(EDITOR’S NOTE — 1120 Press is proud to present Gerry Dempsey’s essay, ‘Stomping the Seeds of Racism,’ an essay that, at its core, is about what we are called upon to teach our kids at critical moments. The essay is the eighth installment in the 1120 Press ‘Voices’ series, which aims to give voice to writers from all walks of life. A native of Buffalo and resident of North Carolina, Dempsey is a writer and host of The Smartest Guy in the Room Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts.)
We pulled into the parking lot of the museum early so we could be ready to enter when it opened at 10 am. I prefer to avoid crowds when I can and arriving early gave me my best odds. My kids love museums, a passion I share with them, so I was excited for our visit to the Life Science Museum in Durham, NC.
Claire, my precocious five-year-old, obtained a map of the museum from an attendant who she was now chatting up. She was explaining to the woman her desire to see the lemurs. What’s funny is how engaging the attendant was and while I was tempted to intervene on her behalf, I decided against it. The conversation ended and Claire had herself a new friend.
This museum is one of our favorites. It has wonderful exhibits both indoors and out. Anxiousness swept the faces of the children as they were bombarded with stimuli. How to decide what we should do first?
Claire wanted to look at the butterflies. Quinn wanted to go walk the dinosaur trail. There was a playground with rope walks, balancing logs, and climbing webs. I just wanted to slow time down and watch my kids enjoy themselves.
With map in hand, I let the kids burn off some energy on the jungle gym as I plotted the course. I liked the dinosaur trail, but I also wanted to see the animal sanctuary that included bear, red wolf, tortoises, and, of course, the lemurs. After getting bogged down in the insectarium and the farm animal exhibit, I found myself losing patience, so I took a deep breath and a moment to regroup. There’s a fine line between letting your children enjoy themselves and managing time.
There were several school groups that were interspersed throughout the museum and I did my best to work around them. I’m a bit selfish and wanted my kids to enjoy the exhibits as unfettered as possible. It was kind of easy to do as the groups tended to move slowly and I could see the chaperones struggling with herding the children and keeping them organized. I did not envy them.
We made our way to the deck that sat on the edge of a large pond. Across the pond was the nature preserve. A video camera kiosk with a joystick that allows a person to operate a remote camera across the pond was set up to enable a better look at the animals. When we arrived, we were alone, so my son Quinn began operating the camera while showing Claire how it worked. They immediately started to look for the lemurs. I marveled at how interesting and loving my kids were to each other.
Then, a group of kids from a local public school descended upon us and our peaceful moment was over. The kids were around the ages of 11 or 12 and acted accordingly. They were all black children. What happened next challenged me to the core.
My son and daughter had been operating the kiosk and having fun. But the next second, they were both knocked to the ground after being pushed out of the way by the group as it swarmed the kiosk and the deck. I pushed several of them out of the way to retrieve my daughter. She was bawling and I picked her up as I desperately looked for my son. He was back on his feet and pushing one of the kids while being surrounded by some of the others. I tried to grab him as one of the kids took a swing at him. It took all my resolve not to crack the kid with my free hand.
I directed my son to leave, and we got out of there unscathed. I caught the eye of one of the chaperones who looked apologetic as she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “sorry.” I know kids, and I understood. My mini rage subsided quickly once I had secured my children and I started to think the whole thing rather funny. I pictured myself telling my wife about this incident and, as I often do, looked for the humor in it all.
While my anger was fleeting, my son’s was not. I could see how distraught he was, so I didn’t say anything to him as I figured he just needed time to calm down. We were driving back home, and almost a full 20 minutes after leaving the museum I said to him, “Hey do you want to get a snack or something?” He just nodded “no.”
“Why so quiet?” I asked him.
“I hate those black kids!” he said in a disturbingly low growl.
“I see.” I said.
I didn’t pursue the questioning any further at that point. My son was in a highly emotional state, and I wanted him to have time to sort through his feelings. Outside of my daughter singing to herself in the backseat — (it appeared as if she had forgotten the entire event) — there was no talking the rest of the way home.
I knew my son did not hate black kids. He was hurt and angered by the lack of respect he was shown, and he was frightened. After all, nothing like this had ever happened to him in his short life so I can imagine it was a bit traumatic.
After a few days I revisited what happened. He asked me why kids would behave that way and if, in fact, it was because they were black. I assured him it had nothing to do with the color of their skin and had everything to do with the fact that they are kids.
“But we don’t act that way!” he exclaimed.
“That is true.” I said. “And believe me when I tell you this, those kids probably show good behavior most of the time, too.”
I told him how kids and adults get excited and sometime act out of character because they are over-stimulated. I started to tell him about the book “Lord of the Flies,” then decided it wasn’t a good idea. I also reminded him about how when I stepped in the kids listened to me and calmed down.
“Kids need adults to help them develop a sense of good behavior.” I said. “Those kids are good kids; they were just excited to be out and having fun.” I finished by telling him something along the lines of being forgiving to others when they make mistakes because at some point, he will make a mistake and hope he can be forgiven as well.
How do the seeds of racism get sowed? I pondered what happened in my head and thought about what someone with racial prejudice might have said to his kid? What if my long-winded request for my son to forgive the other children was replaced with a pejorative about racial stereotypes. Is that just another way racial prejudice gets passed from one generation to the next? Then I wondered if this divisiveness will ever cease to be.