For parents of children of color, race is an ongoing dialogue. And it should be for parents of White children, too.
The public demonstrations and protests following grand jury non-indictments of the men who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner have led the news the past few weeks. Thousands of protestors, of all ethnicities, have marched, staged theatrical die-ins, blocked roads and bridges and shopping malls. Even big-time professional athletes have begun expressing their disgust, with Chicago Bull Derek Rose and Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James wearing T-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe,” Garner’s dying words as he was choked to death under the weight of a half dozen police officers on a Staten Island sidewalk.
Media coverage of the killings, the ensuing legal processes, and the resulting protests has focused a lot on how differently people see the Brown and Garner deaths, often depending on the racial background of the person doing the seeing. These research studies and the articles describing them were as obvious as they were discouraging. And if even adults can’t come together and agree on some of the basic meaning and significance of what happened with Brown and Garner (and John Crawford, and Tamir Rice, and so on and on and on), what are we to do when it comes to the children?
The internet is currently flooded with articles advising parents how to talk to their kids about Ferguson and Staten Island. There are two versions of this: one about “the talk” that black parents have to warn their children about how to act around the police, and a new one aimed at White parents, most of whom have raised their child not to notice race at all until now.
This is not either of those.
My husband is Black, I am White, and our son is Black and biracial (our daughter, from my first marriage, is white). One of the benefits of growing up in a Black family is that race is always being talked about. Not the way most White families talk about it—gingerly, nervously, as a thing to be blind to, or tolerated, as a prequel to talking about the content of character, etc. (that whole assortment of white ideas about race and racism is so jumbled and contradictory I don’t blame kids for finding it confusing).
In our family, race is a normal thing to talk about. Race is history, race is family, race is (part of) why Daddy’s family loves sweet potato pie and Mommy’s never makes it, why Mommy grew up listening to the Beatles and Daddy grew up on Stevie Wonder. Yes, there are Black families who love the Beatles, White families who love Stevie, many who love both. As human beings, we are all more alike than we are different—but when we pretend to ignore our differences we tend to erase the experience of those in the minority. Anyway, one way to render differences less terrifying is to stop pretending they aren’t there.
So I don’t really have to sit my Black son down and talk to him about race. Do I have to sit him down and tell him about Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Perhaps, although he has heard about them already, he has overheard his parents’ anguish and anger, he has sat in the backseat of the car when NPR was playing and listened to how the adults respond. More than that, M is old enough that he’s already noticed things about race and the police on his own. While we were sitting at a red light in our town, he saw a policeman put handcuffs on a Black woman after a traffic stop. A few days later, I was pulled over for an expired registration. He started crying, fearing I’d be put in handcuffs. I almost laughed—I knew there was no way I’d be cuffed for such a simple offense—and then I almost cried, because of course that same blithe certainty couldn’t be shared by my son or any of his Black relatives.
Last summer, I took my son on a road trip from Atlanta to Kansas to see my parents. Driving through Missouri—just a week or two before Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death—we passed a billboard bearing a confederate flag image in support of a confederate cemetery. A few miles later, we drove under an overpass festooned with American flags, along with a banner reading “Arrest Obama.” A dozen White people stood behind the banner, waving their arms when anyone honked. As we neared Atlanta, we saw a Black man spread-eagled over the side of his car, a police officer kicking his feet apart, on the side of the highway.
“It’s usually Black people they arrest, isn’t it?” M asked from the backseat.
So yes, perhaps we need to have “the talk” with M, provide him a set of ground rules to help him navigate any future risk he might face at the hands of the police, to arm him against danger (as much as we can), in a way that doesn’t rob him of his innocence, his sense of safety and security. I want him to move confidently through the world, but I know how heartbreakingly difficult that is, in a world such as ours. As Stacey Patton brilliantly breaks it down, Black children are robbed of their childhood every day in this country.
This is the world we have all inherited: One in which race is a biological fiction but a historical fact. Or, to put it another way, a world in which race may be fake but racism is real.
All of which makes me want to hear about a different kind of “talk.” I’m doing the best job I can raising a future Black man. If you are raising a future White man, what are you telling him? What are the lessons you take from Darren Wilson’s story, and how can you adapt them to help your son move through the world with confidence enough not to fear Black men, or think they are demons, or enormous, or impervious to pain? Are you examining, as we all must, your own racism?
I know what I’m doing to keep my son from becoming another Michael Brown. What are you doing to keep yours from becoming another Darren Wilson?
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