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Why I’m not talking to my black sons about the unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing

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The irony that my first glimpse of the video of George Floyd, crying out for his deceased mother as he died while pinned beneath the weight of a police officer’s knee on a Minneapolis street, was on the same day as my own black son’s kindergarten graduation is not lost on me.

The fact that I have been at a loss for words ever since, however, is complicated for me and likely confounding to those who know me well.

You see, I’m that person who everyone calls when they want to commiserate about the latest racial incident in the news or to discuss their experiences with a co-worker, neighbor, friend or total stranger who usually thinks they’re above it all, but somehow manages to express some of the same racist ideologies and actions as card-carrying white supremacists often do. I’m the one currently wrapping up production on my first podcast, which not only covers, but also illuminates, the fact that deep-seeded racism remains a driving force behind the gender pay gap that persists and often penalizes black women in the American workplace.

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You can count on me for that spirited back-and-forth debate on social media, admonishing the latest divisive, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic word, action or deed being imparted by the current presidential administration. I have built a 20-plus year journalism career and public persona centered around promoting public discourse on issues of race and gender in America; once even profusely thanking internationally acclaimed race scholar Jane Elliott of the famed “Blue eyes — Brown eyes” racism exercise after an interview at her home, for transforming my knowledge and understanding of race and racism in America as a teenager.

So why then am I speechless and disturbingly silent with my own two black sons, ages 6 and 8, about the unrest exploding across the country in wake of Floyd’s death? In a nutshell, plain and simple: I just can’t bring myself to steal their black boy joy. I believe that knowledge is power, but in many ways when it comes to race and impressionable, developing young minds, ignorance also is often bliss. Studies have confirmed that racism, the weight of it and the crushing reality of it all, is harmful to one’s health. I believe it changes the hearts, minds and souls of those who experience it; the damage often irreversible. I’m trying to spare my boys from that reality for as long as it is safely possible.

It is hard to put into words the pressure we black parents face, to look into the faces of our precious children and impart to them that some people honestly believe that they are less-than because of something minute as skin pigmentation and culture. There’s real anxiety in the experience of spending years teaching your little ones to play nicely and “treat people the way you want to be treated” only to know that one day you’ll have to follow that message with: but as an African American, you likely won’t be afforded that same privilege; you may consistently be treated unequally or unfairly in the very country that our ancestors help build.

The predicament is even more precarious in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. My husband, myself and our parents have worked tirelessly these past few months, carefully constructing this comfortable, coronavirus-free cocoon in our home; one where our boys are well aware of the dangers of a deadly disease spreading indiscriminately across the globe and that we’re doing everything in our power to keep them safe.

Conversely, we’re having to grapple with the excruciating reality that all of the hand-washing, face masks and sheltering-in-place in the world won’t help us protect them from America’s perpetual pandemic of racism. And now as the vile, ugliness of racist police brutality comes to a head in explosive fashion in the form of protests and violent clashes on American streets, we struggle in sobering silence as these scenes play out on television screens.

We have been privileged to have the resources — and the forethought — to raise our boys in a carefully selected diverse community; one where they feel free, supported, celebrated and safe daily. We’re also fortunate to have found a school, again carefully selected, where they have thrived and where diversity is not merely a buzzword; their blackness thus far never penalized, criminalized or minimized. The result has been genuinely happy, well-adjusted kids who love and value themselves — and the skin they’re in — and who think nothing unusual of their diverse mix of white, Latino, Asian, black and multiracial playmates and neighbors.

Watching them navigate this makeshift utopia we’ve built, a picture-perfect image of what America could, and dare I say, should be, has been our bliss and a barometer of our success as parents. We know it won’t last forever, but when should we lift the veil?

As a journalist, I value sharing information, but through my own experiences and that of friends, family and colleagues, I also know the flip side; the heart-wrenching repercussions that racist actions and words — and even the knowledge of it — imposes on lives; the pain often palpable for many years, and at times decades, after the fact. What’s wrong with trying to stave that reality off a little longer for our beautiful little boys?

I am hopeful that the more we allow them to live their full, beautiful, brown selves without thought of limitation, restriction or stereotype, the stronger they will be when the binds of bigotry finally show up in their lives. My dream is that keeping them shielded from the demeaning narratives that persist about people who look like them in our society, the stronger they will be rooted in the positive and uplifting affirmations we, as parents, bestow upon them daily. But alas, I know that there are consequences of being young, black and uninformed in America. Look no further than the heartbreaking tragedies of Trayvon Martin and little Tamir Rice, as reminders of that.

So, the talk, the heartbreaking talk, is coming and definitely sooner than my husband and I had hoped. But we, and we alone, will make that decision of where and how that discussion takes place and when we feel they are ready and able to fully comprehend the message. I believe that it is our right as African American parents to decide when the time is right for us to have to look into the precious faces of our little black boys and break the unfortunate news that America’s promise of “liberty and justice” unfortunately still, does not apply to all.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist and a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. She is the host and producer of In The Gap, a forthcoming podcast for In These Times Magazine about how the gender pay gap adversely impacts the lives of black women in the American workforce.

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