The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A man was unjustly killed here.’ Interracial families face challenge explaining George Floyd’s death to their children

Josh Melton, his wife, Hope Melton, and daughter Izzy near their sign-making tent on June 1 in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/for The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — Hope and Josh Melton decided to bring their 5-year-old daughter, Izzy, to the intersection where George Floyd was killed by a police officer here so she could begin to process the events that appeared to be gripping her parents' attention.

They bought white poster board in bulk, colored markers and sunscreen, and headed into the city from their home in Blaine, 15 miles north. Izzy and her father knelt by the flowers on the sidewalk in front of Cup Foods at 38th and Chicago.

Josh, 29, told his daughter that “a man was unjustly killed here.” All the people protesting, he said, were leaders trying to change the world.

They pitched a tent outside a friend’s dollar store a block away and offered passersby the tools to make signs. Izzy started coloring her own.

Hope, who is black, and Josh, who is white, haven’t defined their daughter’s race in conversations with her. Izzy calls herself “light brown,” and her parents figure she’ll figure it out for herself. But they want her to begin to think about who gets to speak, and who doesn’t, when tragedies like this one strike.

“I told her we came out here because we want to help out someone who was hurt,” Hope said. “And he can’t talk for himself anymore. So we make signs and kind of talk for him. And we just tell her how brave she is by coming out here.”

The Meltons are one of many interracial couples who brought their children to Floyd’s memorial and gatherings all over the city in protest of police brutality and the systems that beget deaths like Floyd’s, an incident that has touched off protests in hundreds of American communities from Los Angeles to the gates of the White House.

They are among millions of U.S. families looking for ways to relay the realities of this moment to their children, but the Meltons do so with the added hurdle of having an interracial household. It’s a reality for more and more Americans every day: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans who identified as both white and black doubled between 2000 and 2010, and the percentage of mixed-race births grew from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013.

Family tensions that were exacerbated by the election of President Trump — a polarizing figure who has little support among minorities and has described peaceful protesters of police brutality as “thugs” — have been renewed and intensified for families who spoke to The Washington Post in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Parents who learned about U.S. race relations in slow-burn fashion as children, before social media, have spent the past two weeks coming up with ways to contextualize the images their children are seeing online and in the news.

Alex Sharp, 31, and his wife, Jessica, brought their four children to the Floyd memorial here on Monday and stood on the outskirts of a circle of Native American activists dancing to spread healing throughout the community. Sharp, whose father is black and whose mother is white, says his father-in-law recently retired from the New Hope Police Department where they live in the Minneapolis suburbs. Sharp once backed the police in conversations with his eldest son, Devyn, 10, but now his thinking has changed.

“My father-in-law was a good cop; he was actually very fair,” Sharp said. “I tried to preach to my son that the cops are usually here to serve and protect. But after this, after seeing everything on TV, my thinking has shifted on that.”

Mike and Kristen Savage — white parents who have two biological children, three Haitian-born children and a Guatemalan teenage daughter — brought their family to the Floyd memorial and heard Terrence Floyd, George’s brother, address the crowd. Their eldest son, Ben, an 11-year-old they adopted following the Haiti earthquakes in 2010, spent the car ride home in silence.

“It’s tricky as parents to figure out how much about the idea of racism you really want to introduce to your kids,” said Kristen Savage, 42. “We live in the suburbs. They’re protected by our white privilege. We want them to know it’s a reality they need to understand.”

Tensions with the in-laws

Josh Melton met his wife, Hope, 10 years ago at Spin nightclub in Minneapolis. Thursday was college night, and they used their school IDs to get in. He asked her to dance.

A few months later, Hope was meeting Josh’s family at his late mother’s home in Elk River, a little more than half an hour out of town. The conversation found its way to race and religion.

“We love you,” one of Josh’s relatives quipped to Hope. “But not if you were Muslim.”

Hope didn’t hesitate: “I am Muslim,” she deadpanned. She’s not, but she was making a point. Her mother raised her and her sisters to be strong black women, she says, and to leave little unsaid.

“They looked like they had seen a ghost,” Hope said. “They were like, ‘Oh, no, we’re not — we’re not saying all Muslims.’ ”

She said they later spoke over her at family get-togethers, ignoring her opinions. It created a small rift in the family, between those who defended her and those who treated her poorly.

“There are people we’ve cut off, that we don’t even see anymore because of this,” Josh said.

Josh’s father, Tim Melton, said he disagrees with Hope’s assessment of the family.

“From what I noticed, Hope brings a lot of attitude,” Tim Melton said. “Black, white, green or purple makes no difference to me.”

Hope said the most difficult part of an interracial relationship is that it’s almost like melding two worlds together.

