We were visiting the zoo last Saturday when we passed this family: Mom, dad, two kids. One of them, a toddler a little older than you, was being pushed around in this monstrosity of a wheelchair equipped with wires and doodads as seemingly complex as her health. She wore enormous hearing aids and pink coke-bottle glasses. You stopped in your tracks to stare, quizzical, as she passed. “Pink glasses!” you hollered. I resisted the urge to hurry you on your way. I checked embarrassment, for there was no need.
You weren’t passing unfair judgment, after all. You were taking notice. “Yes,” I said. “She has pink glasses. Do you like them?” Yes, you said. You liked them so much, in fact, that you wanted them for yourself. “No,” I said. “She needs them to see. But I can get you your own pair of pink sunglasses if you want.” And you did. In parting, you hollered your truth: I like glasses, girl! I get my own glasses, girl!
You didn’t care that a portable ventilator made it impossible for her to answer back. You paid your compliment. I hoped you’d carry this same sense of keen observation sans hurtful prejudice, a hallmark of toddlers everywhere, for the rest of your days.
I thought to it when, yesterday, some poster nutbag shot up a JCC in Kansas City. By the time you’re old enough to read and understand any of what I’m about to say, it’ll be old news. Some other poster nutbag will have replaced him in the headlines. And when that day comes, may you never let fear leave you voiceless and paralyzed. For as long as you’ve got the opportunity to speak (your) peace, rest assured, somebody out there is counting on your big mouth.
And well they should. Because you know better. We taught you there’s no good gonna come of treating people like the lesser. You will notice difference. You will respect it. Unless you can’t and sometimes you shouldn’t. (Enter the poster nutbag.) You’ll notice the subtle intolerance as well as the active hate, too. It’ll get you all fired up. You won’t stand for it. You’ll challenge hard and often. You’ll hold people accountable. Maybe even me. And, when that day comes, I’m going be so proud. You’re going to join your voice with other voices for good, and you’re going to behold the transformation.
It’s slow. It’s real. It’s not without reminders that there’s plenty of work to be done: Some so-called “Christian” stands outside a wedding chapel championing marriage as between a man and a woman and making an ill-timed scene as a perfectly lovely same-sex couple is trying to have a day. A brown-skinned guy gets arrested on suspicion of terrorism for being a brown-skinned guy close by somewhere a bomb went off. An e-mail circulates “accusing” the President of the United States of practicing Islam as if it were true (or a bad thing). A YouTube video calls to question whether his wife is actually a woman. A black kid wearing a hoodie gets shot for being a black kid wearing a hoodie. A woman gets raped anywhere in the world for…? The list goes on.
Lots of what I know about tolerance I learned, ironically, from a bigot, who also happened to be your great-great grandma. Sadly, she was dead before she got to see me turn into a terrible disappointment: the sort who has black friends, the sort who champions everybody’s right to love or marry whomever they want so long as they’ve reached the age of majority, the sort who converts to Judaism, marries a first-generation American/Hispanic (and a Southerner!) and raises a kid on feminist storybooks and truth.
The ‘n’ word was her favorite racial slur. I never bought that bullshit that she was too old to know better, either, and I told her so. I told her she was all mixed up, and that she made herself sound as ignorant as she was. I also told her I loved her. I told her I loved her because it must have been true. I cared enough to keep a careful eye on her. Seriously. I was taking it in. She was largely friendless, so no surprise, she didn’t actually know a single African-Amercan, a single Hispanic, a single Jew though she passed misguided judgements against all. She knew a gay person but pretended like she didn’t know she did. (“My neighbor Claire lives over there with her very best friend! But don’t get the wrong idea.” And, the litmus test for gaydom: “They look like women, those two, and they live like sisters!”) Her negativity was pervasive. Her intolerance was intolerable.
And every subsequent generation agreed, taking steps away from ostracizing the “other,” welcoming, embracing, becoming.
May you always know that your home, this home, is one which is open to anyone who brings peace and love. May you speak freely. May we discuss. May we learn. May you feel only the usual first-meeting jitters if you care to introduce your dad and me to your Baptist Black-Asian girlfriend or boyfriend or seriously-truly best friend because nobody you know has to make believe for nothing. You make them feel comfortable. The way they are is, very likely, the way they’re supposed to be – and it’s just fine.
The way you are is just fine, too. And when (not if, when) somebody tells you otherwise, I hope you give your Mama the opportunity to join her voice with yours: to talk back (loud, often), refuse to be held back…to celebrate our freedom now, forever, together.
Chag sameach, baby girl!