words of a cartoon tiger made me reflect on these things.
It wasn’t necessarily the song, but the fact that I was trying to teach my son something I thought he should know, and yet he ended teaching me something I already knew.
The whole conversation also made me realize that maybe I shouldn’t always project my societal perspectives onto my children. I don’t need to explain everything about the world to them all at once.
I can just let them be kids, and address their curiosity by answering their questions with more empathy, compassion and optimism, while focusing on what connects us all, as opposed to what divides us.
And hopefully, as they grow and become older, they can figure out the answers to their own questions … and maybe more of mine.
To contact Digital Editor Ivan Natividad, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4242.
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