“It’s sad when we keep letting our ancestors, our issues, our problems carry on to the next generation,” Hope said. “But I don’t think it’s ever come to the point where his family is like, you need to leave her, it’s us or her, because, I mean,” Hope paused, gesturing broadly at herself, “I’m amazing.”

The day before bringing Izzy to the Floyd memorial, Hope, an optician, posted a Facebook status update criticizing the use of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes to decry violent protesters. Josh’s stepmom responded.

“I posted something along the lines of: ‘Don’t use MLK as a scapegoat. We don’t even know what he would do because you guys killed him,’ ” Hope said. “And her comment was: ‘So you support the riots?’ My reply was: ‘Do you support racism?’ And it kind of spiraled out of control after that.”

Many of the same relatives who spar with her online and dismiss her in person adore her daughter, but both Hope and Josh are wary of their attention.

“She’s not going to stay 5 and cute forever,” Hope said. “She’s going to grow up and be opinionated, just like her mother and father.”

Alex Sharp said his wife engages in similar fights with conservative family members and friends online, but he stays out of it. Their chief concern has been providing a proper context to the images his children are seeing on television. They have a 10-year-old son and three daughters, ages 8, 5 and 3.

“My son asked what’s going on, what happened and why did it happen,” said Sharp, whose father-in-law is a former police sergeant. “It is very complicated for him. He knows that George Floyd got murdered by a police officer, but he doesn’t understand the magnitude of it.”

One of the things that worry the Sharps is the media portrayal of the nighttime violence in Minneapolis, and how it was confirming the biases of their peers in New Hope, about 10 miles northwest of where Floyd was killed. Alex was born in south Minneapolis, and he didn’t want his children fearing the city, so they got in the car and headed there.

First they went to Floyd’s memorial, pushing the youngest in a stroller. Then they went to the ruins of the AutoZone store that rioters destroyed, where they met people sweeping up debris. Devyn Sharp, 10, began individually thanking the people who were cleaning, and his sisters followed suit.

“He’s the type of kid who tells soldiers, ‘Thank you for your service.’ He’s got a big heart,” Sharp said. “We don’t want them to think Minneapolis is a scary place. We’ve heard people in New Hope say that if you go down there, you have to roll up your windows. No, if you don’t mess with anybody, you won’t have any problems.”

Sharp hopes that with trips like these, they’re preparing their children to one day identify and process comments like that as symptoms of bias. Their children are a quarter black and aren’t immediately recognized as being mixed-race, but the Sharps have noticed children begin to treat theirs differently after seeing their black father.

“I’ve said to him in the past, there are some people out there who don’t like people because of the color of their skin, or how they dress and act, and you just try to stay away from those people when you can,” Sharp said of his son.

'Show some love and kindness'

The Savages were hosting friends in their backyard recently — maintaining social distance — when the conversation turned to Floyd. They quickly realized none of their peers were having the same conversations they were with their white children. Most of them were avoiding the topic outright.

“I think it’s easy for people to avoid those conversations if they don’t have to have them, if it’s not life and death,” Kristen Savage said. “And that’s the definition of white privilege.”

The Savages, who home-school their six children, have always emphasized racial identities, filling their home with dolls representing many races. Peers who opt to raise their white children “to not see color,” in Kristen Savage’s words, have overheard them and questioned the Savages’ motives.

“We don’t want our kids to think their color is something that people will be blind to, because they won’t,” said Kristen Savage, who has a master’s degree in special and elementary education from Minnesota State University at Mankato. “We want them to see the color and ethnic background of other people in the world and see God’s diversity and to love and appreciate that diversity, not to pretend that doesn’t exist because its existence is painful or something.”

Mike Savage, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnetonka who previously was a teacher and administrator in Minneapolis, says his 11-year-old son from Haiti largely has been silent during their conversations about what happened to Floyd.

“We were taking a walk, and he said, ‘Dad, I just have to think about the fun stuff,’ ” Mike Savage said. “Legos, video games.”

They feel it’s important to engage their children on these issues, but not to push them too far. Driving into the city and watching Floyd’s brother speak was a starting point. During the ride home, when they asked Ben specifically what he thought, his sisters endured the silence for just a few moments before interjecting their views.

“We want to prepare him, but we don’t want to shoulder him with a burden that he doesn’t need to have at 11 years old,” Kristen Savage said.

When they got home, Ben retreated to the backyard pool for a swim. Their 11-year-old Haitian-born daughter, Elise, went to her stash of street chalk and took to the driveway. She scrawled on the black pavement in pink: “Let’s show some love and kindness.”

Back at Floyd’s memorial, under a tent a block down the street, Izzy finished her sign. It had a big green smiley face with heart eyes, a rainbow, and three words: “This Family Love.”