I grew up in upper middle income, white suburbia. My school was comprised of less than 5% minorities. The first time I heard the “N word” was not on the playground, in a rap song, or on the big screen. It was at a backyard 4th of July family picnic, uttered by a regularly inebriated family member who referred to his straight friends in homophobic slurs. I knew what the word meant and it sounded as vile as it made me feel, as I heard a trusted adult use it casually, albeit drunkenly, in conversation. I felt sick to my stomach and angry. A rage still burns deep inside of me as I currently replay the episode back in my head.
I share this story, because today, 20 some odd years later, I had to discuss the “N word” and all it entails with my 9-year-old, bi-racial, half-black daughter. It had been made aware to me that fellow white, school “friends” had been using this word (not directed at my daughter) but with each other, as if, in the minds of 4th graders, it made them “cool.” So I sat my daughter down to discuss and as tears welled in her eyes, I explained the origin, the meaning, the connotations, the vileness and the impact of this word. She asked questions, and I tried my best to cast away my own ignorance due to white privilege and answered her truthfully and to the best of my ability.
This was not the first time we discussed the evilness of racism. As most parents of brown or black children know, the conversations we are forced to have with our kids tend to occur much earlier than anticipated. For us, the first time differences in race was brought up in a negative light was when my daughter was in the first grade. It was the first time she had ever truly learned of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of slavery, and the terror that humans inflicted on one another merely because of the amout of melanin found in their skin.
That day, my daughter broke down in tears as soon as she walked in the door from school, sobbing, asking, “But Mommy, why would they kill a man just because he looks like Daddy? Why would they hate us for our skin? Will someone like that hurt me too?”
I was speechless. I tried my hardest to compose myself but in that moment the realization of the enormity of my white privilege hit me with enough inertia to make me stumble. And it also put things in a rather haunting perspective for me. These conversations have been happening for decades — centuries even — and parents of white children will never be forced to see the look in their child’s eyes when that piece of innocence is lost to them forever.
Although both of these conversations broke my heart, it was the racist encounter that happened in between the two that truly pierced my soul. My husband, in the middle of one of his 14-hour shifts at work had decided to come home to enjoy an hour break with the kids. As soon as he pulled into our parking lot, I heard him beep the horn. Excited to see him for a quick hour, our three children and I raced to the door to greet him. And that’s when I saw the red and blue strobe lights shining behind our truck.
Before ushering my children away from the door and getting them settled so that I could see what was happening, they watched as their daddy was handcuffed and put in the back of a cruiser.
While I rushed to get outside to see what was going on, my daughter had burst into tears, asking if they were going to take Daddy away. Once I made it outside, I was shocked to see an additional four squad cars pulled up in our parking lot. As I listened to my hardworking, dedicated, thoughtful husband answer if he had any aliases (uh, does DaDa count?), if he was gang-affiliated (is there a Scary Daddy gang?!), and to describe any prominent tattoos to be logged into the police database, I sat shaking my head in bewilderment.
I asked the charging officer what he had done, and he replied that my husband did not put his signal light on before the designated 100 feet prior to making his turn into our townhouse complex. I was outraged. If he had been white, this would not be happening.
After the police released my husband from custody, and he had made his way back to work, my daughter asked me what had happened. A part of me wanted to tell her it had been a miscommunication, an honest mistake, the policeman was just doing his job. But then, I realized that would only make me complicit to the overt racism my husband had just endured. So once again, I tried my best to explain the different facets of racism to a child whose only worries should be what dress to put on her Barbie doll.
I share these common, everyday situations that people of color are faced with every day as a plea. I am begging parents of white children to discuss color and racism with your kids. Encourage them to speak up against this type of behavior. Dispel the idea of colorblindness, because although your family may not be affected by racial differences, there are millions of families who are, who need all the allies they can get.
Racism is a learned trait, teach your children to stand up in times of racial injustice. Teach them not to engage in it, or ignore it, teach them to fight against it. Teach them to stand with their friends of color. Race relations have come a long way, but we have so much farther to go. As parents, we have the ability to mold the upcoming generation — let us do so wisely.