I was herding my son out the door for school this morning, and as we walked out on to our front sidewalk I felt a sense of unease, acutely aware of a new war, a brewing storm from which I could not hide myself or my family. And after buckling Daniel in and sitting behind the wheel, I wondered at the exponential increase in that unease I would have felt as a Black person or as a police officer in uniform.
My son has become interested in sports over the past year or so, to the point where he will sit and watch most of a soccer match or basketball game with my husband. For a four-year-old, sitting and focusing on something for that long is no small feat. My husband and I both like sports (although, I have pulled away from them since becoming a mom for various reasons that deserve an essay of their own), and most likely from us, our son has picked up a habit. He will say something like, “The red guy just scored a goal.” Or, “We’re cheering for the orange guys.” And all of that seemed innocent enough until we were watching Golden State in the NBA playoffs at a Buffalo Wild Wings and my son said rather loudly, “We don’t like the black guys,” referring to the dark jerseys of the away team. We explained to him that he needed to say, the guys in the black jerseys and the guys in the white jerseys, because what he was intending to say and what was coming out meant two very different things.
Like most four-year olds, my son repeats what he hears, and things that garner a reaction of any kind, he tends to repeat a lot. For instance, my Athiest propensity for saying “Jesus Christ” has translated into Daniel’s use of the phrase occasionally, but only because I tried to stop him from saying it (for my father’s sake, at the very least). He takes cues from backed up traffic or cars that cut me off, and says, “Jesus Christ, right mommy?”, knowing that he will see the pained look on face, partially due to the scars I’m undoubtedly inflicting on him and partially due to my sadness at yet another loss of the “Mom of the Year” award.
This morning as I was driving him to school, a red car bumped into a black car at a light, a minor fender bender. Daniel, ever the play-by-play reporter, said, “That red guy hit that black guy,” And my protest was louder than usual. “Daniel! I have asked you to stop saying that; you say red car and black car,” I wasn’t yelling, but he knew I was upset.
And like any kid who questions everything, he said, “Why does everyone keep telling me that?”
Parenting these days is hard. You want to be honest, you have to be. But it is so appealing to take our parents’ route of generalizing everything, of letting us figure out the hard shit on our own, sometimes when it was too late. We call penises penises, not wee-wees, we are more open about sex and religion and all the stuff that is hard to talk about. And we have to be honest about our world; we can’t say we are colorblind when no one actually is. We can’t pretend we’re always safe when they’re running active shooter drills in the kindergartens. We have to be real with our kids, even if we still get to sugarcoat it a little for the sake of letting a four-year old be four.
“Daniel, the reason we keep saying that is because when you say things like white guy and black guy, it sounds like you are saying white people and black people, instead of talking about cars or basketball players or soccer players.”
I see his look in the rearview mirror; he is processing. I don’t even know where I’m going with this, but I’m emotional, so I keep talking. “There are people who are white and people who are black and people who are brown, and we love all of them”
Now he’s calling bullshit. “We don’t love people we don’t know, mommy, right?”
I’m crying now, and I keep confusing him with more spewing, “Yes, yes we do. We love all the people we know and all the people we don’t know.” And now because I’m improvising and worried that I’m basically telling him to get into a car with a pedophile offering candy, I add, “There are a few bad people in the world, and we have to watch out for the sneaky people, but for the most part, everyone is good, and it doesn’t matter what color we are, we love people because they need it right now. We all need it.”
And then Daniel says, “Ok. Did you pack strawberries in my lunch?”
With that, my lesson is on pause. But other parents from my diverse neighborhood don’t have it so easy this morning. My privilege is ringing in my ears.
I don’t know what the answer to any of this is. I felt as sick this morning at learning of those police officers’ deaths as I did this week learning of the deaths of of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Innocent people are dying because of the acts of a few bad people, and somehow the answer is to hate everyone who looks like or wears the same uniform as the bad people. Somehow the answer to terrorism is ban everyone who looks like they are from the same region where terrorist cells are located. Bullets are flying in every fucking direction because everyone is armed to the teeth and angry as hell, and we’re just supposed to keep living and raising our kids like it isn’t happening.
Loving all the people is a start, I guess, but where is the parenting book that tells you how to navigate this? What do you do when they’re eight and ten years old? How do you explain it once they start to see the world for what it really is? How do you explain Donald Trump’s rise to Muslim and Mexican children? How do you tell kids that people hate them for no reason? How do I tell my kid that he gets a pass on that because he’s blonde and blue eyed? And how do I stop feeling relief at that without being a complete and total asshole? I need someone to answer these questions for me. Because I’m starting to get nervous about walking out my own front door with my child, and that’s how some people feel every fucking day. Explain that to a four-year old.