Our son was not yet 2 years old when Trayvon Martin was shot in Sanford, Florida. That night we held him tightly and I prayed that I would find the words as he grew up to talk to him about vulnerability, oppression, being a person of color, racism. My parents who were born in the south but grew up in the North and the West did a poor job of preparing me for the harsh realities of the isms. I was sheltered and protected. I believe my parents thought that because we moved out of Inglewood into Pasadena, enrolled me in private schools, exposed me to those upper-class activities that they did not participate in, I would be spared or safe from racism, sexism, etc. Otis Graham, author of Our Kind of People wrote a column about how privileged status does not protect our children from being called a N—- https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/
Since February 2012, so may incidents of racial injustice and violence have occurred that I have honestly lost track. All I know is that I am trying to remain calm, not panic, and talk to our son in ways that make sense. My husband and I have different approaches, which is o.k. I think. There are different ways to expose our children, talk to them, and prepare them as best we can for their futures. Our differing approaches collided when our nephew was elected president of his high school student body and social media erupted in racial slurs and threats of death. For the first time since our son had been born I was called to action. I participated in a rally, but our son did not go. Our nephew was on the front page of the paper and on the nightly local news almost daily. Our son is learning to read and pictures speak volumes. I felt we could not hide or sugar-coat the truth. We have responded simply or used religion or sports analogies to help.
The simplest response possible: “He won and some people were not happy, they are sore losers, and they said mean things.” And our son would say “Are they going to get in trouble? Did they apologize?” The truth was that no, those kids did not truly get into trouble and we were not sure they had apologized. So another type of conversation was had. We turned to religion: “Sometimes people do or say mean things and they do not apologize. God knows our hearts and will always protect us.” God is still a vague being/concept to our son, but he kind of got it. IN other situations, we have turned to sports (his favorite activity): “You know how in a game there is a referee that monitors the players and when a player creates a super bad foul the player gets kicked out of the game and then later he has to pay a fee?” “Yes.” “In life there are referees who patrol our world and kick people out and make them pay fees.”
But then the news images of police, protestors, shot boys that look like him become too much to ignore. Even if we were not watching the news in his presence, he sees the front page of the newspaper as we bring it into the house, the news has a preview on t.v. as we are turning to his kid’s channel, our gatherings are a mix of adults and children and he over-hears our conversations. We cannot and will not live in a bubble under the guise of shielding him. So the real challenge is how to navigate this harsh reality without burdening his 5 year old mind, soul, and heart.
He is obsessed with playing “jail.” He also loves soccer, football, play dough, and coloring. But inevitably whatever he is building with Legos turns into a jail. His soccer players end up in jail because they cause d a foul or his play dough creation is a jail. Even his beloved TMNT are in jail! My social worker antenna is buzzing!!!! So I ask “Why is everyone always in jail?” “Because they’re bad.” “What did they do?” “They were fighting.” “Oh” I say weakly, wondering if I should continue the questioning, which I do not but instead say “I think you’ve played jail long enough, let’s read….”
Our son is very intuitive, he is smart and savvy. He listens to everything people say. He is not naïve. At the same time, we do not want to give him more information than he needs at this age. We also do not want him to be shocked (which he will be) when a classmate or a classmate’s parent says something racially cruel or he doesn’t get invited to the party because the parent doesn’t like black people, etc., etc. I also do not want to be a helicopter parent, but I can easily see how trying to protect your child from injustice based on his race or biological sex or religion or ability…could lead a parent to helicopter…patrolling the books in the library, the holidays celebrated at school, etc.
I am too often overwhelmed by that state of our country and our world. I feel paralyzed and fearful. Then I remember that I need to model what our son should be (my husband does too) and I just make sure our son hears and sees me engaged in social justice. I also remember that I have gotten through it with minimal protection and I have grown stronger, more passionate, braver.
I also just hope and pray that there are parents of every race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and orientation out there who are just as concerned as I am and are having age-appropriate conversations with their children about the same issues and about how to be an ally. I just hope and pray that there is better police academy screening and training. I just hope that the post-modernists, whom I do not always understand or agree with, are right and we reach a post-label-identity society…where we are all equal and treated as such.
Do you talk to your child about difference? Vulnerablitiy? Racism? Sexism? Current events? How do you do it?
Some of my favorite articles on related topics:
- To The White Parent of My Black Son’s Friends – http://www.amusingmaralee.com/2015/12/to-the-white-parents-of-my-black-sons-friends/#sthash.mZuLFa7R.dpuf
- Respect what black America is feeling – http://www.salon.com/2015/04/29/dear_white_facebook_friends_i_need_you_to_respect_what_black_america_is_feeling_right_now/
- Five recovery steps from a form helicopter parent http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/01/05/overparenting-5-recovery-steps-from-a-former-stanford-dean/
- What it’s like to be the only black kid in class http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-is-what-its-like-to-be-the-only-black-kid-in-class_568a847be4b014efe0dae77d