Hey, did you know we’re Mexican?
says the little girl at craft table at the library. She couldn’t have been older than six. Her little friend across from her dropped her scissors, mouth agape.
Don’t you call me that!
She was clearly insulted and the table fell silent, all eyes on the offender. She averted her eyes, but there was no place to go. She and her two friends had been told to stay there and color and stay she did. Just before hurling this horrendous insult, she had been happily counting and singing . . . in Spanish. Clearly, neither she nor anyone at the table had any particular issue with the country of their obvious heritage until it was named.
After a long moment of silence, the third girl leaned in and whispered, “It’s called Hispanic. We’re Hispanic.” With that, the tension eased and they went back to their playful chatter about school and television and friends. They forgot about that dirty word.
She may as well have said, “Hey, did you know we were spics?” Or niggers. Or chinks. Or any number of racial slurs. I can’t help but wonder how a child growing up Hispanic in an Hispanic home with Hispanic friends, watching Dora the Explorer, who happily sings songs in Spanish in the library learns that Mexican is a dirty word.
This is socialization. Learning what is “other,” labeling it and trying to make it conform. This is the “leavening effect of democracy” which compulsory schooling offers. It does not teach us to value difference, but to conform. It does not teach us to handle conflict, but to submit to the capricious and cruel tendencies of small children with inadequate supervision.
Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and I would be the last to argue against teaching our children how to function within our social groups. Socialization is a natural part of being human. But how do we best teach this to our children? Seated in neat rows while the teacher talks? Or perhaps better seated in circles? On the playground while an adult with a whistles chats with an aid and watches for any grievous rule breaks? Or within the context of the family where true, selfless love can be experienced alongside daily modeling and guidance specific to each child’s needs?