The Blue Trash Man

It’s trash day. A big day in our house. My young son gets so excited about watching the trucks operate and waving to the drivers. I never thought that trash day would teach me an important lesson. The instructor? My 2-year-old boy.

Let me set the stage. My son jumps out of bed, looks out the window and sees the trash cans near the curb. He knows it’s trash day. The excitement builds through the morning. He tells me over and over, as only a 2-year-old can, that he hopes the drivers wave to him and honk their horns.

The week that the recycle truck comes by is especially fun. That day, my son has two drivers to greet. As my neighbors know, he always insists on standing outside our house and waving to the men who drive the trucks. And, it’s imperative that we stand out there as the trucks navigate the entire block. Heaven help us if we miss one of the trucks!

Then one day I heard my son refer to one of the sanitation workers as the "black trash man." I tried not to react, but wondered where he picked that up. I did a quick check in my mind. Did my husband or I accidentally refer to someone by the color of their skin? We are well aware that prejudice is learned and try to avoid such descriptions.

I was thinking about what to say to my son to turn this into a learning experience. Suddenly, his next words brought me out of my deep thought. He was now talking about the "blue trash man."

I was struck by the innocence of the statement. That’s when I realized that my precious little boy was not referring to the color of the person’s skin. He was referring to the color of the trash can that particular driver handled. It blew me away. I know I can’t shelter my son from prejudice forever, but I do know this incident reinforced my commitment to avoid prejudicial words of any kind. Lesson learned.

Now, my husband and I pay even closer attention to what we say. When it’s necessary to point people out, we try to refer to them by the color of their clothes. We try not to highlight any physical characteristic. Yet, we slip up.

As adults, so many times we refer to people by the color of their skin or their weight or their height. How many times have you heard someone described as "the heavy, short man?" Unfortunately, it’s often second nature.

If a 2-year-old hears people described by their physical characteristics, he or she is bound to follow suit. And, that may lead the child to think there’s something wrong with that person.

I also know my son learns how to handle situations by watching my reaction. Once we were in a check-out line and the man ahead of us had a prosthetic leg. I watched as my little boy studied the leg. He then looked up at me to see if I was staring at it as well. I acted normal to convince him that nothing was out of the ordinary.

But, I was figuring out what to tell him in case he asked. He never did. I want to believe he just figures people are different, and that’s okay. At least I hope that’s what he was thinking.

I have noticed my son doesn’t care what people look like, he cares about whether they are kind to him. It’s as though he looks beyond their exterior and into their heart.

It may be a bit naive, but my little boy’s statement about the "blue trash man" has shown me how much simpler and kinder the world would be if we could get rid of prejudice and recapture the innocence of a 2-year-old.

Gloria Tran

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