I lived in Minneapolis in my early/mid twenties. It really is a big, diverse city, that also attracts people from more remote and rural parts of the state. At no fault of there own these small towners are exposed to a totally new world when they visit the twin cities. I remember being absolutely shocked when my blond haired-blue-eyed boss at Kelly Services accompanied me on a client visit to American Express and wondered aloud "what is that?" upon seeing the token menorah display in the lobby. At first I thought she was kidding, but quickly realized she had probably never met a live Jew before.
It was during this time that I heard my favorite morning radio hosts facilitating a discussion about a small town four year old and her mother who were visiting Minneapolis for the weekend (probably to oooh and ahh over the atrocity that is The Mall of America). Mother and daughter hopped on a city bus, and were surrounded by more diversity than they had seen in their entire lives. We are talking real life black people! The little girl opened her mouth and to her mother's horror said in an ever-so-loud voice "Mommy why does that person have brown skin and funny hair?". An innocent question, but it made everyone on the bus uncomfortable. The radio hosts were debating what mom should have done in that situation. This was pre-kid for me, so I am sure I had a whole host of opinions, none of which were probably all that practical.
Well my time finally came. That moment when my own child mortified me in a public situation. Zack and I were at the local King Supers doing our weekly grocery shopping. Zack was in the cart that was fashioned into a race car. He was busy steering and beeping while I was comparing prices on canned tomatoes. A large man was standing next to me and brought to my attention that this week the smaller cans were a better deal. I thanked him, and he began to walk away. It was at that moment Zack informed me "Mommy that man is FAT". I immediately scolded him and told him " Zachary, never say that, that is not nice, you could hurt his feelings". Zack responded "but why mommy? He is a big, big boy". UGGGGG. I don't know if the shopper heard us, or if he was out of ear shot, but he didn't turn around or respond. I continued to tell Zack that it isn't nice to call someone fat, and he continued to not understand why, after all it was true.
Later it occurred to me that perhaps I was doing society a disservice with my reaction. Zack was really only stating the obvious, as he often does. In his mind he might as well have been telling me "you have short hair" or "sponge bob lives in a pineapple under the sea". He wasn't attributing any value to fat, and he really wasn't saying anything that we didn't already know. It wasn't as if with Zack's comment the man would look at himself for the first time and realize that he was in fact a couple hundred pounds overweight. But it was I, who told Zack that fat was a bad word, and that being overweight was something to be ashamed of. Honestly though, what else is a mother to do? If I had simply acknowledged his words and said "Your right Zack!", It would have appeared to the rest of the world that I was encouraging Zack to call people names. If I ignored the comment it would look like I was an uninterested parent who let their offspring get away with bad behavior. Fact of the matter is that in our society fat might as well be a four letter word, and kids can't go around announcing it's presence.
Eventually we moved on as I pushed the cart towards the produce section and the topic was dropped. Perhaps Zack has learned his lesson, he certainly hasn't called anyone else fat since. My sadness is that he probably learned the wrong lesson.