It was a glorious spring day, the hard edges of the air softening into mildness, the sun reflecting in puddles, spirits sitting up and stretching their arms to the sky. Awaking from the freeze of winter, everyone was out running, walking, looking faintly stunned by the exposed squares of sidewalk.
In the free-flowing hour before dinnertime, Allegra was just home from track practice, still in her shorts—shorts in March!—her long hair pulled back into a sweep of ponytail. She sat at the kitchen counter in relaxed hang-out mode, her body sprawling over two chairs, decompressing from her day with goofiness and random commentary about the broken zipper on her brother’s winter coat and how much she hates reading The Odyssey, a book that’s got her staying up late each night, slogging through the mandatory chapters.
Even though I’d agreed to go outside and play H-O-R-S-E with Paco and Byron, I was reluctant to walk away from her expansive mood. Sending the boys out to pump some air into the basketball, promising to join them momentarily, I dipped a biscotti into my latte and tried to convince Allegra that of course she had found it easy to run up a long hill during practice because she’s incredibly fit from her winter on the ski team. In return, she shucked off my reasoning, refusing to believe ski workouts translate into running fitness. Her light-hearted mood enjoyed my mock incredulous “In what bizarre land of teenage rationale does cross-country skiing—one of the best cardio workouts possible—not also prepare you for running?”
Then, somehow, within the space of two sentences, the subject changed. In the giggly lightness of the air was a feeling: at this minute, I could expound to my daughter about anything, and she’d hear me. Even though I’d had no intention of “having a talk,” suddenly it seemed like exactly what we should do.
So. Inhaling deeply, I mentioned the email we’d received a few days before from her godmother, a message that asked parents to talk to their kids about the realities of racism and what it’s like for children of color to move through their days in our country. Her plea was born out of sadness at a local hate crime coupled with love for the beautiful skin of her black and Native American children.
Truly, when the message came through, I felt supportive and hopeful that individual voices could rise up and come together to erode entrenched ignorance, but, at the same time, I also was certain: “I don’t need to do a formal sit-down with our kids. From the first day of their lives, they have been cradled in a house that not only espouses tolerance but one that requires it. We have dragged them all over, put them in uncomfortable situations where they are the minority, demonstrated in every hour of every day that all human beings have equal rights to acceptance and love. They’ve helped set up chairs at gay weddings, and they saw me bat away tears as we stood in The Smithsonian reading the plaque on the Woolworth’s counter where four African-American college students staged a policy-changing sit-in.”
Yet, as I watched my healthy, happy blonde daughter, her blue eyes gleaming as she cracked jokes, I was struck by her openness and confidence—and how those traits had come unthinkingly to her as a member of our country’s dominant race. We’d never had to teach her not to raise the hood on her jacket, lest she look suspicious. We’d never had to talk to her about putting on a positive face in public even when she was having a crummy day, simply so she didn’t intimidate the people around her. We’d never had to counsel her about treating people with more respect than they might deserve so as to avoid the designation of “uppity.” We’d never had to explain to her that the culture of her ancestors had been systematically dismantled to the point of eradication. We’d never had to warn her that she’d have to achieve twice as much in life to get half as far.
We’d never directed her attention to the advantages she enjoys due to the color of her skin.
Realizing that the conversation in our house didn’t need to be about tolerance and acceptance but, rather, about the nuances of white privilege, I leapt.
“Hey, Allegra, can we have a serious minute here?”
Teenagers want adult conversation. They are ready to be talked to where they’re at, not where their parents remember them being…when they were ten, seven, four, one. Her face told me: this girl was ready for a serious minute.
“So did you hear about how some kids at Denfeld doctored a picture of one of their classmates—a black kid—by drawing a noose around his neck and writing ‘Gotta hang ‘em all’ and then sharing it on social media?”
The gasp that came out of her mouth originated in her gut. No, she hadn’t known that. She had heard something had happened at Denfeld that people were talking about, but she knew no particulars. “You mean, like, they were saying he should be lynched?”
