Shortly before she passed away last year, my mom recounted a story to me. Although I had heard the story before, in hearing it again, I was reminded of my mother’s deep desire to do her small part to bring reconciliation and healing to the area of race relations. She saw everyone as equal, valuable, and gifted. She and my dad modeled kindness and respect toward everyone, no matter where they worked, no matter where they lived and no matter what they looked like. There was no fear in forming relationships with people from other countries or nationalities, and there was no fear in taking steps to defend those in need of support.
When I was in the 1st grade, we lived in Pasadena, California. It was a quiet neighborhood full of people with different backgrounds, different interests, and with different skin colors…and I never noticed. All I knew was we had lots of nice friends on our street.
Spring days in sunny California were just beautiful. All the children on our street were outside running and playing as soon as school was over. I was outside playing with a bunch of neighborhood friends one day, and everything was going well. Suddenly, I ran into the house crying so uncontrollably that my mother thought I was hurt. She urgently asked me, “Sweetheart, what in the world is the matter? Tell me what happened?” Between big breaths of air I blurted out, “Mommy, Mommy, She told me I don’t have any color! Mommy what does that mean?” My little heart was broken, and I didn’t understand why. My feelings were hurt, and whatever the child had meant, it was said in a mean way, like something was wrong with me. My mother rocked me for a few minutes because rocking was good for just about anything at our house. While she held me, she came up with a great idea.
Next, she warmly gathered my little group of friends and a few of their moms that had come running when they heard the loud crying, and she told us we were going to have a fun art lesson. She got out a bunch of her art supplies and brushes. She prepared by squeezing out several shades of light brown, dark brown, off white, pink, and white paint onto her palette. We all watched and waited. She proceeded to explain to all of us that mixing paints together to find different colors was lots of fun. “Let’s mix up some paint colors and find the color that matches each of our skin colors. We can start with mine.” – (big smile).
“Ok,” she continued,” people would call my skin ‘white,’ but does this white tube of paint look like my arm?”
“Noooooo,” came a chorus from all the little people in the room.
“That’s right. We have to add color.” She added a little burnt umber and a dash of pink. “Is that the color?”
“Nooooo.” She kept mixing with her palette knife until the color matched her arm. Then she continued around the room mixing colors for each child there until we all agreed that she had each arm color correct. She pointed out that we used a little brown to get the color for “white” skin and a little white to get the color for brown skin. There were shades of white and brown in all our skin colors.
She modeled some important lessons that day. One was that everyone has color in their skin. We’re all the same. We all have color, just different shades. The differences in our skin colors can draw us together or pull us apart.
The second was to teach us how to handle a situation where people are uninformed. I have found this to be true in the area of adoption. People often ask rude or overly personal questions about our daughter from China. They make assumptions about adoption that are incorrect or even insensitive. Sometimes, but not always, these simple questions or comments reveal their deeper feelings of racism and bigotry.
An example of one such comment we received right after we adopted Joy was “So… you got yourself a different brand, huh?” My husband and I were flabbergasted that a person in this day and age would even think such a thing let alone say it out loud. However, we realized that people in that small town were not familiar with international adoption and knew no one who had adopted from overseas. They were unaware that their comments were offensive and their biased feelings were showing. Differences make people feel uncomfortable and afraid, and a lack of information often produces hurtful words.
I learned long ago that a kind redirection or short gentle explanation of the facts helps people understand more clearly an area that they really know nothing about. Love and truth together move things forward not backwards. Love without fear heals.
A third lesson, I see now as an adult and mother myself is that my mom was wise to draw in the mothers in the neighborhood when there was a problem of that nature. Because of how she grew up in the deep South, she knew the need the mothers probably had to participate in the art lesson with their children. Many of these mothers were women “of color.” She knew these neighbor ladies had experienced their own painful experiences from growing up in the 40’s and 50’s. They had also heard firsthand the injustices done in their parents’ lives.
I love Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, famous proclamation that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Making MLK’s dream come true requires a God-sized healing of racism that only He can accomplish, but we get to participate. We get to turn the tide the other way whenever we can by showing love, kindness, and respect to the people around us. My best understanding of racism is that it is the judgment of a group of people as a defense mechanism stemming from fear. Fear is the root. The judgment of racism is the soul’s attempt to address the fear. Most people learn this in their families, but others can learn fear and bigotry later in life.
I am so grateful for this spirit in my mom that wanted to make a difference, wanted to bring healing to a broken system. She loved in such a big way and valued everyone she came in contact with. She wasn’t afraid of differences but always tried to see the good in each individual. I have tried to raise my children with these same ideals: lots of love and little judgment. Modeling for them a lifestyle of showing respect to everyone you meet: from the trash men to the CEO, the fast food employees who have trouble with English to our local congressman.
One time when I was about ten years old, I gushed to my mom, “Oh Mom, I want to be just like you when I grow up!” She gently replied, “Oh honey, I will disappoint you. Who you really want to be like is Jesus! He is our perfect example, and He will never disappoint you.” I am thankful that she always pointed me to the Lord, the source of all truth, and the best example of loving without fear.
The following is a poem my mom wrote 25 years ago when she went through a period of creative poetry writing. She communicates so clearly the struggle she sensed as a little girl, the mixed messages that created confusion, and her determined spirit to wait and seek the truth.
Loving without fear,
I Don’t Get it?
I don’t get it, Reverend,
If what you say is true,
If black folks is so different
How come they act like me and you?
Sure their skin’s a little darker
I know their eyes are brown
But how come they have to live
On the other side of town
I don’t get it, Mamma,
If colored people ain’t like us?
How come they have to pay the same
But ride the back of the bus?
Okay, I promise I won’t marry one
Cross my heart and hope to die
But didn’t Jesus say we’re all the same
In the sweet bye and bye?
I don’t get it, teacher,
Our bones are different, too?
My momma said your cleaning woman
Looks a powerful lot like you.
Daddy, I don’t see no difference
Honestly, I really tried
I’m beginning to wonder now
If maybe someone lied.
They say, ”There ain’t no ladies
In the colored part of town.”
But then we all know good and well
The white folks sleep around.
I tell you what I’m going to do
I’m going to wait and see
Meanwhile it sure appears
They look a lot like me.
Pat Mercer Hutchens