Teaching a child about racial differences is never an easy task. Though children are often oblivious to the differences in skin colour, it is a subject that will undoubtedly come up at some stage. I’d had friends from different nationalities and not taken any notice to their skin tone, which is probably why my reaction was such a shock to my mum when I met an African-American lady in the public toilets at our local shopping centre.
As usual, mum was in a hurry to get things done and she was rushing about the shopping centre. I started whining about needing to go to the toilet – and like most children at that age, when I said I needed to go to the toilet, it usually meant that I needed to go about fifteen minutes ago.
Mum raced me to the nearest public toilet and I rushed into a cubicle, while mum waited at the sink. Once I had finished, mum lifted me up to wash my hands. As she put me back down, I moved toward the hand drying machine, just as a lady came out of one of the other cubicles.
She was the darkest woman I had ever seen. She smiled kindly at me and her teeth glowed against her dark face.
I stopped and gaped at her for a moment, until mum told me to hurry up. I turned back to mum, pointing to the woman, who was by then standing at the sink, washing her hands.
“Mum look at that lady, she’s so dirty!” The woman paused for a moment, before continuing to wash her hands without a word.
Mum was stunned into silence for a few seconds, as she watched the dark woman at the sink. Suddenly mum turned and grabbed me around the waist and lifted me up onto the bench.
At first I thought I was in trouble, though I had no idea why.
“Roll up your sleeve.” Mum ordered. I shook my head, thinking I was going to get a rap on the knuckles or something.
Mum proceeded to roll up the sleeve of her own jumper, before grabbing my arm and doing the same. She placed our arms side by side.
“Look at my skin. It’s darker than yours isn’t it?” I quietly nodded in reply.
“Do you think I’m dirty?” Mum’s voice showed no hint of anger (a tone I knew quite well), but she was stern enough to keep me quiet. I shook my head in reply as the lady finished drying her hands beneath the blower machine. She turned and stood silently watching us, which made me nervous. Usually when another adult watched me being spoken to by my mother it was due to me being in trouble and I wasn’t quite sure whether I was or not.
“Well that lady is the same. Just because her skin is darker than yours and mine doesn’t make her dirty any more than it makes me dirty for having darker skin than you do.”
I glanced over to the lady and saw that she was crying. She hugged my mum and thanked her, saying it was the nicest way she had ever heard racial differences being explained to a child. I smiled at her and we shook hands.
Her hands were extremely soft and warm, just like my mums.
I never did know her name, but she seemed like a really nice lady and I felt bad afterwards for being so rude, though I am glad it was explained to me the way it was at such a young age, as that changed my perspective on racism as I got older.
When I played outside (as I often did) my skin would get grimy and mum would always say to me that I was dirty and needed to have a bath. When seeing this woman, it had not occurred to me that her skin was a different colour, in my mind she must have been playing outside and was in need of a wash.