A child's guide to dealing with racism

Explaining Donald Sterling, racism & the KKK to the author's granddaughter.
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Explaining Donald Sterling, racism & the KKK to the author's granddaughter.

I've been taking my 9-year-old granddaughter on educational outings this spring. We've toured the Boeing plant in Everett, spelunked the Seattle Underground tour, wandered through the Miró show at the Seattle Art Museum and learned about Seattle's baseball heritage at the "Pitch Black" exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum.

My granddaughter was quite taken with the highlight reel at "Pitch Black" of Ken Griffey, Jr. She knows nothing whatsoever about baseball, but even she was entranced by the Kid's magic. She wanted to know how old he was, when he played. She was trying to put him in some kind of context. She was also intrigued by some group portraits of women on a black women's softball team from the 1930s, the Owls. She looked carefully at their faces to see who seemed happy to be there, and who not.

That scrutiny is not surprising. My granddaughter is African American, and I have been learning a lot about race in Seattle through her eyes. For a time she was in first grade at a Bainbridge Island elementary, one of the only children of color there. One day after school we found her trying to rub off her brown skin. She so wanted to be like all the other kids.

Whites are often eager to declare that we are beyond race and that racism is over, that the color of one's skin is secondary to the content of one's character, but that simply isn't the case. Barack Obama is of mixed parentage, but society picked his racial identity for him.

So too with my granddaughter, who was called the "N" word by a man on Broadway when she was still in a stroller. He was an African American man who, seeing my granddaughter and her white mother, apparently wanted to cut through any illusions. The idea that people have a choice about race is still unrealistic. Society pegs you early and often.

On another outing, my granddaughter and I went to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where we had a great time. There's a fabulous diorama there with model trains where you can look down godlike on a miniature Tacoma. My granddaughter said she wished the people in the display were real and she could be their superhero and take care of them.

We also went to see another exhibit, "Civil War Pathways," that documents the Washington Territory's life and times during the war. Washington's founders fought on both sides of that war, and the issues of slavery were hotly debated here. Last year, I participated in a crowd-sourced research project that scoured 19th-century newspapers to create a database of Civil War-era activities here. Washington Territory was geographically remote from the battles, but not the politics of slavery, secession and union.

My granddaughter asked basic questions about the displays, for example, why were uniforms blue and gray? She was very interested in the life mask of Abe Lincoln from 1860, and we talked about how and why such things were made. She was happy to learn that a slave boy in Olympia, Charles Mitchell, was rescued and escaped to Canada. At the end of the exhibit, she came upon a baffling display — a mannequin in a blue satin Ku Klux Klan robe. "What's that?" she wanted to know.

I found myself trying to explain in basic terms what the Klan was without terrifying her. I got kind of tongue-tied explaining their prejudice against African Americans, burning crosses, terrorism. I tried to say that this was mostly in the past, while acknowledging that they still exist, but are not as powerful as they once were.

Still, on the wall was a photograph of hundreds of hooded Klan members filling a Seattle ballroom in the 1920s. How do you explain all this to a girl whose main topic of conversation is her love for her pet bunny, Mr. Marshmallow?

Nearby we looked in a display case of Klan literature, and I realized the Klan's issues — race hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-government, anti-immigration — are all still with us today, if under different guises. They are on TV every night and propounded by politicians in one form or another in Congress or some state legislature.

In Los Angeles, you even hear it from the owner of an NBA team. On FoxNews, you hear it from the mouth of a supposedly patriotic Nevada cattleman, who posits that slavery was better for African Americans than the alternative.

As I stumbled around trying to explain it, she simply said, "Ku Klux Klan is a funny name. They should be the Ku Klux Klowns." We laughed and she started rhyming and making a kind of impromptu rap from all the K sounds.

I have to say, this was one of our best educational outings yet, though this time I was the one doing the learning. I watched her transform an absurd outrage into humor, to refuse to be intimidated by hate in clown clothes. That's a skill she'll really need as she grows up.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.