A few weeks before George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, my husband and I had already started conversations with our white kids about the origins of Black Lives Matter. Our kids go to school at two very progressive schools in Brooklyn and are familiar with the phrase, and we’ve talked to them several times before about what it means, but we’d never talked to them about the events out of which the Black Lives Matter movement was born. To be real, we didn’t start these conversations proactively, but reactively; they arose out of questions my 6-year-old was asking about police, as he’s at the age when they become fascinated by power structures, and sadly in the United States, that means he’s also fascinated by guns. We don’t allow guns as toys, of course, like good progressive Brooklyn parents, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in his consciousness; it’s extremely hard to hide their existence from a kid in the world.
A question came up around the dinner table one night about police officers, and I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I was very conscious of my white kid talking about the police as heroes who are always on the side of good and wanted to resist that universal designation. I know kids this age like to put things in binaries, and good vs. bad is a big one. But the older he gets the more nuance we introduce, so we explained how police officers are people too, and people make mistakes all the time. Of course, he’s 6 years old and kids that age do not let you get away with dropping grown-up “wisdom” like that and walking away. Then came all the questions, and we just kept answering them with honesty, and we found ourselves talking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
I don’t know that we did it well. I don’t know that it’s age-appropriate. I don’t know if we are “supposed to” be telling our kindergartner about instances of violence by the police against Black bodies. I told him that they were teenagers, just big kids, and as his eyes widened I stopped myself from getting to the part about how Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for hours as the neighborhood looked on, screaming.
Because of that curiosity about power structures, my kids are also fascinated by jail, and he asked if the people who shot Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown went to jail, and we said no. And when the “why” came after that, we found ourselves explaining systemic racism and anti-Blackness in the most understandable way that we could. And every sentence of that conversation was anxiety-producing because as a parent you never know when you’re making an indelible impression on their little brains, or causing fear, or even trauma. There may be a child psychologist reading this, horrified, but they’d probably be white.
When I feel that discomfort with my own words welling up inside my white body like acid reflux, I can’t help but picture the Black mothers (and sometimes, non-Black mothers of Black children) in my life and my neighborhood and my schools who have these conversations often before 6 years old, proactively, as a means of protection. As a survival handbook for living in this country in a Black body. Out of necessity, not curiosity. I remember that Tamir Rice was only 6 years older than my son when he was shot by police in Cleveland for playing with a pellet gun. And in those moments of pulse-racing, stumbling articulation of white supremacy, I try to remind myself that it’s necessary for my white kids too. That after this should come the clumsy conversations about whiteness and privilege and how we should use it to take apart the system out of which it emerged.
I don’t know that I believe most grown-ups are capable of unlearning white supremacy, but I put my faith in those who work at dismantling it every day, and I strive to be like them. I’ve said this before, but I can’t claim to be a warrior for racial justice; I’m watching the protests in this country swell from a quiet house owned by my family in rural Maine, where we were able to retreat to when COVID-19 started encroaching upon us in New York. I’m going to spend today doing a couple of hours of virtual anti-racism work with fellow white people, but I can’t claim to do that every day. I’m not in the thick of it, and I am very much on a learning (or un-learning) journey of my own. I’m self-conscious of these words landing like righteousness or performative “wokeness”, and that self-consciousness keeps me from saying them often enough to normalize them.
But for those of us who are white with white kids, and trying to do what is in our power, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is raise anti-racist children.
Systemic racism has been around for a lot of generations, and it will take a lot of generations to dissolve it, and it clearly won’t be in ours. It probably will not even be in theirs, but as we can trace the origins of how it came to be, like a virus, I’d like believe one day we’ll be able to trace the origins of its extinction, like a vaccine. It will happen slowly, a little more with each generation, if we all participate in actively socially distancing ourselves from it; having hard conversations with our kids like using hand sanitizer or wearing a mask. One small step in preventing it from infecting us; not foolproof, but a worthy effort, that if embraced by many, could aid in our liberation.
Which is why, the other day, when I came downstairs bedraggled, wiping my eyes, explaining to my kids that I had a work emergency and had to be upstairs for a while, and my little boy asked what the emergency was, I told him: “Well, buddy, it happened again. A white police officer killed a Black person for no reason, and a lot of people in the country are really mad about it. His name was George Floyd.”
The names of the others were on my tongue, but I stopped myself again. We will have to take this slowly. He’s still at the age where he asks a bunch of questions, then pauses. Sits with it. Then asks what’s for lunch. Too much information at one time isn’t helpful, like too much hand sanitizer stops serving its purpose and just gets messy.
He’ll ask more later, and more names will come.