Lei and I have been talking a lot about the killing of nine African Americans in their church in Charleston, SC, on June 17, institutionalized racism, economic injustice and police brutality.
When she was eight or nine I felt she was mature enough to start learning about these issues that are such a big part of our country’s past and present, so even though it was awkward for me at first, I have tried to be as up front with her as possible about racial inequality.
Deaf or hard-of-hearing children don’t overhear. When someone mutters a racial slur, or when a disturbing story is reported on the radio, they might not make sense of it or even realize anything was said. I’m glad Lei has missed some of the ways that misinformation about race creeps into our brains before we are old enough to really think about what we’re hearing.
But I don’t want her to be uninformed, apathetic or helpless. As Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. I believe deeply in the principle of justice, a state in which good is rewarded and evil is punished, no matter who does either. Fairness. It’s a simple concept, but in this country the weight of punishment falls too often and too heavily on people of color. And the rewards are enjoyed disproportionately by those who have light skin. The potential of countless young people of color has been lost forever because of this inequality, and the effects of living complacently, silently affirming our right to be privileged, has had a noxious effect on the souls of white people.
As a white parent of light-skinned children, that very privilege lets me choose when I teach my children about racism. They aren’t targeted in preschool, the way many many darker-skinned kids are. I get to wait until I feel they are developmentally ready.
Still, it doesn’t come easy. I frequently make mistakes along the way, and I find myself tongue-tied sometimes because I don’t know where to start. Hearing my daughter be angry at the police leaves me scrambling. Yes, there is a lot of bad history that has touched our African American loved ones and communities. But each officer is a human and deserves the same respect as everyone else, aside from the fact of performing a dangerous and stressful public service every day. Yes, it is indeed noble for the families of the victims in Charleston to offer their forgiveness, but justice must be done, and already we see the accused shooter being treated better than African Americans who have done nothing even remotely like killing someone.
Awkward or not, it is my job to teach my child these things to the best of my ability, and to field all the uncomfortable questions, admitting at times that I don’t know, or that my heart is heavy, too. Having two communication channels – visual and auditory – has helped. Sometimes I just can’t make my voice utter what has to be said. But my hands can do it.
The wave after wave of racially-charged incidents that flood social media are hard to witness. So I try to tune in to my friends and family who are people of color, and take an attitude of learning about race and racism. When I notice that I’m doing more talking than listening, or reacting with anger, defensiveness or disrespect, I try to acknowledge my own racism and actively weed it out.
So I was excited to learn about the #CharlestonSyllabus*, a list of readings intended for educators discussing the events in Charleston with students. This summer, the conversations will continue. I look forward to enriching my understanding of racial injustice, and learning more about what I can do to build a more just society, because unlike many of my neighbors, I’m unlikely to be targeted because of the color of my skin.
*The #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag was created by Kidada E. Williams (@KidadaEWilliams), Keisha N. Blain (@KeishaBlain), Chad Williams (@Dr_ChadWIlliams), and the African American Intellectual History Society (@AAIHS). It was inspired by Marcia Chatelain (@DrMChatelain)