Last week I had a fascinating exchange with a 5 year old. Now in my experience 5 year olds generally provide one with amusing dinner party material as they are unencumbered by social graces or political correctness. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. Like the little girl who looked at her Mum examining her dressed-and-ready-for-work self in the mirror and asked; “why does your bum look so big Mum?” Or when the Grade R class was asked what their Daddy’s did and one child shouted out proudly; “he watches TV all day”.
Now this particular exchange happened whilst I was out shopping for a birthday present for my wife with our 3 year old daughter. We were browsing around a mall when in walked said 5 year old with his Mum. Without missing a beat he headed straight for Lolly and I and blurted out loudly; “why are you peach and she’s brown?”
The question was utterly disarming but not in the way you might imagine. It came across not as being impolite, rude or even racist but as being honest, genuine and brave. What I knew as I responded to this little boy was that – even at his tender age (or perhaps because of it) – he was someone who lives with his hands wide open to the world.
The lad’s mother was mortified: “I am so sorry – that certainly does not come from us!” she said turning crimson.
I bent down next to the young boy whose lip had started to quiver a little and told him that I thought it was an excellent question. I explained that Lolly was our daughter and that she was adopted; that was why her skin was a different colour to mine. I assured his Mum she had no reason to be upset; that her son had been brave to ask the question.
As I reflected on the interaction, I wondered why it had delighted rather than offended me. I am still not totally sure I have the answer to that – such is the profoundness of 5 year olds – but here are some thoughts:
As I mentioned earlier, the question and the innocent way in which it was asked, conjured up an image of ‘open-handedness’ in my mind. Usually open-handedness is associated with generosity, but there are a number of other associations that this little boy brought to the concept:
Firstly, he was not asking the question with any kind of racist edge; he was asking it out of genuine curiosity. Open-handedness suggests an eagerness to learn; to receive understanding; to be ‘shared with’. The question was so disarming because – in general – we do not live like this at all. An eagerness to learn and to understand is often associated with weakness; we wouldn’t have to ask the question if we weren’t so stupid as to not know the answer. In addition to this, we perceive that asking seemingly difficult questions places us in a position of vulnerability – and we generally do all we can to avoid that. So, whilst I know that people look at my family and ask a similar question to; “why are you peach and she’s brown” in their minds, they seldom give voice to that question because to do so would be way too vulnerable. The truth however is that society will not heal on any deep level here in South Africa until we are prepared to become vulnerable with one another; to ask and be asked the uncomfortable questions about one another’s race, culture, religion – whatever.
Secondly, this little boy was not constrained by political correctness which is – by its very nature – the antithesis of open-handedness. It is a stifling and claustrophobic practice that ensures that interactions with people who are different to us are kept skin deep. This young lad cut right to the marrow and in doing so, enabled a real conversation to take place – right there in the middle of a shopping mall. Political correctness is another major barrier to deep healing here in South Africa.
And thirdly that little boy acknowledged difference. This is perhaps the most profound lesson to learn from his question. Unaffected by the improbable and frankly unnecessary notion of ‘colour blindness’, he saw difference and he acknowledged it. You see difference is not to be ignored, it is to be embraced, and we can only embrace difference – or perhaps better put, embrace those different to us – if we live with open hands. And until we do this – learn to understand and enjoy rather than merely tolerate one another’s differences – there is a limit to the depth of the healing that can take place.
When I grow up I want to be just like that little boy – and live with my hands wide open.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.