When Courtney and I adopted Penelope from Ethiopia in 2012, we knew we would face questions about our multiracial family. We also knew she would face the questions and challenges of being a brown girl in a white family.

What we didn’t expect was to face these questions and challenges at the age of 5. 

I was working at a table in a coffee shop just a few blocks from Pen’s school when the administrator called. She told me a few of her students were being very mean, and felt the need to call me because this wasn’t just another case of “kids being kids.” This was different. Those children told my little girl they didn’t want to play with her because she was black. They even told her they were going to shoot and kill her with a gun. 

Getting this phone call from the school was gut-wrenching. I felt devastated and helpless. I felt so sad for my Pen and how these cruel words must have felt to her. I went back to the office where my wife and I work and shared what had happened. We both stood and cried as we attempted to sort it all out. We decided to go get Pen from school.                                                                                     

Fighting for Penelope 

As Penelope and I were walking back to the office, she told me some of her friends said really mean things to her and that it hurt her feelings. I was wrecked. I knelt down in front of her and began telling her how amazing she is and how much her mommy, daddy, brother, and sister love her. I told her that people can say very hurtful things. I gently reminded her that when people are hateful and unkind, we respond with kindness and grace (not to be confused with acceptance or passivity). We learn this from the example of Jesus. I also told her the importance of forgiveness. I encouraged Pen to forgive her friends and to love her friends, even if they hurt her.

When Courtney and I went to meet with the school administration, I was angry, and my fatherly instincts kicked in: I need to fight for Pen. I realize that me advocating on her behalf is limited in many ways. I don’t presume to be an expert or understand everything that she’s experiencing. But I had to fight for her when she couldn’t fight for herself. We expressed deep frustration and anger over this situation and outlined the steps that we felt were necessary to resolve this incident. This was not kids being kids but a telling sign of a deeper systemic problem within our culture. If not addressed appropriately, interactions like this will be even more damaging down the road.

Heartbreaking Reality                                                                   

Those 5-year-olds don’t fully understand the ramifications of what took place. But it’s still heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking that we live in a world where 5-year-olds discriminate according to skin color. It’s heartbreaking that 5-year-olds have been exposed to so much violence that they tell each other they’re going to shoot each other with a gun. Most of all, it’s painful to consider that this probably won’t be the last time our beautiful child experiences something like this, and we won’t be there to protect her. 

I can teach her what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” She’s the one who has to live out these words. Jesus has to be her model: incurring injustice upon herself and not responding with hate, but with grace-filled truth, secure in the love of Christ. I pray that when she is faced with this again, she will look her offenders in the eye, confront them about their offense, and boldly say, “I forgive you!”

No Small Thing

The next morning on the way to school, Pen was excited to see her friends and play. She had wiped the slate clean, and for that I envy her. Her willingness to forgive is convicting. Both we as parents and the school demanded that Pen’s offenders offer an apology and a gesture to show their remorse. As we walked into her classroom, one of her friends ran up to her and hugged her, then handed her a picture she drew with a note saying she’s sorry. It took all I had to keep it together.

Our multiethnic family hadn’t experienced this racism before. In the American South it’s common to hear stories of children saying racialized things to other children. It’s also common to brush it off as “kids being kids.” Now I know that response comes from someone who’s never had a child bullied or experienced racism firsthand. Never will I be able to say, “It’s just kids being kids.”