The tears are not an uncommon site among girls her age so no alarm bells were immediately ringing in my head. You see, we all know how young girls can tend towards the side of being emotionally fragile where feelings can be easily hurt. I have heard them described as immature (a description I have used myself at times). I will be completely honest. My first thought was that someone had made an innocent comment that she projected onto herself and this immature girl was not handling it appropriately. I was quickly reminded again to never judge a book by its cover.
This girl continued to walk away from the crowd in what was becoming a torrent of emotions. I excused myself from the conversation I was having and walked slowly toward the girl. Her face was filled with red splotches that appear when people have an emotion their face can’t contain. The tear stained eyes told a story of hurt and pain. My presence did not stop the flow of tears as she wiped at her eyes with hands that could not take away any of what she was feeling.
I asked of this girl a simple question that any adult would ask but received an answer that continues to haunt me nearly 24 hours later. As I simply asked what was wrong the words first came out in an unintelligible fashion. It was a mishmash of emotion as the girl could not utter what it was that had produced the tears. I leaned down to her level and looked this girl in the eyes to provide a presence to calm her. I soon realized what I saw in those eyes was much more than pain and hurt and tears. I saw a vulnerability that appears when innocence is lost; a vulnerability that signals some uncomfortable truths about the human condition in which this girl was all too quickly receiving a lesson.
Empathy is a lost virtue in this culture. It certainly is lost on me far too often and I find that is usually the case because by nature we seem to only care about the issues that are personal to us. But, if I remove myself from the man in the mirror and can begin to listen to the stories by which people are personally affected maybe, just maybe, I can be moved more often to empathy.
As I stood eye to eye with this young girl this feeling of empathy began to take its hold and would increase as the source of vulnerability was revealed. This girl was standing with a group of “friends” when an African-American person close to their age walked by. Cordial good-byes were shared among the group and this person retreated toward their destination. It is an encounter that happens time and again millions of times across this country. However, as this PERSON walked away the stinging words of a “joke” would pierce the heart of this girl as someone uttered, “He needs to go back to the cotton fields.”
And there she stood, innocence stripped away as the stories of racism she has heard about and believed only existed in the annals of history were now staring her in the face. Now comes the added presence of peer pressure as the others gave approval to the “joke” with their laughter. Here is where we adults tend to make a mistake because we think peer pressure only exists for those trying to survive adolescence. How wrong we are!
If you are being honest with yourself you are probably being reminded and replaying in your mind a moment where you were confronted with something similar and as the peer pressure mounted your demons shouted down the good intentions of your better angels and kept you silent. As I type these words those moments are replayed in my head as I stood quiet, giving tacit approval and perpetuating a culture that would rather avoid the fruit that comes from virtuous confrontation.
So, there I stood on the precipice of a lesson that would come from the most unlikely of sources: my daughter. This story is not the story of some child from yesteryear. It is the story of a 12 year old living in today’s progressive society. A society where racism is accepted by calling those who speak against it as being politically correct, or in 12-year old parlance, being unable to take a “joke”.
See, this girl I am so proud to call daughter did not cower in the face of peer pressure or wilt in immaturity as I had assumed. No, this girl that is all of 4 feet and 9 inches tall and is maybe 70 pounds dripping wet stood as tall as a California redwood. She put her head directly in the mouth of the lion by simply commenting that this was not funny and should not be said. Her “friends” did not agree as the orator of these words said he had all manner of black friends so was free to “joke” as others rallied to his cause and told her to stop being offended. Funny, how 12-year olds reflect the culture they see.
So, the girl, feeling the tears welling up decides to simply walk away so as to provide no further fodder for the cannons. She had spoken the truth, so had done all she could do. This girl walked among the giants last night and taught me a lesson. Culture changes when committed people take real action no matter the circumstance. Lord, grant me the courage to walk in the example of this amazing little girl.