I’m going to tell you a short personal story, one that my parents told me because I was too young to remember it – even though I was one of the central characters. Both my parents are gone now, and I wanted to preserve this story, not because it says anything about me, but because it says something about how we learn to hate and fear those who are different ... or not, if we've got good role models.
When I was 3 years old, my father got a one-year job as a visiting professor of American politics in Sydney, Australia. On our way there, we stopped at a South Pacific island and were greeted by a bellhop at the hotel. He was a tall, bearded man with dark skin and a friendly smile. He was probably in his twenties or thirties.
I know this because I’ve seen a picture of him. In the photo, which is probably stored away in the attic somewhere, I'm standing next to the man, holding his hand. Dad enjoyed taking photos (a favored pastime he handed down to me), and he liked to show this one as part of his living room slide shows long before the era of PowerPoint and YouTube.
Anyway, the story, as my dad told it, went something like this:
We were checking into this hotel, and the aforementioned gentlemen asked to help us with our bags. I stared up at him and pointed, then turned to my parents and said, “He’s different.”
Mom and Dad were aghast. They thought sure I’d noticed the man’s dark skin and had made the kind of rude remark that children who “don’t know any better” tend to make.
But the next words out of my mouth immediately put everyone at ease: “He’s got hair on his face.”
What if I had remarked about the color of his skin? Is there really anything wrong with acknowledging our differences? I don’t think so … as long as we also acknowledge our common humanity.
Children who “don’t know any better” are too often taught to “know worse” by adults who use differences as an excuse to demean people who aren’t like them.
I’m thankful my parents weren’t like that.
A funny postscript to this story: My dad, the following year, grew a beard of his own. I later followed suit, not to be like dad, but the opposite – to be different. At 17, most other guys in my high school didn’t have one, and I liked the idea of having my own identity.
Identity is important. So is respect. I may not have known that yet when I was 3 years old, but my parents taught me that over the years.
We can celebrate our differences and our commonality at the same time. It isn't hard. A child can do it.
Author's note: Dad’s birthday is coming up this month, and it will be the first year I won’t be able to celebrate it with him. You’re still making a difference, Dad, even if you’re no longer here to see it.