I was listening to a podcast on racial healing, when this idea hit home. Kindness is not niceness.
Here’s my disclaimer. I’m white. My husband is Asian. My kids are biracial. In Thailand, their whiteness is their most salient feature. I’m pretty sure that won’t be the case next time we go to America, but honestly… I’m not really sure what their experience of race in America will be. When I’ve asked my Asian American friends, they’re answers are quite varied.
But my boys are learning right off that this world isn’t full of equal opportunities. My husband’s family fled a war-torn country. Most of them do not have citizenship… anywhere. Where do you go to study if you don’t have a country?
I was raised very comfortably in North Carolina as a doctor’s daughter. I never lacked for food, security, or education. I never even fathomed what that would look like.
Today my boys watch as officials interact with my husband and me quite differently. Especially people checking IDs.
What does this have to do with kindness or niceness?
I want my kids to be nice so long as there’s no reason not to be.
Being nice can be kind much of the time. For example, saying please and thank you and generally being polite are very nice. They’re also kind–they make people feel appreciated. I’m training my kids to be nice most of the time…
But you can’t always be nice, when truly motivated by kindness.
I’m thinking about Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins. When somebody declines to serve you, the “nice” thing is to move on and go on. That really is the nice thing to do.
I’m struck by the words of an African-American dishwasher speaking to the young college protesters on their first day at Woolworth. It was February 1, 1960, when she chastised the four young men,
“That’s why we can’t get anyplace today, because of people like you, rabble-rousers, troublemakers… This counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are all aware of that. So why don’t you go on out and stop making trouble?”
She didn’t know the four young men she was talking to would one day stand in history books. She didn’t know that their simple action was changing the rules of society. She didn’t know that what had always been was about to change.
I can only imagine how terrified she was, both for herself as a dishwasher at Woolworth and for the four young men.
She knew nice was safe.
Kindness includes a sense of responsibility
I previously made the argument that kind people feel a sense of responsibility to make the world a little bit happier.
I don’t mean happier in a short-term sort of way, full of platitudes. By happiness, I mean the real lessening of pain. Sometimes we do that by presence and holding a hand that’s hurting. Sometimes our kids do that by drawing pictures for somebody sick.
But what I want my boys to know is sometimes kindness means refusing to go along with injustice.
You see, the four young men (Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond) had a sense of responsibility to justice. These four college freshmen at NC A&T kept considering the question, “At what point does the moral man act against injustice?” They talked about it regularly, and they couldn’t let go of the question. Until one day, they couldn’t just ask the question. They had to act.
They knew it wasn’t just about themselves. In fact, there was a real risk that they might lose their lives taking a dangerous stance in the Jim Crow era.
That’s what makes standing against injustice kind.
It’s not nice. It might make trouble. It often involves real self-sacrifice. Not everybody survives. But its aim is to make the world a little bit better for those who come next.
Addictions and niceness don’t mix well
It’s not just that kindness isn’t nice in situations of injustice though. There are so many more occasions when kindness gets pitted against niceness.
Talk to families of addicts. It’s hard. Sometimes a person struggling with addiction can say really manipulative words. You want to do what they ask. After all, it’s nice to share. It’s nice to give. It’s nice to provide for. It’s nice to help. It’s nice… But there are moments when niceness hurts the one you love.
That’s when you need kindness.
Kindness says, “I want what’s best for you in the long run, even though this is really uncomfortable and painful for both of us right now.”
Or what about those unsavory jokes?
Don’t make a scene. It’s not a big deal. Don’t say anything. You don’t have to argue this time. Maybe it was a joke about Mexicans. Or gays. Or Chinese. Or women. Or people with disabilities.
The nice thing is to smile and change the subject.
I’m not saying we should get big, loud, and riled up every time. But kindness does calmly say, “I don’t think that’s funny.”
Here’s what I guarantee: the person you say that to will be offended 99% of the time. They’re also less likely to make the same joke in public again.
You just made the world a little less hurtful to whomever the joke was about. It’s a win. But you had to endure a few seconds of the joke-teller’s resentment. That’s a kind choice. It’s okay that it’s not nice.
What am I teaching my kids?
I don’t know. My oldest two are three years old right now, so I’m pretty focused on saying please and thank you. It makes me look good when I’m out in public. Hopefully, that’s not why I’m teaching such niceties, but even I get confused when I look at my heart. It’s a mixed bag.
But there have been those moments… when I’m correcting one, and the other jumps to his defense. Or they’ve told me I need to stop and take some “dragon breaths.” Or they ask me if I’d like a do-over.
Those are hard moments, and a little bit annoying. They don’t usually happen when I’m at my greatest anyway. It’s like dumping a glass of ice water on me.
Thankfully, it also wakes me up to what I’m doing. I choose to say thank you to my boys when they alert me that my own behavior might be off.
Because I want them to learn that it’s not nice to correct your elders, but sometimes it is kind.