In one of the first photos we saw of our son as an infant, he looked presidential. People commented on the seriousness in his expression. In his passport photo at seven months, my husband said, "This looks like his first grade photo." First grade rolls around, and he was right.
This look of his has led to his being sought out at times for photo shoots. When he was three, he did an ad for a local store that ran in the Sunday paper. His hands were in his khaki-pants pockets, an easy smile on his face. He ended up being bored by the process and never asked to do another ad, so we let it drop for a few years.
Last month though, the parent of a friend mentioned a guy she knows who wrote a childrens book about science who needed child models for the book. So our son and two of his friends have spent three sessions doing photo shoots for the book. It was a fun process for them because they got to do science experiments and have good snacks plus just be togther as friends.
Today was the last session, and as the photographer/author was writing my son his payment check, he started to compliment my son. He talked about how easy he was to work with and how photogenic. As he attempted to elaborate, I watched in what seemed like slow motion these words come out of his mouth: "Your son has an intelligent look about him that most African American kids don't have."
Yes, he said the words. I was stunned. I blinked hard and turned it back on him, offering him a way out with, "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, I just mean that he has a serious look about him. His friend has a look of wonder that is really captured on camera. Your son has something different that most kids don't have."
I replied, "I know what you mean, and we have always heard this about him since he was an infant. But I find it interesting that you said what you did about African American children. I doubt you would have said this to me if I were black, right?"
He sorta laughed, "Well, no probably not."
"So do you think that African American children are not intelligent?"
"Oh no, that's not at all what I meant!"
"But you agree that this is what you said. You said that my son is different from most African American children, speficially how you see him as having an intelligent look."
"Well I mean that all children have unique looks and....blah blah blah...." as he tried to cover his ass.
"I encourage you to think before you speak because what you said was extremely offensive and not true."
I thanked him for giving the boys a good experience, got the check, and left.
At home I talked to our kids about what the man said. I brought it up with them because they need to know that many people out there will judge them differently based on their dark skin. We talked about the complexities of internal hidden biases. We talked about how all people have them. My daughter has a bias against nature documentaries; she assumes she will not like any of them before ever experiencing one. My son has a bias against cheese; when encountering anything that is not orange cheddar, he turns his nose up. All people have biases, even nice really nice people. They both talked about how nice this photographer was but that he had a hidden bias against people of color. He never said the words, "I think black people are less intelligent than white people" but this is exactly what he revealed about himself by his "compliment" to my son.
I encouraged our kids to speak up when they encounter a person revealing their hidden bias. In the spirit of treating people with kindness, a gentle confrontation can actually help the person.
I may send a follow-up email to the guy, letting him know the value of looking inward and that despite having a great experience, we will not be working with him again.
And hopefully our kids will speak up.