Black Lives Matter.
A lot of the things I write are quite light-hearted, but this one’s on a serious subject. It’s still a work of fiction, but it aims to look at where prejudice comes from and how we can combat it.
I hope this story makes you think and that we all take Miss Abebe’s words to heart.
Miss Abebe looked around her classroom, noting how the six-year-old children were working happily in small groups. Children this age were so uncomplicated – just look at Candice with her corn rows and beautiful black skin taking charge of her group and telling blond haired Tommy and redhead Archie how to do things properly! These little ones had no concept of racism: to them, ‘color’ was something to use in their artwork. They had never heard of George Floyd; had no idea that many adults in the world they lived in were too narrow minded to see the person, not just the outer skin.
Clapping her hands for attention, she made the children gather round. “We’re going to play a game,” she told them. “Do you remember what happened this morning, when I asked you all to write down your favourite color? Well, you’re going to be in two teams – the Purple team and the Green team.”
There was a buzz of excited chatter.
“Purple’s the best!” Candice told her friend Shanelle. “My lunchbox is purple and I have a purple shirt too – look!”
“I’m going to read out some names,” Miss Abebe continued, “and then I want those children to come and collect their purple sashes.”
As she handed them out, she narrated why it was so great to be in the Purple team. “Purple is a special color. It’s the color of royalty. People who do well in school are the people I choose for my special Purple team. When you wear a purple sash, you get to make important decisions and you can boss the Green team around. Purple team members are smart – they know more than the Green team kids. You can trust Purples, but you can’t trust Greens – watch out for them in the schoolyard in case they try to steal your lunch money!”
Candice sat on the mat, her lip quivering, wondering why she wasn’t allowed to be on the Purple team. Everyone always said she was the smartest girl in the class, so why wasn’t she Purple?
“And now the Green team,” Miss Abebe went on. As Candice and the remaining children collected their sashes, Miss Abebe told them about what it meant to be Green.
“Green is a negative color,” she began. “We talk about people being green with envy and say that jealousy is a ‘green eyed monster’. If someone is stupid, we say they’re ‘green’. Green team members are lazy. They didn’t work hard enough to be on the special Purple team.” Candice’s eyes widened in horror. “And they’re mean.” Some of the children let out shocked gasps. They knew that it wasn’t good to be mean. “If a Green kid tries to ask you something,” their teacher made her voice low and scary, “don’t trust him or her. And if you think a Green kid might want to hurt you, yell for help. Green kids are bullies.”
The Purple kids began to look worried, regarding their Green peers suspiciously and wondering why they hadn’t known until now that Tyrone was a bully or that Candice was lazy.
Miss Abebe smiled at everyone. “It’s time for recess. We’re going to keep our team sashes for the rest of the day. Off you go and have fun.”
Walking around the schoolyard, she watched as the Purple kids automatically grouped themselves together, confident in the knowledge that they were the special ones. The Green kids, meanwhile, stood on the edges of the yard, watching enviously as their Purple peers threw softballs or jumped rope. At one point, Candice wandered over to where Tommy and some of her other friends were having a boisterous game of tag. “Can I play?” Candice asked shyly.
Tommy and the other Purple kids looked at Candice’s green sash and shook their heads. “We don’t play with Green kids,” Whitney told her loftily.
Miss Abebe’s heart broke as Candice shuffled away, crying.
As the class streamed back in after recess, Miss Abebe made them all sit down and listen to her. “I have some sad news,” she said, her voice serious. “During recess, someone came into the classroom and took my special paperweight off my desk.” The children automatically looked at the spot where their teacher kept the pretty glass shape. “Did any of you take it?”
The room was silent.
Miss Abebe tried again. “Do any of you know who might have taken it?”
Arche’s hand shot up.
“Yes, Archie?” She made her tone gentle.
“Uh, I think someone Green took it, Miss.”
“And why do you think that, Archie?”
“Everyone knows Greens are sneaky!” Arche declared. He glanced around the room, secure in his Purple status. “I’ll bet it was Candice or Tyrone or …”
“Come here, Candice,” Miss Abebe said, her voice stern. Inside, her heart was thumping. Would the little girl ever recover from today’s lesson?
Numbed by shock, Candice stayed where she was.
Slowly, Candice got to her feet. The few steps to the front of the room seemed like the longest journey in the world.
Once Candice was standing, head bowed in shame, in front of the class, Miss Abebe asked a question. “Who thinks Candice is guilty?”
