They were sitting on their little toddler beds the first time I heard one of them say it.

“I don’t like Black people.” said my 3-year-old daughter.

I was horrified. I searched through the crevasses of my mind trying to determine where she could have picked up something like that.

A moment later, one of her two 3 year old brothers chimed in, “I don’t like them either” except he pronounced it “eva.”

My heart raced as I stood there in disbelief but before I had a chance to scold them my third 3 year old added,

“I don’t like black jelly beans.”

We had been giving them jelly beans as part of our new Positive Reinforcement Program. Each child earned a jelly bean for completing a particular task during the day. On a good day they could earn up to 4-5 jelly beans for getting dressed without running away from us, making it through dinner without hurting themselves or each other, or agreeing to get in the car and not cause an accident by getting out of their car seat. After dinner each night we would line up their three jars, each with their picture on it and review their day. Plunk went the jelly bean for each of the day’s events that occurred without trauma or injury. On a bad day, even a horrible day, I would often give a token jelly bean to one of the kids for something simple like not screaming too much at bath time. I did this because as we reviewed the day’s events, often two of the three kids would be racking up those colorful little beans while the third cried the entire time as he raged at his empty jar.

I used the jelly beans that came out at Easter time. I bought near 20 bags of them and would dole out the contents of the bag until it was empty. Towards the end of the bag, the only colors left were black and white and the kids would beg for the white ones.

Black became the worst color you could get. To get a black jelly bean became a kind of punishment instead of a reward.

I thought, or rather hoped that they were just confusing jelly beans with people.

Taking a very serious mommy-like tone I asked them what they meant about not liking Black people.

To my horror, my daughter responded in a very matter a fact way.

“I don’t like Black people because they are bad.”

“Yeah,” her brother echoed.

In my disbelief I questioned them further. “What’s the difference between a Black person and a White person?”

What they said next made my blood run cold.

“Miss Jennifer is a White person and she is good. Miss Tamaqua is a Black person and she is bad.”

They were referring to their preschool teachers.

I calmly explained that people are all the same no matter the color of their skin and what they were saying was very ugly and that made them ugly people.

“You don’t want to be ugly?” I asked them rhetorically.

All three of them shook their little heads no and then one of them repeated, “I hate black jelly beans.”

I felt satisfied that I had done good job executing my parental responsibilities of teaching right from wrong. After all, I was a liberal and a registered Democrat. I had even gone to a poorly attended Green Party rally the year before.

I considered myself a lover of all people and had often bragged to my friends, “Sure I would adopt a Black baby,” that being the truest sign of my liberalism.

I could have said I even have Black friends but that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t that I didn’t want Black friends. I had a Black friend at work once but we never saw each other outside of the job. I wasn’t opposed to having Black friends.

It just seemed like Black people didn’t really want me as a friend. I was just too White.

I listen to Karen Carpenter and Barry Manilow. My favorite television show was Little House on the Prairie.

It was true that I didn’t have any Black friends, however, my kids certainly did.

They were of only a handful of white kids in their school. Their class roster read like the cast list of a Spike Lee movie, De’Andrea Washington, Donell Jefferson, Doneka Black, and Deshonda Watson.

The next morning, it occurred to me that my kids might repeat one of their bigoted remarks at school. I remembered the public service announcement I had seen after one of those Lifetime movies for women. Markie Post comes on the screen, now out of character to remind all of us that bigotry starts in the home. What would the school think of my three little bigots? Worse, what would they think of me?

To insure that I would not look like a terrible bigot mother in the eyes of the school, I took their two preschool teachers aside and told them that the children had said some terrible, hateful, ugly things about Black people and that they had all been spoken to and worse, been denied jelly beans, but more importantly, that I could not imagine where they had learned such a disgusting thing and we as a family were lovers of all living things.

The two teachers looked away nervously and the White teacher said she had never heard the kids say anything like that. The Black teacher said nothing. I was sure she thought I was a bigot, so just for good measure I reminded them both that I was Jewish and a lesbian and no two groups were more hated then the Jews and Gays. Feeling confident that my good name was still intact, I kissed the kids goodbye and left the school.

