When my daughter started kindergarten, she didn't know anyone in her class. But within the first two days, she started talking about her new best friend, a cute little olive-skinned child. Whenever they saw each other, they hugged tight. When they walked around the track on the playground, they held hands, "so we won't get lost," my daughter explained. When they said goodbye at school, they hugged tight again, their cheeks smashed together as they grinned self-importantly.
My daughter's friend could already count to 100, and she knew Spanish. Her ready smile made me smile when I saw her. I thought she was Hispanic at first. I was thankful my daughter had found such a nice little friend.
"Try to get her to teach you some Spanish words," I suggested.
After a few weeks, someone told me, "I don't know if you know, but your daughter's friend is multiracial."
"Oh, that's fine," I said. "I thought she was Hispanic."
"Her mother is white, and her father is black. I just didn't want there to be any surprises."
"It really doesn't matter," I said louder, almost as if I wanted everyone to hear. It doesn't matter.
"She's very smart. And the family is a nice family. I didn't think you would mind," the person said, clearly uncomfortable with this conversation. "But some people would. When her hair is down, you really can't tell. I just didn't want there to be any surprises."
It wasn't until I was home alone that I saw the sickening irony of the situation. My daughter's friend could have been Mildred, a caramel-colored child who six decades ago had walked into a segregated school, only to be sent back home. Her white family had given her away, and she had been adopted by black parents. Master Potter Sid Oakley had sent me to find this child that he'd never forgotten. Yet even now, 60 years later, multi-racial children sometimes still face a stigma of being born from interracial relationships.
And what would I do if I did mind? Tell my daughter "You can't be her best friend" or "Don't hug her so much." I cannot imagine either scenario, but I know there must still be people who think like that. I've learned that racism can be subtle. "Was he black?" was the first question an acquaintance asked her son when she found out he had been in a fight at school.
Then I started to worry: What if the little girl's parents wouldn't want their daughter to be friends with my daughter because she is white? I've learned there are strong feelings on both sides.
I've come to realize that telling Mildred's story in all likelihood won't change what anyone thinks, even though I've tried to show the love in her story, even though I've tried to show the value of each person. I feel so sad about that.
But when I see my daughter giggle with her best friend, I remind myself that my children haven't learned that fear of differentness. That's four people in this world who may grow up to teach their children that people are people, that everyone has value. And I know that's a start, and that's all I can hope for.
For more on Watts' story, see Lit Local.