Several Purple hands shot up without hesitation, but Tommy looked troubled.
“Why isn’t your hand up, Tommy?” The teacher hoped and prayed that he would do the right thing.
“I …” Tommy looked confused.
“What color is she, Tommy?”
“She’s Green, Miss Abebe.”
“And what do we know about Greens, Tommy?”
A tear trickled down Candice’s face.
Slowly, Tommy removed his purple sash and handed it to the teacher. “I don’t want to be Purple anymore,” he said in a shaky voice, “if it makes me do mean stuff to Green kids who are my friends.”
“Yeah!” Ben removed his purple sash too. “It’s dumb to treat people like that just because they’re a different color.”
“You’re right.” Miss Abebe drew a deep breath. “Who agrees with Tommy and Ben?”
Several children put their hands up; others weren’t sure.
“Archie,” Miss Abebe continued, “you said ‘Everyone knows Greens are sneaky.’ What made you say that?”
“I … uh … well, you told us, Miss.”
“And until today, would you – would any of you – have called Candice sneaky?”
The children shook their heads.
“And if I’d asked you to give me one word to describe her, what would you have said?”
“She’s kind,” someone called out. “She always lets me use her glitter markers.”
“And she’s smart,” another child added. “She knows more than anyone else in this grade.”
“She makes me laugh.”
“Did she stop being all those things,” Miss Abebe asked, “just because she put on a Green sash?”
The children thought for a moment.
“No,” they chorused eventually.
“But did any of you Purples talk to her at recess?” their teacher wanted to know. “Did you play with her? Did you treat her the same as yesterday?”
Most of the children looked at their shoes.
“Think what Ben said just now,” she reminded them. “He said, ‘It’s dumb to treat people like that just because they’re a different color.’ You know that now, but as you grow up, you’ll see that lots of people in the world around you do treat people differently because of color.” She turned to the board. “I’m going to write two words. The first word is ‘prejudice’. I want you to say that after me: pre-ju-dice.”
“Pre-ju-dice,” chanted the class.
“Prejudice is when we pre-judge people. That means we decide what they’re like before we know them – like me telling you that you can’t trust Greens. Your ideas of who was special and who was sneaky were based on the things I told you about those two colors – I told you purple is the color of royalty and green is the color of jealousy; but what if I’d swapped it around? What if I’d told you that purple is the color of a bruise? Would you want to be Purple then? And what if I’d said that green is the colour of grass and trees; that it symbolises life and hope – would that make you think being Green was special?”
She turned back to the board. “Our second word is ‘racism’. Say it with me: ray-si-sum.”
“Ray-si-sum,” the class repeated.
“Racism is when we pre-judge people because of the color of their skin. I look at you and you are all so special. Tyrone is the fastest runner; Candice is the smartest child in this class; Ben is really hard-working; Alyssa has a lovely smile …” One by one, she named every child in the class, narrating something positive for each one. “Right now, we all get along and it doesn’t matter that some of us, like me and Tyrone and Candice and Isaiah have black skin; and that others like Archie and Ben and Matilda and Poppy have white skin; or that Su-Lin’s skin is different again. We know that color isn’t important.
But as you grow up, you will realise that some people in the world, and especially in our country, America, don’t see things that way. They act like you did earlier when you thought Purples were special and that Greens didn’t matter. In some places, a black person can’t walk down the street without being seen as dangerous or a thief or a liar – just because he’s black. And in the same way that Archie thought Candice had taken my paperweight just because she had a green sash and ‘Everyone knows Greens are sneaky’, some people will say similar things about people like me: ‘She must have done it ‘cause she’s black and we all know you can’t trust black people.”
She let those words sink in.
“None of you here were born racist. None of you are racist right now. Racism is something that is learned – just like you ‘learned’ from me that purple was ‘special’ and that you shouldn’t trust anyone with a green sash. But you have the chance to make a difference: you can choose not to believe it when other people tell you racist things; you can choose to stand up for others and treat them with respect, no matter what color their skin is, whether or not they look like you. Our lesson today showed us how much we can hurt other people just because they’re part of a different team – well, class, we’re all on the same team: we’re all part of the human race, and that’s a team made up of different shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds and religions and cultures – and it’s wonderful.
I want each one of you today to think about what I’ve said, and as you grow older and go out into the big, wide world, remember this day and remember that we should never treat people differently because of color.”
Once more, she looked around the room.
Twenty-four pairs of eyes looked back at her solemnly.
“Remember,” she repeated, “you can make a difference.”