A spring break road trip leads to a family discussion about race

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 9, 2012

They call it spring break for a reason.

Yes, I’m broken.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

I file this dispatch from an Alabama motel somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. No, the children will not be back to school on time. The windshield of the van is shattered. Jumper cables and Mardi Gras beads are irrevocably tangled. And the slime on the floor of the car has become tidal.

This was not what I had planned.

“Staycation!” I declared, when we looked at the schedule and budget this year.

But we were just days into the staycation when I made a different declaration.

“New Orleans!” I announced.

So my husband cleared the work decks, and we loaded the car in the middle of last week. We were giddy as we tapped out our old New Orleans address into the GPS.

“19 hrs 27 mins,” the GPS mocked.

Onward.

The kids made pipe-cleaner and suction-cup monsters for the windows, we sang songs and played I Spy, 20 Questions and the license plate game. Then we passed Tysons Corner. How did the pioneers — let alone our parents — do this before the iPad?

By the time we got to Tennessee, I had violated every technology rule I have. The 7-year-old not only purchased Angry Birds Space but got a high score on it, while the 5-year-old mastered Temple Run.

Then a charger broke and the screens went blank. I tried a different tactic.

“We are in Tennessee,” I told the boys. “Do you have any idea what happened here 44 years ago today? Someone shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King.”

My husband began to look uneasy. “Is this a conversation for little kids?” was written all over his face.

“Yeah! And they were very bad people,” my 5-year-old said. “Dr. Martin Luther King said fight with only your mouth, no fists.”

The car fell silent, as Dad and I widened our eyes. Thank you, D.C. public schools.

We have always struggled with these conversations. Most white folks are scared to talk about race, and we aren’t any different. I worry that telling stories of oppression, racism, segregation and even slavery will taint the way our children see their friends of color.

But I once again go back to the studies that tell us this is dangerous, a topic highlighted famously in the book “Nurtureshock.”

Whether it’s the history of America, the obvious differences in neighborhoods and schools that our children see right before them or the case of Trayvon Martin, clamming up about race only creates a vacuum that misinformation can fill.

“Colorblindness dictates that we should not notice or talk about race, and thus the right thing to do in polite company is to not acknowledge difference,” Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a social and personality psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in a recent issue of Psychology Today. “The goal is noble: as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. movingly said, we want to judge people ‘not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ ”

But kids notice skin color early on. And although we try to explain that skin color doesn’t matter, it does. Just ask Trayvon’s parents.

So talking about it is the only way to teach. And what better way to do it than on a road trip?

We got back into the car in Tennessee and talked about civil rights, and how the kids would feel if they couldn’t sit on the same bus as their friends or use the same drinking fountain. Or what if we were afraid to drive at night simply because of the color of our skin? What if we had to tell them not to wear hoodies?

The rest of the drive was certainly more interesting.

And when we got to New Orleans (finally), we talked about sugar plantations and slavery. A sugar-coated version, for sure, but it was a conversation we hadn’t had before.

It wasn’t perfect, I didn’t create world peace, but it was a start. Something you can do with 19 hours on your hands.

In New Orleans, the boys rescued a turtle from the bike path at Audobon Park, sucked the head of a crawfish and learned to shuck a tail, ate po’ boys and observed that the windshield of a minivan cannot support the weight of a middle-aged dad who climbs on the car to pull a really great string of Mardi Gras beads off a tree branch.

They learned the Southern art of complimenting a lady:“That’s a beautiful hat! Throw me some beads!” at the French Quarter Easter Parade thrown by the city’s most infamous nightclub owner/dancer.

As we dragged the beads and our sweaty selves back to the car for the 19-hour drive back (which turned into 23 hours because we learned in Mississippi that we left a suitcase at the hotel and had to turn around), we knew it had been worth it.

Broken windshield and all.

To read Petula Dvorak’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
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