Prejudice is often born out of fear of the unknown. So let’s turn the unknown into the familiar.
After my fall on uneven pavement in a hotel parking lot, I was a sight to behold. I had a gash over my right eye, a bruise trailing from my eye socket down my face, a gauze wrapped hand, and a booted and bandaged foot. I have known our youth minister’s daughter from the day she was born. We’ve gone for walks around the church gym. She’s played with my dog. We have our own special game called, “Ride-a, ride-a Horsey, go to town. Watch out Paisley, you might fall down!” Yet when she saw me the Sunday morning after my fall, she backed up and popped her fingers in her mouth.
“Paisley, come here,” I called. She pressed against her dad. I frowned, confused. What was wrong with Paisley? What was making her so anti-social?
The news photo of a black state senator from Indiana flashed through my brain. Remember that story? A colleague’s 18 month old son buried his head in Dad’s shoulder when the woman spoke to him. Her reaction was, “You need to get that child out more so he isn’t afraid of black people.” The father responded that the child was like that with anyone new. Hey, Dad, nice cover. But let’s lay aside the political correctness and be brutally honest. Black was different. Black was new. There was a smidgeon of truth to what the senator said.
Very young children are in the process of assimilation and accommodation as they try to make sense of their world. Anything out of the ordinary is confusing and well, scary. Even black people if they have never seen a black person before.
They would be scared of purple hair too. Gray hair. Wrinkles. A missing arm. A speaker of a foreign language. And their minister’s wife wrapped in gauze and sitting in a wheelchair.
I didn’t want Paisley to be scared of me. It distressed me that she was afraid of me.
Suddenly I got an inspiration. “Paisley, you want a ride?”
My attendant caught on immediately. “Here, Paisley, I’ll push.” We lifted the barely two-year-old little girl on my lap and away we went for a fast spin around the church’s Fellowship Hall. Paisley snuggled against me, hardly moving. Was she frozen in fear or was she enjoying the experience? When Bev pulled to a stop, Paisley still sat motionless. Then she got down, turned around, pointed her stubby finger at me, bent her knees and laughed. Everything was ok!
I wonder what would have happened if that state senator had pulled a toy from her purse, made googly eyes at the baby, made a joke about her black-ness, or started to play “Peek A Boo.” If she reached out to that baby every time with love and interest, in no time at all, that child would her best buddy. The problem of racial tension would be relaxed.
Yes Dad, let’s be honest. Your colleague was different. Your child does need to become acclimated to people of all different types—different ethnicities, the disabled, the elderly, the poor and . . . the list goes on.
Yet if each black—or disabled or whoever—person reacts in a negative and hostile manner like the senator, the child will end up carrying the attitude of hostility and prejudice the senator feared. The very thing the Indiana senator wanted to prevent would happen. Each encounter would send the message to the child that people who look like this don’t approve of me.
How can you help children be comfortable with you?
- Talk to their parents about them in front of them, asking questions about them.
- Speak directly to them.
- Ask them about them.
- Let them ask questions. Help them explore and learn. Take them for rides in your wheelchair, let them touch your air boot, show them how to use a white cane, teach them how to approach your dog in a safe manner, or teach them a few words in your native tongue.
- Redirect them from what’s scary and unknown to the familiar. Sing songs with them, play games, show them something interesting from your purse.
- Don’t push it. Be satisfied with small progress and let them come back for more at a later time.
- Do something kind for the child.
It’s my responsibility as a white person, a visually impaired person, a dog owner, even as a Christian to help children and adults be comfortable with who I am. If I am not comfortable with me, I can’t expect others to be comfortable with me. Ending prejudice and discrimination starts with me. My actions won’t cure prejudice. But it sure will help. Like Jesus’ parable of the sower, some seed will never produce no matter where it falls. But we can increase the chance for production if we till the soil and remove the obstacles to growth.
Like a lifeline, Jesus’ love and acceptance undergirds me so I can reach out to those who haven’t yet developed that thick skin of self-confidence. God made me who I am, He sees what I can become and He loves me in spite of how I have allowed myself to stray from His plan. Confidence in His acceptance of me makes it easier to reach across the lines to love and accept others.
Who do you need to make more comfortable with you? What steps can you take to make it happen?
Paisley, you want to go for another ride?