“Exactly—and not just him. They were saying all black people should be hung. On some level, these kids might have thought they were being funny. On no level were they being funny. You get that, right? And do you know about the history of lynching in this country?”
Something like a strangled gargle came out of her mouth as she tried to respond. “Yea, I’ve read about it in some books. I know it mostly happened in the South, but didn’t it happen here in Duluth, too, a long time ago?”
Confirming the reality of that sad event, I added, “And Jenna and Anne are really upset by what these kids at Denfeld did because it’s just another ‘thing’ that shows how alive racism is in the city where they’re raising Robbie and Sadie. Because she was so upset, Jenna sent out a message to some folks, asking us to be sure we talk to our children about how different daily existence is for Robbie and Sadie than it is for white kids like you—to be honest, especially for Robbie since he’s male and black. So I’m talking to you now. I will talk to Paco, too, when the time is right.”
As Allegra’s eyes became shiny with unshed emotion, I told her about the conversations they have had with Robbie as they help him find ways to move through the world and cope with the reality of being black and male in the United States and, more specifically, in our very-white city.
“Wait, why can’t he put his hood up?” she interjected at one point.
Referencing the story of Treyvon Martin, I asked, “Do you know what happened to him?”
“Well, I know he died, and I saw his name online a lot, but I never read the stories. I have a lot of homework, you know!”
So I explained how Treyvon Martin decided to walk to the gas station to get a snack. I explained how he was gunned down by an over-zealous member of the neighborhood watch. I explained how that teenage boy, a mere seven years older than Robbie, had been killed for wanting some juice and having his hood up. And I asked her: “Can you imagine such a thing ever happening to Paco?”
Continuing to reel, she almost shouted, “It would never.”
“That’s right. Although all of life is uncertain, we can feel fairly secure that Paco could put up his hood and walk to the gas station for a snack—and that he would come home fit and fine. It’s not like that for black boys. They have to move through their days defensively. Even when they’re having fun and just joshing around, some part of them still has to be on alert.”
As we continued to talk, I discovered that although my daughter’s homepage when she goes online is MSNBC, she does a cursory scan of the headlines but generally doesn’t read the articles. Thinking of myself at age 14, I understood. Each morning, racing to read Ann Landers and the funnies, I would hustle past headlines about Israel annexing the Golan Heights—boring—or the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat—who?
Lecturing my teen, I was learning a great deal.
I continued, “Imagine how Robbie feels when he goes to Target. Odds are, he’s the only black person in the store. People stare at him. Now, you and I would stare at him because he’s so striking. That kid is beautiful, right? But a lot of Duluthians would stare at him because they think he’s up to no good. They might think he’s going to steal something, or if he’s just being an excited ten-year-old in the toy aisle, playing around with a Nerf dart gun, you can almost be sure someone will walk past and think, nastily, ‘Yea, another black kid with a gun.’”
Allegra made a noise of protest. “He’s just a kid with a toy. Are people really like that? People wouldn’t really think that, would they?”
Just then, Paco popped his head in through the door, “The ball’s inflated. We’re just waiting for you out here.” I waved him away, promising I’d be out in a few minutes, as my brain processed Allegra’s reaction. When we raise our children with values of tolerance, with a feeling that there is nothing more desirable than diversity, we are simultaneously raising our children to be ignorant of the subtle, wearing, enduring awfulness of racism. My daughter knew only the ideal, not the reality.
“People are like that, hon. And Robbie knows it. He’s a sensitive kid; he totally knows it, and it affects him. Then think about what it’s like for black kids to go to school here. Often, they are the only black face in the classroom. Imagine if a helicopter dropped you into an entirely black area, and you had to walk into the school the next day and make a go of it. Even if everyone were super friendly, still, the main thing on your mind would be, ‘I’m the only white person here.’ Even if you wanted to raise your hand or try to make a new friend, some part of you would feel inhibited.”
Allegra agreed, “Oh, I’ve noticed in all my classes. Usually there are only white kids, and if there is anyone who’s not white, there are only one, maybe two, non-white faces in the room.”
