Australian father Ryan Heffernan opens up about the breathtaking day his young son expressed racism and how a vision of Nelson Mandela stealing TVs saved the day.
NOW I can tell you for sure, racism in kids is very similar to French Foie Gras in ducks. Both kids and edible birds have to be sickeningly force-fed just the right ingredients to produce certain outcomes. Only difference is, when the pair is finally plated up in front of us, the duck guts look like shit but are divine to the palate. The kid remains pristine and unblemished to the eye, but what they have to say can taste like shit.
Since my 6-year-old boy was very small, just a little baby, I have pondered, on occasion, when his glowing beauty, breathtaking innocence and unquestioning faith in others would be corrupted. At what point would he start to make “judgments”, based on both genuine and sad social truths along with the stereotypes fed to us by those nearby and those telling us how (they think) it is, from mainstream media and popular culture? For my boy the time has apparently come now. I found that out recently when we had walked to the local laundromat to wash our stinking, smelling fortnight-old clothes. I was waiting by a machine when I noticed my son wasn’t. He was waiting outside the doors, so I called him, but he didn’t come. He looked unusually withdrawn, and in no way defiant, so I went to him and asked him what was wrong.
He said verbatim: “That dark man is inside.”
Quite surprised I said: “That’s okay, what’s wrong with that?”
My boy said: “Dark men steal from other people and they get in trouble.”
Whoa. I looked inside and there was a bloke sitting quietly who was in his mid-to-late 20s. He seemed to me to be of African descent with very dark skin, dressed conservatively in a button up, plaid, short sleeve shirt and jeans with clean-cut hair. Not that dress code and grooming is an indication of much. But I was assuming he wasn’t “packin’ heat”, lookin’ to pull drive-bys in upper-middle class Sydney, on a horridly wet Sunday morning.
So I had to pause. This is one of those moments where not only are you smacked back and knocked off guard, it’s also a moment where you want to respond just the right way. This was pause for even more thought because, no doubt, I’m a racist of some kind too. “Look mate, having dark skin doesn’t mean that you want to steal things or be bad. That man isn’t hurting anyone, he’s just doing the washing, the same as us,” I said, as Louis continued to keep an eye on his imminent threat inside. “People with any colored skin can do bad things but not many people do bad things anyway. Whenever we meet new people or we’re around new people we shouldn’t think they are bad unless we know for sure that they are. We should treat them all the same.””What makes you think this man would do something like that?” “I don’t know Dadda,” he shrugged. “Where have you seen dark people get into trouble…”
Then the penny dropped. This is all my fault. “Is this something you have seen on television at night time?”
“Yeah that’s what happens on television Dadda.” And it is my fault. It’s daylight saving in Sydney through the warm months which means my son has a later bedtime. Between 8.30 and 9pm I let the television carry on with nightly smatterings of US crime dramas. The Black List, Blue Bloods, various, CSIs, NCIS, Law and Order SVU and so on.
Some of these shows routinely involve dark-skinned characters in drug dealing /petty thief/violent thug roles we’ve all no doubt seen sometime throughout the several decades of TV police drama. We don’t focus on these shows because we’re usually chatting and carrying on. But they are on and there is no other place I can imagine he could have been exposed to this kind of stereotype. I know for a fact he can’t yet tell the difference between reality and drama because he still has to ask me which is which. Anyway, we both moved inside and sat on a bench seat next to the “Dark Man”.My son seemed to forget all about his concerns and began flying his little A380 toy plane around more like he was sitting down next to an old white lady than the formidable “Dark Man”.
As it turns out the “Dark Man” was an impatient and bordering on hostile when he became openly irritated. As Louis flew his plane he was huffing and puffing, on the seat before he eventually got up and left. But that’s beside the point and his cranky behavior is hardly restricted to race. Then, while we waited, I remembered. My son and I had spent a very long time talking about Nelson Mandela when he died. “Son, I want to ask you something.” “Yes Dadda.”
“Do you reckon Nelson Mandela stole stuff?” I asked directly.
He looked at me stunned. Then a twinkle broke in his eye and we both burst out laughing.
“Do you know Nelson Mandela loved running? Imagine him running down the street, then diving through someone’s window and coming out with a TV and making a run for it.” By now he was bent over and couldn’t speak he was laughing so hard. “And what about if we walked home now and Nelson Mandela was in our lounge room stealing your Star Wars light saber or watching your Harry Potter movies and eating your ice cream?”Stop it Dad, that’s too much!” He really said that.
The funny thing is when Mandela died we didn’t speak about him in the context of race, other than the significant fact that apartheid and racism were his focus in life. But those were the specifics. He could have been an eco-warrior and the discussion would have been the same. What we did celebrate was the lengths to which Mandela went to bring peace, forgiveness, love and goodness to all of our worlds and to always put his money where his mouth was. We also considered that he spent a disturbingly long period of time in jail (my son is fascinated by jails) and then went on to become president of his nation.
“So do we think that all dark people steal and do bad things?”
“No Dad that’s just silly.
“Can I have some ice cream?”