If you are a white mother of white kids, like I am, you have probably been watching as the Trayvon Martin murder story unfolds with a sick feeling in your stomach. Because a black boy was stalked and murdered by an adult with a history of stalking other black boys and no one in law enforcement seems to care. But also because you know that your children could end up being part of a system that allows this to happen.
I’m not suggesting that any of our children are going to be racist predators like George Zimmerman. But there were an awful lot of systematic things that allowed Zimmerman to murder a child in cold blood that shouldn’t have happened–a community unwilling to talk productively about race, fear on all sides, complacency (maybe even complicity) of law enforcement, inaction by people who witnessed Zimmerman’s verbal and written rants about black people (especially boys). If that system had been healthy and functioning, Zimmerman wouldn’t have been given de facto permission to murder a child.
By doing nothing, and allowing things to go along as they were, white people (yes, us) allowed hatred to be the norm in that community. If a few people had spoken up and tried to be thoughtful about community relations years and months ago, Trayvon Martin might not have been killed. By not taking responsibility, we allowed ourselves to be part of that system, because every time we didn’t act or speak, we said it was ok for it to continue. Implied consent.
I rescind my consent.
I am not sure it’s possible for anyone to be truly non-racist. But we can work on it, every day. And we owe it to our children to help them rescind their own consent to be part of a racist system. It is not perfect, and we can’t fix things (indeed, it is presumptuous to think that we can). But we work toward understanding. It hurts sometimes. (A lot, sometimes.) But we have to do it. This is what I am trying to do:
1. Notice. Wherever you are, notice whether there are people of different races and ethnicities around you, or if everyone in the room is white. If everyone in the room is white, think and talk about why that might be. Sometimes it’s natural (a family reunion, a visit to a small town with only one ethnicity of people). Sometimes it’s not. Is something preventing people who are not white from being where you are? What could that be? Is it something we could help? Even if it’s “natural,” why does it happen? Talk about it with your kids.
2. Speak up. It is horrifying the things white people say to other white people when no one of color is around. Maybe you’ve let some comments go by because you didn’t want to “start something” in front of your kids. But your kids need you to teach them what’s right, so in front of your kids is when you need to speak up most. Some racist remarks are made out of ignorance, some out of malice. Treat each remark in the spirit in which it’s intended, and teach before fighting. But speak up, so your children know what’s important and what’s right. Then, later, talk about what happened and what you said.
3. Ask questions. Exclusion is not always conscious, so ask questions and invite conversation in places and groups that are not actively inclusive. Give people a chance to think about the question, “Is there something we’re doing that makes people feel unwelcome that we could be doing differently?” If a group isn’t willing to explore, you may need to find other places to be. But chances are, people just haven’t thought about it and might need your supportive help to change. Then, talk about it with your kids.
4. Shut up. Everybody’s racist, but some people suffer the effects of racism consistently. Most white people do not, whether we realize it or not. Every story isn’t about you. Being quiet and listening to other people’s experience will never hurt you. Then, talk about what you heard with your kids.
Children make sense out of the world they experience on their own, but what they deduce may not be what you want them to know. Talking about your values is key to raising people of honor. White people can’t “fix” racism, but it’s everyone’s responsibility, and none of us can do it alone.
Let us all have the courage to say and do what needs to be said and done.
(This post was heavily influenced by the ideas in the “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” chapter of the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and by the broken windows theory of criminology of Dr. James Q. Wilson.)