Let's Talk Racism with our Kids
Today, I woke up worried for my country and, more importantly, the people I love who are most-affected by racism. I worry because even people I would consider to be non-racist aren't getting why people are rioting. Those of us who are white have the ability to stay out of the fray and never see our futures change. That's privilege. If our business is damaged, we can fall back on insurance. We don't face bodily harm. I do not understand why that's an issue. For every George Floyd, there seem to be millions of white folks who do not get it. They are angry about the fact that he was killed but then become more enraged about the protests that are not "peaceful" enough. If you fall in this camp, you are falling for bigotry and I encourage you not to share these feelings with your kids. I encourage you, instead, to read and listen to why the riots are happening. I lived through Ferguson in the same state where Michael Brown was shot. I even was in St. Louis when the riots began. I was buying a wedding dress with my family. We weren't affected at all. Honestly, it's like nothing was going on where we were. That's the most ridiculous illustration of privilege I can think of and it was the first time, as a white person, I had to grapple with why riots were perhaps necessary. Hear me out, please. If you stop reading here, you are part of the problem.
A couple short weeks later, I was standing in front of my Intro to American Politics class, talking about my syllabus which emphasized race and gender and the importance of representation much more than many of the classes I had taken at this level. And, of course, the issue of Ferguson came up. Several of my students, it turned out, were from that area and one of them had been deeply affected by it. She was a first generation college student and her words stuck with me, "People riot because voting doesn't work." And she was spot-on. Her Congressional, state senate, and state house districts were gerrymandered beyond recognition - even more so now - and the representation the black community received was pitiful. Let me make this clear: I am a nonviolent person. I am not a defender of violent means to solve problems generally. However, as an anti-racist, white person, I can empathize with why people may support these protests - even if they get out of hand. These folks are the disenfranchised. And, if we don't support them, if we miss the message, if we can't see that property damage is a distraction and lesser evil than the loss of human life at the hands of law enforcement, we are no longer anti-racist. We are part of the problem. We are the white moderates.
Around here, my husband and I view racial justice, support of immigrants, advocacy for the issue of low income people, and the rights of LGBTQ individuals to be important. We acknowledge privilege as best we can and realize that through our lens as middle-class, educate white people, we're not ever seeing the whole picture. Sometimes we have to sit with really uncomfortable feelings and reconsider why we feel this way. So, this morning, I began to think about how this affects R who is 3 and emotionally intelligent beyond her years. In this pandemic, she's already growing up too fast and dealing with hard feelings. R saw a clip of a lady mowing over protesters on the news and we had to explain that person was a bad person who did not like black people, hence the mowing over. It scared her. We did assure her that this person walked off and was probably okay but she was still stunned. I now regret not talking to her more about that and maybe unpacking the larger context but I was caught in the cross-hairs of having an age-appropriate discussion. Next time, I will be prepared. I reflected on my own learnings of racism. I had parents who did not unduly insulate me from racism. By the time I was four or five, I can remember long discussions about the Holocaust and police brutality. I can remember watching a story about a police beating of a black man on WGN before going to preschool one morning and talking to my dad about it on the way there. He would drop me off at a school where I had black teachers and friends. It was in a town much more diverse than ours - the town where my parents worked. My parents chose not to live there based on school districts - an act of privilege in and of itself. I still remember feeling confused and angry. I was four.
I do not remember it being too tough for me to sit with. I do remember transferring back to school in the white bread town where I lived the following year and no longer seeing any people of color. I do remember going to elementary school with children who had never seen a black person before they had a black first grade teacher. This was a Title I school, mind you. I thought that was strange given that my dad's best friend was black and that I had had POC friends in preschool. It now occurs to me that many of my white friends' parents never talked about this. Unfortunately, of the friends I have kept since that time, some have been downright racist and I've unfriended them over it. I can't help but feel like maybe, just maybe if their parents had made them aware of privilege from a young age, they would have been better off and better for it. Of course, that is is not to say that I don't have friends who have become advocates in spite of that upbringing. I can think of at least a dozen off the top of my head. Some are getting a lot of pushback on social media from friends I unfriended and they may be making choices about pruning their own social media right now. You might be thinking "but why subject a child to these atrocities?" To that, I say, "It must be nice to avoid these conversations altogether and have nothing change for your safety or your kid's safety."
Friends of mine who have black and brown kids do not get to avoid this. They, if they are people of color, had these conversations from R's age - maybe even sooner - and are doing the same with their kids. This privilege to tap out doesn't exist for them. So, I am wondering why I should allow my kid to be insulated completely. Our kids don't need to be traumatized, sure, but they should understand this. The world we are living in right now is not good. I think the pandemic alone is going to have far-reaching consequences on the mental health of all but especially the young. The state Department of Family and Child Services spoke at a press conference the governor held about ACEs last week (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and basically said this is probably an ACE. ACEs can significantly impact the experience of children but protective factors such as supportive and engaged parents and advocates can lessen the impact. ACEs are not deterministic. How we deal with racism and death in today's world doesn't determine that our kids will end up traumatized if we do it correctly. It does, however, increase the likelihood that our kids won't be sheltered and may be more sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised. Fixing this world for people of color cannot be on the backs of POC alone because they are disenfranchised. That is why the white moderate is dangerous force. In the end, white people signed the Voter Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. They passed these bills. This was only after serious uprisings and political pressure from black America. These were not all peaceful protests - no matter what revisionist history teaches us. Disruption was necessary for change.
So, today I'm vowing to not insulate my kid. If my friends who are POC must have difficult conversations, so must I. If their kids are expected to carry this burden, our kids as white people, should share in it. We cannot ever know what this truly feels like and we should not be the ones talking over minority voices. As I had to listen to my students, I have to listen to my friends. It is our job to vote for the interests of people of color. It is our job to care. It is our job to teach our children about these things even if it is scary and uncomfortable and we can tap out. The point that we can tap out is exactly why we have to do this.
In order to help stop the riots and save the lives of people of color, we have to talk to our kids. We have to take it upon ourselves to use all of our political will to defend the rights of our sisters and brothers on the front lines. They are tired. They have been beaten down - literally and figuratively - and we have not done enough. To stay silent is to be complicit. To do something is to be anti-racist.