“I am brown and you are peach.”
Last month, I sat at a table at a community dinner and listened to a 5th grader tell this story of a conversation – confrontation, really – she had in 1st grade.
She didn’t tell us what led up to the teacher’s insistence that the child submit to the idea that she, the teacher, was white and the child was black. It was important enough to the teacher, though, that when the kid went to her crayons and extracted the one that matched her skin and the one that matched her teacher’s skin – brown and peach respectively – the teacher sent the kid to the principal. The principal, it turns out, was also a person who identified as white and the scene of insistence repeated – I am white, you are black – and the crayon-reinforced rebuttal, “No, I am brown and you are peach.”
I can only wonder at why it was so important to these two adults that this 1st grader submit to their literal black-and-white thinking. I have plenty of ideas about their motives and drivers – you probably do, too – and yet they are all guesses without meeting these two women, without worming our way into their minds and guts and fears and the indoctrination they’ve experienced.
It’s tempting to chalk a story like this up to ignorance at best or racism at worst (not that the two are mutually exclusive) but I think there’s something more to explore here, something about the way other people can show us where our sticking points are, our opportunities for growth and learning, for self-exploration. I’ve found that kids are particularly adept at this, at challenging what seems obvious to us, at least until we convince them to mind their Ps and Qs.
(Part of the delight of being with this kid was that it was clear by the sampling of family that was with her that she wasn’t being trained to mind herself; she was being encouraged to speak her mind.)
Beneath the surface of the, yes, racist overtones of this interaction, I hear a common theme of leadership gone awry, people in positions of authorities whose gremlins prod them:
You must always be right (even when you’re not).
You must always be in control (by any means necessary).
These gremlins and the leaders they live within are terrified that if they’re proven wrong, if they aren’t consistently perceived to be in control, that they will lose all credibility and their ability to lead will end.
This is dictionary-definition irony because the more leaders double-down on behaviors provoked by these gremlin messages, the less credible, the less powerful, the less able to achieve their missions they become.
We become, that is. Because, friends, we don’t have to be in professional leadership roles to fall prey to this very dynamic. We all find ourselves, at least from time to time, rigidly sticking to a gremlin message when everything around us is saying, “Hey, I’ve got a different perspective for you here. I’m giving you an opportunity to learn.”
That incredible kid, that young woman who has been added to my roster of role models, was offering those two adults an opportunity to learn, to soften their boundaries of both color-based identity and social-role identity. She was giving them the opportunity to prove their true leadership by modeling learning and curiosity and openness. And they, I’m sad to say, were not up to the opportunity in that moment.
The first step to opening ourselves to those precious opportunities to grow is in learning to notice when our bodies and minds are tightening, when we are reactively snapping on our flak jackets to protect ourselves from the discomfort of having our status quo challenged.
After that, it’s all curiosity. Yes, exactly the kind that kids are so doggone great at modeling.
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