Thursday, September 29, 2016

Challenging Conversations: Empower Kids to Discuss Race, Equity, and Justice

“I don’t want to be shot. I don’t want to die,” my son said as he entered the kitchen. I was taken aback. Where was this coming from? He continued, “I want to live to an old age. Like older than Papa and Gigi.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded. He replied, “I’m kinda afraid of the police because I don’t want to be shot. I don’t want to be a police officer either because the bad guys might fight back and refuse to listen and some police get killed.”

I was astonished that he was thinking this way.

This conversation took place during the summer when Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, five Dallas officers, and three Baton Rouge officers were murdered.

I’m pretty vocal about my views on social media. However, at home, I try to shield him from the atrocities of the world. I was shocked by his concerns and knowledge of events, to say the least. He’s not old enough to have a social media account, and we stream TV. I do enjoy watching documentaries, and occasionally I’ll have him watch them with me. But that’s history, and his concerns were about present-day activities. So, where was this coming from?

“How’d you know people had been shot and killed?” I questioned.

“Gigi and her sisters, and they also talked about it at Freedom School,” he answered.

Ugh! I know you can’t control what people do or say around your children, but I just wanted to preserve his innocence. Just bottle it up a little longer because this world would make him grow up soon enough.

Consequently, we rarely discussed race or race relations. Honestly, I’ll never forget the day my son discovered he was a black boy. My son was 4 at the time, and we were on a walking trail in a neighborhood park. I saw a group of white teens or young adults hanging out near a storm drain, but nothing seemed peculiar to me. As my son and I got a distance away from them, they began yelling racial slurs at us. My son asked, “Mom, why are those people yelling at us?” I simply replied that they didn’t like black people. His response was both hilarious and depressing. He replied matter-of-factly, “I’m not black, I’m brown.” Then he proceeded to turn around and try to defend me by yelling the same things towards them.

All of these emotions soared through me at once: fury, rage, disbelief. What kind of people would verbally assault a woman and child for no just reason? Was there no one in their group who would chastise them for their behavior? No one big enough to offer an apology? I foolishly expected that my son would be spared from those experiences in the 21st century. I was supposed to be my son’s protector, yet I was powerless against their attacks.

Unfortunately, in 2016, I and many other black parents are finding ourselves in the same predicament. We’re wrestling with a multitude of emotions. Race relations, racism, and police brutality…that was our grandparent’s fight, not ours. We’re not anti-white nor anti-police, we've grown up in a multicultural, integrated world. We overcame…or so we thought. Though now it feels like we're in a time warp, straddling somewhere between the mid-20th century and this age of opportunity. 

How do you explain to children who live in a multicultural world that the skin they’re in may be perceived as a threat to another?

Be respectful – Be obedient – Follow the officer’s orders – Place your hand on the steering wheel at all times – Don’t make any sudden moves – Explain when you’re reaching for your wallet

How do you explain that compliance doesn’t always have the intended outcome?

How do you comfort and reassure children like Zianna Oliphant, the little girl who gave a tearful, passionate testimony in Charlotte, that a traffic stop will not result in anything greater than a citation?

As parents, particularly black parents, we are now confronted with the need to have these challenging conversations in tumultuous times more frequently. Frankly, it's exhausting. Regrettably, I and many others don’t have the answers to those questions. Some of our naivety has been stripped away. Are the police really here to help us? Do you call the police when you're in distress? Will my father, husband, son, brother make it home tonight? We have the same concerns that our children have. How should I respond to my child's concerns? In my opinion, we shouldn’t project our anger or fears onto them. However, that’s easier said than done.

The election of President Obama was seen as ushering in the era of a post-racial society. However, if you’ve ever read the comment section on social media, you know that some commenters yearn for the days when that beloved story took place between Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh. Or they weigh nostalgic for the days of Leave it to Beaver and Mayberry when everyone got along, and there were no race problems. Especially not like today with this President of ours stirring up a race war. I have to remind myself to JUST SCROLL, DON’T REPLY. As a person of color, I sit back in utter disbelief. Surely people understand Hattie McDaniel’s role and that of other blacks during that time. Do they not remember what was taking place in this country during the era that those sitcoms aired? What decade would they say was “great” for black Americans or minorities in general? Although Andy Taylor and Barney Fife made for good comedy, I don’t believe anyone with Barney Fife’s competence should actually be on a police force. Yet, we've seen this play out. An officer was reaching for their taser, but accidently grabbed their gun instead. Or the officer who "accidently" shot a behavior therapist because he was actually aiming for the autistic patient with the toy truck.

This ineptness and willful ignorance among other concerns are upsetting to many blacks.

Rather than acknowledging systemic racism and finding solutions for police reform, it’s easier to dismiss people as being thugs, noncompliant, or “bad dudes”.

So how do I explain to my son that the problem of police brutality and the frustrations of blacks are a much broader issue? Truthfully, that discussion would require me to put on my Sociology hat and provide him a comprehensive analysis of the impact of race and ethnicity within the social/political structures of the United States. That's WAY too much for him to comprehend.

Thus, in my optimism, I would like to see adults of various ethnicities break away from social media and come together in a non-contentious setting to have these discussions before we address our children. In my heart of hearts, I am confident that we have the same goals in mind for our communities and families. My son’s life and countless others matter. My expectation is that he and others will be treated with dignity and respect when they interact with law enforcement. What do we want? JUSTICE AND EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW - Truly, we all want our loved ones to arrive home safely regardless of their occupation. The murder of one unjustly or the continued use of excessive force should be enough to propose police reform legislation. I support the men and women in blue who perform their job in a manner that’s worthy of the badge. Nevertheless, there’s a system that impedes liberty and justice for all.

In all honesty, I’m less afraid of my son’s interaction with police than I am of those who have been dormant: WHITE SUPREMACISTS.

Please share how you’ve handled recent events with your kids. 

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