A week or so passed when the phone rang and the director of the preschool called.

The director asked if I would stop by the office before I picked up the kids.

The director never called parents into the office for good news. Good news was given out in public, in front of the other parents and the teachers. No, this would not be good.

When I arrived at the school, the director ushered me into the office and closed the door behind me the way your boss does when you are about to be fired.

The expression on her face shifted from friendly to sad to concerned. She told me that my daughter had told the other children that she did not like Black people. A teacher nearby overheard the comment and asked her to repeat what she had said. My daughter looked confidently at her Black teacher and said,

“I don’t like Black people!”

The teacher told my daughter that it wasn’t nice to say that and then apparently ran to all the Black employees in the school and told them what my daughter had said. By lunchtime the teachers were discussing how our family were racist bigots and the children were learning this hatred, that’s what they were calling it by lunchtime, at home. The director overheard them talking and that was when I got the phone call.

My first reaction was to say in my own defense, that of course my daughter said that, I warned their teachers this morning when I dropped the kids off. For a moment I was actually angry with their teacher for not coming to my defense and mentioning that.

Then I realized that it didn’t sound as great as I thought. I decided to drop the whole discussion of how I knew the kids were saying that and plead ignorance and shock.

The director said that they were concerned that the other children were hearing these “racial comments” and might start repeating them at home. I told her I would be surprised if the Black children in the class were going home and saying they hated Black people.

The director admitted that she didn’t think the Black children in the class understood what my daughter was saying, however, some of the children were refusing to use black crayons. I didn’t believe that the refusal to use a black crayon would lead to hate crimes but I tried my best to show my concern.

I could see where this was headed: today a black crayon, tomorrow chocolate pudding.

I once again explained that I had no idea where the children would get that kind of an idea.

I thought about what Mr. Rogers had said just the other day. Had he called Mr. Mailman Black? Had Barney singled out the token Black child in the episode and implied something negative? Did Bob the Builder even have one Black friend?

Perhaps I was failing my children. The director said the staff felt our children were not being exposed to Black people. I told her I would do my best to address the issue at home but hoped that she would address the issue at school as well. Overwhelmed with shame over my whiteness, I took the kids and left.

That night I tried to come up with a way to make some Black friends so my kids wouldn’t be bigots. I thought about the Black people I knew from work or other social situations and tried to imagine I how was going to forge a friendship with them. I then would have to find a way to get them to hang around my house enough so my kids would get used to being around Black people. I wondered would one friend be enough to turn the tide of bigotry that was festering in our playroom. Then it occurred to me. What I really needed were Black kids. Where was I going to find Black kids for my family? Then I remembered there are Black kids at their school, maybe even more than White kids. Then I realized they were already around Black people every day. Maybe the school was making them bigots.

After a few weeks my kids stopped saying they hated Black people. They started using black crayons and even ate a black jelly bean once in a while.

At dinner one night a few months later we were eating tacos for dinner and my daughter started picking out all the olives. When I asked her what she was doing she replied, “I don’t like them, they’re black.” Her brother added, “Yeah, I don’t like Black people.”

We were so astonished that we did the only thing we could think of. We told the kids there were Black people in our family and if they hated Black people then they hated our family.

Who? Who? Who? they all asked at once. We looked at each other for an answer and then my spouse blurted out, “I’m Black.”

“Noooo, uh uh, no way,” said the three little bigots.

“Oh yes she is.” I said

I looked to their curious faces. “Her great, great grandfather married a Black woman a long time ago so mama is part Black.”

They all seemed satisfied with that answer and so we said no more.

I never heard them mention anything about hating Black people since, however, I was folding laundry one morning and I overheard the three of them talking to each other. They were watching the cartoon Fat Albert and my son said to his sister, “We have two Black people in our family.”

“Who?” She challenged him.

Dreidel (our cat) and mama!

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