Today I read a post on Urban Cusp’s Facebook page stating, “White parents there is work to be done and you have a critical role to play.” This was posted above a tweet that had been originally posted by Jessica Luther that said, “A 5yo black girl survived last night by playing dead. Surely my 6yo white son can survive a conversation about why she matters.” I read that over and over and over contemplating all of the ways I have been guilty of just this – avoiding the conversation.
My son is 8 years old. I, like most parents, do whatever I can to protect him from the awful truths of the world. I’m not afraid to let him out of my sight nor do I want to put him in a bubble, but I do try to shield him from what I have always viewed as adult stuff. I turn off the TV, for example, when the news reports of shootings, police violence, and war come across the screen and he is in the room. My thought on this has always been that childhood is short and he will have his entire adult life to contemplate these things.
The funny thing is my son has always known better and has taught me the invaluable lesson that he can handle much more than I give him credit. A couple of years ago, for example, he and I were walking to a restaurant when we passed a young man who was probably twenty years old. He had a small card board sign that read he was homeless and please help. We said hello to the man and went in to eat. My son had a million questions. What does it mean to be homeless? Why would someone not have a place to go? Can’t they just go to their parent’s house? Can he come and live with us and stay in the guest room? We spent the entire meal discussing what I would have earlier deemed much too adult for this little 6 year old boy. By the end of the meal all he could talk about was how he wanted to help and build houses for people who didn’t have one. It was then that I realized how he viewed homeless men and women for the rest of his life would ultimately be shaped by this experience. Right now. Today. We bought the man a meal and took it out to him, but more importantly we stopped and talked to him. We introduced ourselves and shook his hand. His name was Jason. It was important to me that he saw this young man for what he was – a person just like us. My son still asks questions about the homeless we see on the street, but now his questions tend to be of the nature of what can I do? This topic is now a part of his consciousness and last night while playing Minecraft he told me, “This is the house I built for me and over here are the houses I built for the homeless.” I told him I didn’t know Minecraft had homeless people and he replied, “The villagers just wander around they don’t have anywhere to go, so I built them a house.”
As difficult as the conversation about the homeless had been, it is nowhere as difficult for me as the topic of race. I don’t even know where to begin. My son has friends who come from all different backgrounds and he embraces and loves them all. I had hoped this would be enough somehow. However, once again my son knew better. He came home from school last winter and told me how horrified he had been to find out about the Civil War. Had I been aware that Africans had been brought to this country as slaves? Did I know that not that long ago he would have gotten into trouble for hanging out with his friends Tyler and Sean? I asked if he had been learning about this in school and he replied he found out about it on his own from books in the school library and began to recount some of the horrific pictures he had seen. We talked about what had happened and I answered as best I could his many questions.
The problem now is not that we haven’t talked about race, but rather I have only had discussions with him about things that have happened in the past. We’ve talked about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders as well as slavery and the Civil War, but I have continued to shield him from the police shootings, the protests, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, along with the act of terrorism and hatred that recently took the lives of nine people praying in a church. I have done this because I was trying to protect my son, but by doing so I now recognize that I am doing just the opposite. I have unintendedly created a world for him where he believes everyone is equal and all have equal opportunity in life to get ahead. The problem with this is that it is obviously not true. I will never have to sit my son down and have the talk about how to interact with the police or why I don’t want him to wear the hood on his sweat shirt even if it is raining. I will never have these conversations with my son because he is white.
However, there is a critical conversation that I should be having with my 8 year old son and that is that race does matter. That still today, in 2015, people are treated differently and have access to different opportunities based on nothing more than the color of their skin. I want him to understand there are still people out there who do unspeakable things to other people for no other reason than hate and a will to destroy and terrorize. I want him to understand this because it is up to his generation and mine to change this. However, one cannot change a broken system, if they were never aware that it was broken.
The Urban Cusp was right when they stated, “White parents there is work to be done and you have a critical role to play.” Our children look to us for guidance and to help them make sense of the world. We must discuss the reality of racial inequality with our children, so it can become a part of their consciousness. Only then can they start to imagine the solution for change.
Danielle McDonald, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Criminal Justice
Northern Kentucky University