I added, “I really noticed it at your holiday concert. During that amazing finale, there were 400, 500, maybe even 600 kids on the stage. Out of that, there were probably five black kids. Those young people, in every hour of every day, know that they are different from what’s considered the ‘norm.’ On top of that, they have to worry that if they’re walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could get shot, possibly killed. Every week, the news covers more stories of young black men, along the lines of Treyvon Martin, getting stopped by police, and during those interactions with the law, they are shot and killed.”
Confused, Allegra asked, “Who kills them?”
“The police do, sweetie. The police do. It’s a huge problem in this country. I really thought you knew about this…”
“WAIT, WHAT?” her eyes almost spun in her head, and her tone escalated. “WHAT? THE POLICE SHOOT THEM? THE POLICE KILL PEOPLE? I THOUGHT THE POLICE HELPED PEOPLE.”
Hell if we haven’t raised her in the frothiest of bubbles. She continued to splutter; I continued to explain—extraordinarily glad to have been the pin popping the bubble I had blown.
Eventually, seeing Byron’s head out the window as he started towards the house, on his way inside to see what was taking me so long, I shifted into high gear. “Here’s the important thing, my dear duckling: the next step, after awareness, is to know that you can never be a silent witness to racism or homophobia or any kind of discrimination. No matter how much it makes you nervous or nauseous, no matter how much it feels like conflict, you have to stand up in the toughest moments. If someone is being treated with injustice, if unfair attitudes are present, if hateful words are being used, Allegra, you have to stand up against that. It might be figuratively that you’re standing up, but it might be literally—where you walk to someone who is being persecuted and put your body by and with them. But it’s essential that you don’t just try to make yourself flat and disappear while hoping that the moment passes. You are part of it, so stand up. There was one time someone came into our house and used racist and homophobic language, and the situation was so sticky that I let it go. I didn’t stand up. I will never be that person again, though. No matter the consequences, I will never be that person again.”
As I recounted that day, the details of which were complicated but with which Allegra had some passing familiarity, I burst into tears and stood up. Leaning my head out the back door to slow Byron’s progress, I wiped my eyes while calling, “Allegra and I are having a talk about Jenna’s message. I was just telling her about that day when we didn’t know what to do with the bigotry that sauntered into our house. We’ll be done soon. Why don’t you and Paco start a game without me?” Letting screen door slam shut, my eyes welled up again.
I was crying. Allegra was crying. Clearly, my work was done.
Fluffing the long blonde sweep of her hair with my fingers, I reminded her that there are movies, videos, books that can teach her more. I suggested that if she has another research assignment at school, she might consider a topic like the boarding schools Native American children were sent to or even the broader concept of “assimilation.” I reminded her that her godmothers will always be happy to talk to her. I reminded her that part of her purpose in the world is to care for all the Robbies and the Sadies as much as she cares for the Pacos.
Then, with a final squeeze of her shoulders, I headed out into the sunshine, where my healthy, happy, blonde, blue-eyed fellows waited patiently, largely unaware of the tectonic shifts that had just occurred in the kitchen.
Openly, confidently, sure of our place in the world, we played H-O-R-S-E, our only challenge the muddy ball that coated our palms with thawed dirt and pebbles.
Twenty minutes later, after washing the grit off my hands, I checked on Allegra. She stared vacantly at the computer, attempting to complete a Current Events assignment that asked her to write a summary of a news article. She’d chosen one that had Turkey in the title because, ever since we lived there for a year, she is always interested in Turkey. Yet when it came time to condense what the article was reporting, she was stumped.
“I’ve looked it up and read the words, but I still don’t get what ISIS is. Mom, what is ISIS? What country is it in? How many people are in ISIS? What is this Charlie Hebdo? Also, what are border smugglers? And why would Turkey just let people flow back and forth through its borders?”
Filling my lungs with air, I licked my lips, summoned some saliva, and started explaining a few more of the world’s complexities.
Just another Wednesday night, really.