The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Telling our daughter why hate came to our town

Pittsburgh residents at a vigil for victims of last month's shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. (Jorge Santiago)

Around 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, I left my house in Squirrel Hill to go for a run. As I waited to cross Murray Avenue, a police car raced up the center of the street. I found it strange, but I kept on, passing dozens of Jewish families heading to synagogue. I ran in the street to give them room. I saw one mother beckon to a little boy lingering on the threshold of their home, and I smiled at him. Then I entered the park and disappeared into the reverie of my music and my run until, 20 minutes later, my husband, Jorge, called.

“There’s an active shooter in the neighborhood,” he said. “Don’t come home. We’re not allowed to go outside.”

I felt a terror I have never experienced anywhere in the world, even after living and traveling in Latin America, Africa and Asia, in places many in the United States would label “dangerous.” Images flashed in rapid succession: The woman beckoning to her child. My husband and daughter at our windows. The synagogues, the scrambling of people inside, blood. I was at the bottom of the ravine in the wide-open park. Where do I even go? I thought. Then I thought, Jorge will be next. A brown immigrant with an accent. I ran in circles around the park for another hour, blind to my body, in a blur.

Jorge called and said they’d caught the guy and I could come back. On my way home, the streets felt like they belonged to another city, another country. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked, and I said, “Nothing.” I didn’t want to scare her.

It is strange to see the place where one lives and which one takes for granted suddenly in the spotlight, drawn up for a national audience. On “All Things Considered,” Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, who lives in Squirrel Hill, called it “the most diverse neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania.” On CNN, on NPR, in the New York Times, it was portrayed as a neighborhood with a strong Jewish identity and as a melting pot of cultures. This diversity was the main reason we’d chosen to live here. On our street are Chinese families; South Asian families; a transgender woman and her partner; Orthodox Jewish families; our Mexican American family; and an interracial white and African American family. At the Blue Slide Playground, where my daughter plays, it’s not unusual to hear several languages, and to have a passel of kids of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds waiting in line for the slide with a square of cardboard.

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I realize that this sounds like virtue signaling, a self-congratulation about diversity as a status symbol. I have seen how easily diversity can be wielded as a badge of progressivism, along with organics and reusable stainless-steel mugs. I have been guilty of this easy smugness. But I also have experienced, as the wife of a Mexican immigrant and the mother of a Mexican American daughter, how diversity can be a very real measure of safety. How it is a key metric for whether my family is at risk. We no longer feel entirely safe in exclusively white rural or suburban spaces. Relatives, some of whom voted for our president, will tell us to be careful driving through certain areas of the Midwest. Diversity lets us know that we are in a space where difference is not likely to be associated with danger.

The great irony is that the diversity that makes us feel safe also puts a bull’s eye on us. It is not a minor point that the white man who posted racist tirades on far-right websites had to drive into our diverse neighborhood to carry out the synagogue attack. For him, diversity was a threat; it was so separate from him as to be expendable with an AR-15. This attitude of separateness infects not only blatant white supremacists but all people who are or believe themselves to be insulated from hate against others of different backgrounds, races, religions. More and more under this President, white people are encouraged to curl into the protective embrace of their whiteness. When my husband and I stop at gas stations in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, I get the gas. I go inside. I stare at the people around me: Whom did they vote for? What will they think if my husband gets out, carrying our daughter with her long black hair?

Thinking of the diversity of our neighborhood, and the growing, hostile whiteness of so many other American spaces, I decided to talk with my daughter about the shooting. My decision came not only because she saw how upset my husband and I were, or because half the neighborhood was barricaded. It came because I believe that a true commitment to diversity means teaching my daughter that people like her father, or like our Jewish neighbors, can be the target of violence and hate. It means teaching her the difficult and painful lesson that this violence is not apart from us, that we have a responsibility to fight it as a community. This is a lesson I believe my whole neighborhood has learned in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting. I have seen it in the signs in people’s windows, in the candlelit vigil at which a local Muslim leader announced a Go Fund Me campaign for Jewish victims, in the protest at which 2,000 neighbors sang songs of mourning as the president’s motorcade approached, but in the smallest daily acts: the letter our neighbor wrote saying how grateful she was that we were her neighbors. The way people say hi to one another in the parks, and smile to hear us speaking Spanish. The tenderness, arising from tragedy, that brings a community together to affirm the fact that we are all responsible for one another. This is what it means to live in a diverse neighborhood. I want my daughter to know this. I want her to feel obligated and to be held, kindly, lovingly, by that obligation in others.

She is only 4, but she is old enough to hold out her arm and observe, “Papi’s skin is brown, and my skin is brown, but Mommy’s skin is white!” She has observed Central American mothers at our house, deeply traumatized by their separation from their children, and she has listened when we explain to her that some people are scared of immigrants. “Like Papi?” she has asked, and I have said, “Like Papi.” She has listened while I explained, “This man killed these people with a gun,” asking, “Why did he hate them?” She has sat quietly while I said, “Some people hate other people because they are different. This is why it is important to love everybody: people with different skin, who speak different languages, and who believe different things than we do.”

She has asked, “Will we get shot?” To this I answered, in the way parents dismiss fears of monsters, “No, honey” — all the while thinking that I do not know.

I don’t know, but I know this: I want my daughter to grow up knowing diversity not only as a celebration, but as a commitment central to who we are as a family and to American society, an affirmation of how we are responsible to one another, how violence against one affects us all. I want my daughter to understand that differences between people are real, and that for some people, difference is scary. I want her generation to be able to confront these fears in different ways, in part by mere proximity, in part by meaningful dialogue. That begins with me talking to her about what happened in our neighborhood, and why.

The violence that came to my neighborhood will eventually come for all of us. That Saturday morning was terrible, sickening, but the most surreal part of it was the echo of all of the other mass shootings: all the times we’d heard on the news, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Charleston, and already a new one in Thousand Oaks, and thought for a minute, ugh, how awful, and gone on with our lives. The most surreal part wasn’t how far from the norm it was, but the fact that this was, in fact, an American norm. This hate, this terror, is buried deep within the veins of our country and it’s not going away. If anything, it’s getting worse. It is reinforced by our separateness, by the idea that violence only happens to certain people, different people, diverse people.

A week after the shooting, we went to a birthday party in the neighborhood. We ate tikka masala, samosas, pizza and cake. The kids raced around in the backyard. I chatted in Spanish with a Peruvian couple whose daughter was new to my daughter’s school. Afterward, there was a street fair on Murray Avenue, a way to celebrate the community in the face of such sadness. We ate falafel and listened to a high school band play Amy Winehouse covers. There was a rawness in the air, a sense that everyone was holding one another very carefully — all of us vulnerable, but all of us newly, boldly, fiercely together.

Sarah Menkedick is the author of “Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm” (Pantheon, 2017). Her second book, on an epidemic of anxiety in American motherhood, is forthcoming from Pantheon. She lives with her photographer husband and her daughter in Pittsburgh.

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