talking to kids about Martin Luther King, Jr., race relations, and ethics
As with everything, I launched into it without much thought. "You see," I told the boys one night last week, "many people in this country used to think people who looked different than them -- with darker skin or different hair or different-shaped noses -- weren't as good as them. They even sometimes thought they weren't fully human, like animals or something! Isn't that awful?"
"That sounds pretty stupid to me," said Everett. He's the oldest, seven-and-a-half. Emboldened, I marched on, describing how people who needed to make decisions they weren't totally comfortable with -- like owning people, treating them horribly as slaves, making them do the worst work and endure terrible living conditions -- used this ethical trap to convince themselves it was o.k. "If they believed it, then they wouldn't think of themselves as so mean and awful," I said. "And it made them feel good, to think of themselves as better than these other people."
Lately, I've been referring to Hitler in a few different contexts, telling Everett the story of the man who put the heads on Pez (I had discovered he'd ended up working for the same Nazis who had sent his entire family to their deaths in concentration camps, after the war, and been stunned by this) and another story about the man who first put jigsaw puzzles on cardboard, making them available to the masses (his family, too, had needed escape from Nazis; we don't know if they made it).
It's context that I feel the kids need to understand why Martin Luther King, Jr's speech is so important -- why it is I still cry when I hear it, for the umpteenth time -- how our generous minds let us take cruel shortcuts, sometimes, without owning up to the cost. How we build up a whole infrastructure around this cruelty, laws and societal norms and unkind jokes, to protect our fragile consciences from the truth.
I see how this framework of thought can be applied to many other sorts of arguments; why, for instance, we as a society ignore the costs of our resource use because it's too hard to take apart what we've built. Why we screw up our eyes and say "thank goodness we don't live in California" when we see a recall of nearly a million pounds of ground beef; and continue to buy Value Packs from Safeway, sweeping the knowledge of the infrastructure that supports these enormous swaths of contamination from our conscious mind.
It's probably too heavy for Two-and-a-Half and Four-and-a-Half. But I generally don't buy the argument that we can be race-blind; it's certainly impossible to escape the influence of the great legion of our culture's injustices in even the most cursory literary or cultural experience, whether it's coloring pictures of MLK Jr. or looking at parents who wept as Barack Obama was inaugurated or talking about why some of our friends' parents can be married, while others can't, and others won't due to principle or reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and untangling the bits about Indians.
As usual, I'm jumping without a lot of contemplation and then over-thinking. But I'd be interested in your take on discussing these weighty issues with kids; and I'd recommend, even though it's targeted toward an MBA audience, Robert Hoyk's amazing book on the 45 ethical traps and why we fall into them. It's a text to which I continue to return to inform my thinking on the sorts of things I used to try not to think about.