By Dana Williams
As we do every October, my family headed to our community’s annual county fair earlier this month.
While the kids skipped and squealed at the sight of dozens of new games and rides, I smiled and inhaled the familiar scent of funnel cakes, popcorn and turkey legs wafting through the fairgrounds.
As I tried to decide what I would sink my teeth into first, my 9-year-old son and his cousin of the same age pulled us down the midway, eyeing a 25-foot slide with several steep dips. The two boys kicked off their shoes, grabbed burlap sacks and jetted up the stairs to the top of slide.
Again and again, they slid down and over the humps and dips, giggling as they raced to see who could make it to the bottom of the slide first.
A friend and I watched nearby, waiting for them to wear themselves out or spot a new ride to conquer. We just happened to be standing in front of a dunking booth, complete with a loud clown and his sidekick.
Of course, everyone knows the job of a dunking booth clown is to bait the crowd, irritating onlookers with strange noises and annoying comments — just enough to convince folks to spend their dollars trying to hit the target and get him wet.
I was trying to tune out the sound of the clown’s laugh, which resembled that of a stalled engine and a squeaky wheel, when I realized he was trying to get our attention.
”Ahhh, sweet dreams of soul food,” he said. “I see y’all, standing there dreaming about your Sunday dinner, ain’t you? Sorry, folks, I don’t have any chitterlings for you people today.”
We couldn’t believe our ears. The clown was taunting us with racial comments, in full view and earshot of everyone walking by.
Moments later, a group of young, black children walked past the booth, on their way to a nearby ride.
The clown, now taunting the children, started again: “We Bay-Bay kids. We don’t die; we multiply,” he shouted, borrowing a phrase from a popular comedy routine about a family of unruly black children. The kids, recognizing the clown was talking to them but not quite aware they were being insulted, scurried past.
Some onlookers laughed; others frowned with disapproval.
A group of Latino men approached the booth next. “Oh, you decided to take a break from your siesta, eh?” the clown said. He then began rolling ‘R’ sounds with his tongue and insulting the men with comments about performing hard labor and drinking too much tequila.
The men pulled several bills from their pockets and purchased balls to throw. One of the men dunked the clown right away, but no sooner than he climbed out of the water and perched his body back on his seat did he resume the racist monologue.
By this time, my son and his cousin had finished sliding and made their way over to the booth. “Cool, a dunking booth,” they shouted, and begged for money to try their hand at knocking the clown in the water.
We explained to them that the clown was making rude comments to people and told them we didn’t want them exposed to such remarks.
”What’s he saying?” one of the boys asked, but we quickly redirected his attention to another ride and walked away.
When you can’t walk away
Luckily, my son and his cousin didn’t hear any of the clown’s comments that day. But what about the kids who were not so lucky? And what happens when my son and his cousin can’t simply walk away, shielded from such offensive comments by parents or other adults?
Former education secretary William Bennett’s recent comments come to mind. His controversial statements about aborting black babies to reduce the crime rate were repeated and debated on every major news program for days on end. The only way to prevent my son from hearing about the remarks would have been to unplug the television altogether.
Similarly, racist and offensive comments are all too often part of the background noise in schools and public places like shopping malls and movie theaters. Sometimes, relatives and in-laws are the culprits, telling racist jokes or making racist statements.
Parents can and should speak openly and frankly with children about such comments. Here are some suggestions:
* Identify racist, offensive comments: Help children recognize hateful speech when they hear it. Explain why such comments are wrong and how those comments make others feel.
* Start a conversation: Ask your children what they think when they are exposed to racist, offensive comments. For example: “Why do you think that man told such a rude joke about Jews at the party?” Or, “How do you think the joke made the Jewish guests feel?”
* Watch what you say: Be careful to set a good example for your children. Don’t tell or laugh at racist jokes. Be mindful of how you refer to other races or groups of people.
* Speak up: Show your children that it’s OK to speak out against bigoted comments. If a relative tells a racist, offensive joke, ask him or her not to make such remarks in your presence or your children’s. For more ideas, check out Speak Up!, a new guidebook with strategies for responding to everyday bias and bigotry.
There will always be those among us who find humor in demeaning others with racist and offensive jokes or comments. As parents and educators, it is our job to help young people understand such remarks are no laughing matter.