Buying Skin

All children have moments when you think they might have arrived from another planet. Luckily, in those meltdowns, there’s a magic elixir: grandparents. I actually think that my parents might have some sort of natural addictive substance oozing out of their pores that draws my children to them, and no matter the cause of the meltdown it ends when they catch sight of them.

Can I get a hallelujah?

A few weeks ago all three boys were out of sorts, which obviously put me out of sorts. Maybe it was the other way around, but let’s not get caught up in the details.

Everyone was grumpy, so off to the magical land of grandparents we went.

Hugs were given, moods lifted, and we were sent outside to play on the deck while lunch was prepared. Another benefit of mid-week grandparental rescue operations is that they always come with good food. This time it was hamburgers cooked in butter with fresh sliced tomatoes and braised spinach, but don’t worry, the butter was grass fed so it wasn’t too indulgent.

Ahem.

While our lunch was being lovingly (and deliciously) prepared by my mom, I sat with the boys at the the patio table. For the first time that morning everyone was happy. We were enjoying the last few days of our Indian Summer and pointing out our favorite colors in the leaves, chit-chatting about nothing and everything all at once.

Jet, my four year old, rested his head on his arms and looked up at me and said Momma, I’m getting a little tired of my white skin. I think we should go to the store and buy some black skin. I think that would be fun.

When you’re pregnant, people love to tell you horror stories, from morning sickness to hemorrhoids to emergency c-sections, but here’s what people should tell you: when you’re a parent, it is possible for your heart to soar and break at the exact same time.

This was one of those moments.

Jet’s innocence and tender heart make my heart soar. It breaks because I know his innocence won’t last much longer.

Images become etched in our minds. The way the room looked when you had your first kiss; the moment you saw your spouse for the first time; the first time your baby looks you in the eyes; the tears falling from your child’s face when he skins his knee; the aged hands of your grandparents. These images tell your subconscious a story.

A drug addict being arrested; a Cuban child taken in the middle of the night to be deported; a Mexican man being picked up for day labor; a black man holding a gun; the “rough” side of town, consisting primarily of one race. These images tell our society a story.

Here’s the problem though: earthly images aren’t the full story. Our society’s subconscious becomes shaped by the visual equivalent of a sound byte. The image of one gang member forms the collective opinion of all people who look like him. The image of one African American being arrested forms the collective opinion that black people are dangerous. The image of a Latino being deported forms the collective opinion that they’re all illegals.

Stereotypes are formed, fear and hate spread, division continues.

What Jet doesn’t know is that the image of his skin will probably never cause him problems. It is highly unlikely that anyone will look at Jet as a grown man and wonder about his financial responsibility. No one will wonder if he got his job because of affirmative action. No one will assume he’s carrying a gun when he’s pulled over for speeding (although trust me, his mother will have a few things to say about his speeding). If Jet owns a business, no one will be surprised that someone with his skin color could do so. No one will ever look at him and assume he’s a terrorist. No one will look at him and question much of anything.

The image of his white skin will tell a story to the world: privilege.

But here’s what I want the real story to be. Behind his white skin, I want there to be a man who fights for civil rights the way he great-grandmother did; a man who fights the societal assumptions around him; a man who values all people, respects all people, loves all people; a man who understands that his white privilege is wrong, but who uses it for racial reconciliation, justice, healing and peace.

In the last few weeks we’ve begun having conversations with Jet about racism. He’s baffled, but challenged. But Momma, even though we look different we’re the same. What can we do to teach people to love everyone? People need to learn this.

People do need to learn this.

But people have a lot to unlearn too.

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man [humanity] as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear. (Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas)

Earthly images tell stories, but we are created in the image of the one who wrote the Story. All people are living icons, image bearers of God. That’s what I want Jet to know, that is what we will teach him, and our prayer will be Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

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