Race to the Table


We are a typical American family.

Sure, we have a lot of kids. (Six.) And we're quite the hodgepodge of race and biological backgrounds. But we deal with the same things other families do. Homework. Relationships. Sibling rivalry. Busy schedules. And despite those schedules—often overlapping and at times chaotic—we manage most nights to share a family meal. Around the dinner table we hash out histories, discuss our day, face our futures, dare to dream. Share stories while passing the pasta.

Like last night.

After dishing up dinner—a giant bowl of spaghetti and meatballs almost too heavy to pass—there were a few rare moments of quiet. Then Sera exclaimed, "Oh, my gosh, I cannot wait for the summer Olympics!"

Sera is our long, lithe, very fast 12-year-old. Picture an East African runner, and you've envisioned Sera. That's her dream.

She went on. "Did you know that Usain Bolt is going to try to break the world record for the 400?"

"That's cool," I said. "And it's your race!"

At that, Sera's 8-year-old brother, Ben, piped up. "That's racist."

Inevitably, whenever a family member comments about someone's physical characteristics, or even their character, one of the kids responds with a snide "Racist." It's done most often in jest, of course, demonstrating how that overused term has, in many cases, become irrelevant. At least here in our house.

Sera, of course, knew what I meant. Her race. The 400-meter, which she triumphed in at the fourth-and-fifth-grade track-and-field day—with a time that could nearly qualify her for high school state track.

I decided to use this as a "research" opportunity for the Classic column I had been asked to write just that morning.

"Ben, do you know what ‘race' means?" I asked.

"Of course. I'm not in pre-K," he said with a sigh, running his garlic bread around his plate in an attempt to sop up every drop of spaghetti sauce. Ben's dream is to bulk up to be a professional football player. "It's how you look. Like your skin."

"So, can I ask you something?" I probed. "Do you ever feel like you're different, like you look different than other kids, because of your brown skin?"

Ben didn't hesitate. "Heck no. I have a lot—a TON—of friends."

I smiled, knowing full well that our little charmer has definite people skills.

"Well then, is there anyone else in your class who you think feels different, or is treated differently?"

"Yeah," Ben responded quickly. "Brody."

I know who Brody* is. According to Ben, Brody already has over a thousand pages logged in reading. And he's an expert on World War II. Brody has definitely raised the bar in third grade.

"How does Brody look different?" I puzzled.

"He doesn't. He looks just like you," Ben said, glancing at my blonde hair. "But he's really, really smart. He knows the answer to everything. I guess he's kind of a nerd. So sometimes kids are mean to him."

I recalled then the time Brody's mom approached me in the grocery store to tell me how much she appreciates Ben's way of reaching out to her son, pulling him into activities on the playground.

Later that night I considered this. Perhaps "race" needs to be put on the table more often. The dinner tables of typical families like ours all across the country. And let the kids control the conversation.

After all, the future belongs to this hodgepodge of American children...

...to Sera, as she runs her race, perhaps becoming someone's hero...

...and to Ben and Brody as they run, together, across the playground.

*Name changed

At times the Orange City home of Doug and Lisa Burg seems like a veritable United Nations assembly. Sera (12) and Ben (8) were adopted from Ethiopia; Anton (12) was adopted from Russia. Tessa (13) is a native Iowan, as are her grown siblings Maria (27) and Isaac (25).

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