I started elementary school in Germantown, TN in 1980, having moved there from Ohio after a stint in Delaware. It was at this Germantown elementary school that I met a young boy named Robert whom I liked, but just did not understand. Robert was African-American. I’d never seen such a being. Robert and I were friends, but I was concerned about his pigmentation and really wanted to help him overcome whatever condition had colored him so. One day, as we sat together at lunchtime, I noticed he drank chocolate milk. I always drank white milk (since my parents were overprotective Nazis who didn’t allow sweetened cereals or chocolate milk). “Robert, I figured out what’s wrong! You drink brown milk, and it’s making you turn brown, too!” I was proud of my revelation. Robert was not. He told our teacher, who found my comment offensive, and I shortly thereafter found myself in the principal’s office. She called my parents, and an uncomfortable “race relations” seminar was delivered to my ignorant five-year-old self right there in her office. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, and my parents didn’t either, but the teacher and principal certainly did.
Now that I’m a parent, I guess I have one more topic to add to the thousands of conversations to have early in life with our kids: not everyone looks like you, and that’s okay. Don’t try to come up with your own explanation as to why. Unless you like getting being called racist.
This story stayed buried in my head until ten years later in my high school cafeteria. A kid at my table named Greg spilled chocolate milk on his white shirt. I watched from across the table as he realized his error, looked around to see if anyone else had noticed (I looked away), grabbed his friend Ben’s white milk carton, and then poured its contents onto his stain. It didn’t work, but it made me remember Robert and my mean white-milk-only parents, which helped Greg, too, as I told the above story to everyone else at the table instead of calling attention to the ‘tard sitting there with two types of milk stains on his white shirt.
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