I recently asked my friend Conni if she had any ideas about how to raise her white sons to become thoughtful people, engaged in the conversation about race, willing to speak up, but not over. Willing to listen and to learn.
Because she’s wonderful, she agreed. Here is her post:
Right now we are in the throes of what we will come to remember as the glory of boy days. My oldest is four with a blonde, pageboy haircut, bright eyes, and a ready smile. He is, as the expression goes, “all boy” and will spend hours playing with Legos, swords, and cars, and loves rough-housing with his daddy. He is not too old to snuggle in Mama’s lap, to listen to silly poems, or dance with the family in the kitchen. He kisses his baby brother and is a help around the house.
He is also “all four” in his insistence on testing boundaries, his emotional stability (his tantrums call to mind images of drunk rock stars trashing dressing rooms), and in his seemingly limitless curiosity. These days there are scores of questions. He asks all the questions. And no matter what answer I give, how simply it is packaged or how long I take to answer him, there is always a follow-up question. He would make an excellent reporter (just not TMZ, okay? ::crossing self::). And the follow-up question is almost always, “Why?” Thus, nearly every question becomes existential in nature.
Here is an example of a typical conversation:
S: Mama, what does that sign mean?
Me: It means cars need to slow down and look out for each other
S: Why do car needs to slow down?
Me: Because there’s not a lane for everyone in this part of the road
S: Why is there not room for everyone?
See what I mean!
I can’t fault the kid. He’s trying so hard to organize this grey world into neat compartments in that growing mind of his. He wants to know wrong and right. He wants to know how things always are or never will be. What all boys do and what all girls do. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. He loves words like always and never. They’re clear. Safe.
And so making dinner at the end of the day, the contents of the stove-top bubbling, the news on the radio blaring, my heart is turning over all the race-based headlines, the discussions on police brutality, comments on Facebook that suggest I must pick a side: blacks or police.
Here is the bottom line about my son and his race: nobody will ever be surprised by his success or question it, they will not assume they know what kind of music he listens to, or question that he has a right to be wherever he is. We know that, statistically, he will pay less for a car, get paid more than female or minority peers at the same job, and if he should have to interact with the criminal justice system (again, ::crossing self::) will be sentenced less harshly than men of color.
In light of this privilege, how will I begin to talk to him about the others who will meet a very different reality? How am I talking to him and his four-year-old brain about race?
As adults we realize that there’s no group of people that are always the “good guys” or always the “bad guys”. We know of others in trusted professions (clergy, teachers) who have abused their authority. But these nuances can be trickier to impart to a four-year-old.
My approach is based on the following Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
This is what I tell my son, “When people, your friends and especially a group of people, tell you their stories, believe them.” Believe them. Believe them when they tell you it hurts when you climb on their head or that they despise grape jelly. Believe them when they tell you they are afraid of the police (even the people you know and love and trust!) Listen for all the feelings behind their words. Focus on the people as they share their stories and fears.
Someday we will talk about the history and science behind racism. We will discuss what is known about the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the GI bill, the Tuskegee institute, and the mass incarceration of black men and what that has done to black communities. We will discuss the differences in how white and non-whites are sentenced, how they are treated when they apply for a loan, or enter a department store.
But not today. Today we will talk about people we know and their stories.
My friend Robyn is black with a young son and bravely navigating this alternate universe that I had little idea existed. Her boy’s name is Alex and he has amazing chipmunk cheeks and a dimpled grin. He knows all about trains and knows the soundtrack of the DC metro. “Door opening, please step back” he chirps.
In an email, Robyn writes she is thankful Alex smiles so readily at strangers because maybe this means the police will perceive him as friendly, less threatening and suspicious. Because one day soon, Alex will be a young black man and will be perceived as more threatening than my son who could be walking right beside him.
Robyn worries at night. She wonders if her husband has enough storage and charge in his phone so he can be sure to video tape any encounters with the police in case anything should happen to him. I worry about my son and husband getting in car accidents. She worries they will encounter the police.
And here’s the thing: hers is only one story but theirs are the faces I see. I know there are many, many more stories like hers. But as my son grows and I encourage him to believe people and their feelings and respond accordingly, I don’t want him to think abstractly about “black people”. I want him to think about Robyn and Chaz and his friend, Alex. I want him to understand he doesn’t have to abandon what he has come to trust in order to hear and believe their stories and advocate on their behalf.
I know most of this is beyond his understanding now but I can’t help dreaming. Dreaming that together my husband and I can raise a listener, a man who can see and hear and believe experiences that are radically different from his own and then, in turn, use that knowledge to be a peacemaker. To be able to hold two hard things at once and with belief: his love and value for his friends in the black community along with respect for the policing profession.