Hard Conversations about MLK Jr


Wheeeeew…, deep exhale. Last Wednesday we had our first conversation with Evelyn (age 6) about racism. This is the second of very hard conversations we have had recently, the first being the one I had when my grandfather was nearing death. But this one, seriously, was a difficult topic.

A few days ago I felt convicted that the way in which we were disciplining and communicating with Evelyn was not working. She is now six and enrolled in public school so much of her emotional and social behavior is changing. Our methods and assumptions about her had not matured along with her. My bad. Thankfully, I prayerfully asked God to help us learn more about her and find ways to deepen our relationship with her. And then came Wednesday.

At school lately they have been discussing Martin Luther King, Jr because the holiday was coming up. The school had already told the students that he was killed and that someone had shot him. This was mildly alarming as I wasn’t quite ready for Evelyn to be talking about guns and murder. We are a family with a police officer parent so this was perhaps less dramatic or shocking than it could have been for another family. We did not press the issue at the time either due to our normal, hectic life or simply being unsure about what to say. And then came Wednesday.

On Wednesday, we had one of our favorite nurses with us. Evelyn loves our nurse, a younger guy from Kenya. She often speaks of him as her best friend and jokingly says that she will share her room with him so he can stay forever. We enjoyed sharing our Thanksgiving meal with him at our table and he has also introduced us to African donuts and some amazing meals with lots of curry. (I had no idea they used curry so much and I now know how much I love curry). That evening Evelyn was in her usual playful mood with him and all the kids were creating chaos around his nursing station. We had planned to have a picnic in Charlie’s room so that the entire family, plus the nurse, could be together. As we busily gathered the food, we heard the words slip from Evelyn’s sing-song voice, “You will be dead…just like Martin Luther King!” She skipped around him and our eyes grew to the size of saucers. Cameron quickly rebuked her, “Don’t ever say that! Apologize to him now!” She was silent and terribly confused, unsure about what error she had made. I told her that we do not joke about death to any person.

There was a brief moment that I found to pull her aside into the privacy of her room. As best as I can remember, this is what I said: “Evelyn, what do you know about Martin Luther King?” And as I had assumed, almost nothing. “Evelyn, do you know what skin color he had?” Yes, it was dark, like the nurses. (Our four primary nurses are Kenyan, Nigerian, and black American.) “God created people with different skin colors. Some are dark and many times we call that ‘black’. Some are lighter and many times we call that ‘white’”. A long time ago, there were lots of problems with white people being mean and hateful to black people. And even today, you will still find people who don’t like someone because of the color of their skin. Evelyn, I’m sorry but this is a very heavy topic to talk about. This is not who we are. But sadly, a white man shot and killed Martin Luther King because he hated people with black skin. That man was full of hate and evil. We do not hate black people. We love them. Our nurses are practically our best friends, right?” With this her eyes began to fill with tears at the mention of such a hateful act. I tried to help her understand how jokes can be in poor taste: “Many people love Martin Luther King because he preached that we should love everyone no matter what their skin color is. And to make fun of someone who is a hero to many of us, is not a good joke. In fact, people get their feelings hurt. We are Christians and we love Jesus. He is our hero. If someone made a joke that you were going to be dead like Jesus, doesn’t that hurt your feelings?” Again, more tears and she nodded and I knew she understood. And at this our conversation was over. I told her we would vow to always be nice to others no matter what they look like. I told her that our nurse would not be mad at her because she is a small child and he knows that small children don’t understand these heavy topics.

For the first time after a rebuking of her behavior and actions, she returned to normal quicker than we expected. She and the nurse continued to play and hang out as if nothing had happened. I sat down, exhausted, and prayed to God that this truth will be so deeply ingrained in her heart that she will NEVER be accused of hate, racism, or malice.

I praise God for helping me explain, as best as I could, such a harsh concept. I owe a lot to the reading of Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, which had so many examples of her father explaining hard truths to her and also for how she handled others who respond with hate towards other humans.

There will be more hard conversations with our children. I think I can predict a few but some will be these terrifying “Wednesday episodes” so I hope my heart and mind is ready to respond with truth and grace. And hopefully my jaw doesn’t become completely unhinged with the words that fall from her mouth.

For those of who are white families with small children, how have you explained racism to preschool aged children? Have your children been able to create close friendships with people of differing ethnicities? I feel privileged and grateful that our nurses are mostly all African with different skin color and also different languages. Our house is better for it every day.