A sniper shooting at Dallas police officers as they guard a group of peaceful protesters is easy to make clear to my 6-year-old. Like many kids his age, his moral compass is largely informed by the bad guys and good guys of comics. At the kitchen table, Jackson diligently colors and chooses stickers for the front of his card. “Only the Lego stickers of police, mommy. No Batman,” he chides when I offer some help. He takes so long making the card that getting him to write “Thank you” and “Love, Jackson” is a battle.
“What were the police doing?” Jackson probes without even looking up from his work. I reply that the police were guarding a group of protesters. Let’s leave it at that, I tell myself. Always better to be truthful but not over-answer the question. I’m reminded of when Jackson asked why his sister doesn’t have a penis. “Because girls have vaginas.” No further questions? Back to the playing Legos? Good.
But it’s clear by the time we drive to fetch his sister from camp that Jackson’s interest is piqued. What are protesters? What’s a protest? The questions rapid-fired along with his own patchwork answers. I started to explain the word protest and the Black Lives Matter movement, and Jackson interjects with another response to all the new information.
“So they were mad at the police? So the police are the bad guys?”
My heart beats a little faster. How do I teach respect for officers who patrol our community and underscore my empathy for a movement like Black Lives Matter? And more important, I knew it was time to have a discussion about race that went beyond some families look different than ours.
In my rearview mirror, I see Jackson’s blue eyes dart around. I know he’s really thinking, figuring. It just doesn’t compute that a peaceful group of protesters (good guys) would be angry at police (also good guys). And so he proffers an answer, “So the police are bad guys disguised as good guys.”
So my speech begins, some version of this:
“No, all police officers are not bad guys. In fact, many police officers are really good at catching bad guys. And many of them are good people and they do a dangerous job. But the protesters are angry because some police officers use violence too quickly, or when they shouldn’t. And they feel like police officers do this mostly with black people. A lot. But when the shooter started killing police officers at that protest, that was wrong. And the Dallas police officers were protecting those people, even when those people were angry and demanding change. It’s complicated and you might not understand right now. But you need to know two things. 1. You should respect police officers. 2. And this might be especially hard to understand, but because you are white, you will have very different experiences than people who are black. So we all should be quick to listen to others when they shout ‘Hey! Something’s wrong here!’ And we should make them feel like they are being heard.”
I wait. I wonder what Jackson understands or even if he listened to everything I said.
Jackson recalls his lunch table in his response, “I do listen to Kalvin. He always wants to talk about Pokémon. And Isajah doesn’t talk much. And Sameeh sits at a different table because he can’t have peanuts.”
The past few days I’ve pondered our conversation. It made me really uncomfortable to discuss racism with him and I need to figure out why that was, even if it means confronting some of my less honorable feelings about race.
Growing up white in the 1980s in a suffocating atmosphere of political correctness, the boilerplate was this: We are all equal. We are all the same. Treat everyone kindly. And whatever you do, don’t say anything to offend anyone. In college, I remember walking with a friend who invited me to a student-led meeting of all black students. They would discuss issues that faced black students at Fordham. The look on my face was probably enough for her to add, “It’s okay that you’re white. You can come and talk too. Or just listen.” That conversation happened almost 15 years ago, and I still cringe when I think of how I made up an excuse so I didn’t have to go simply because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or be uncomfortable. But just like she said, I should’ve gone and just listened.
Being quick to listen to the experiences of those who look different from our family is exactly what I want my children to do as they get older. Instructing my children to be nice is not enough. White parents need to start talking to their kids about race. I want my children to know that many times people of other races have a very different experience in this country than white people do. And that by virtue of their skin color, my children will be complicit (even unintentionally) in systemic and institutionalized racism and they will be afforded unearned privileges.
And a lot of this starts with listening. Be still. Be quiet. And just listen.
Kristin Sample is a writer, teacher and dancer. Her novel “North Shore South Shore” is available on Kindle. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kristinsample or check out her blog, kristinsample.com.
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