Friday, December 5, 2014

white mom talking to her white kid about race, probably poorly

I wrote this out so I could talk, really talk, to my kid about race today. I've been a crappy ally, because I've relied on my privilege to not talk EXPLICITLY to my kid about this stuff. I've been hinting around it for the last several years, but I haven't laid it all out there. And it's only right to do it.


Dear Charlotte,

I'm writing you a letter, because sometimes it is hard to figure out how to get important information to you without forgetting some of my points. And sometimes it's easier for me to read something then to just speak it out of my head. And so I'm writing this letter to tell you some things and then we can talk about it after, okay?

You know how you are always asking me about when I was a kid, and what I did to get in trouble, and things like that? Well, one of the biggest things I used to get in trouble for was talking back and being fresh. And something I used to say all the time was "It's not fair!" and my mom, your Nana, would say, "Life isn't fair." and then I would say, "Then we should make it as fair as we can!" Nana would get upset, because that was being fresh, but I thought then it was a good point, and it's a good point still.

The thing is - life *isn't* fair. There are so many things out of our control on this earth that just aren't fair. Babies are born sick, people we love get sick, accidents happen that aren't anybody's fault, bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That's all a case of "Life's not fair," and there isn't anything we can do about it. But sometimes, when life isn't fair, there *is* something we can do about it, and I think that's what I used to get mad about and that's what I still get mad about. If you notice that a friend is being unkind to another friend, you don't say to yourself, "Life's not fair," and walk away, right? You either try to help your friends get along, or you find someone to help mediate. If you find out, for example, that Dakin Animal Shelter has run out of cat food because they unexpectedly got so many cats, you don't say, "Life's not fair," do you? You ask if we can pick up extra cat food or make an extra donation. Sometimes we can help, and sometimes we can't, but we always notice it and try. That's what I love about you, and that's what I try to remember every day. Just because Life Isn't Fair, doesn't mean we can't make it more fair.

Some big unfair things have been happening, and I have been wanting to talk to you about them. They are serious grown-up problems out in the world, and while it is sometimes big and serious and scary to talk about those problems to kids, they are the kinds of unfair things you are going to need to know about so you can fight this unfairness in life. I know we've talked about some of this stuff before, and I know sometimes we use different words to talk about different things, and that can be confusing. So I'm going to write this out and read it, and you can ask me questions if you don't know what I'm talking about, and I'll try to be clearer.

Do you remember how one of the things you learned about Abraham Lincoln was that he ended slavery in this country? And how we talked a little bit about how slavery means buying and selling people to do work for you without any payment or freedom? And how slavery meant that white people, light skinned people like you and me and our families and our ancestors were buying up black people and forcing them to do work. I don't think we've ever really spelled it out really clearly for you, but I want to be clear now. It was really wrong, and really terrible, and it went on in this country for a very long time. People are embarrassed about it now, and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable to talk about it, but it is a big unfairness and cruelty that was done, and it is something that deserves to be talked about and thought about.

There is no more slavery in this country anymore, and that is a very good thing. And it is important to know that there was never any good reason, never any justification for black people to be slaves to white people. White people are not better than black people. White people are not smarter than black people. But some powerful white people did believe in both those very wrong things, and used it as an excuse to treat black people cruelly, and unfairly. Most white people, actually, chose to believe those things, and use them as a reason for being unfair to black people. Even when we knew better, even when people really knew better and made slavery illegal, so many people still believed deep down that black people weren't as good as white people, and used it as an excuse to treat them badly. Even after slavery was illegal there were still laws made to keep black people separate from white people and laws that kept black people from being able to own property or vote or do things that all free people should be able to do. That went on for a hundred more years, or thereabouts.

You know about Martin Luther King, Jr, right? I don't remember if you talked about him in school, but we talked about him at home. We listened to his famous speech, the one called "I Have A Dream." He was a black man who believed in using peace whenever possible to make white people treat black people equally. Dr. King was part of a movement we call the Civil Rights Movement, where Americans worked really hard to get all those laws about separation and unfair treatment changed, so that all people in this country were really truly free, and legally equal with all the laws. And that did happen, legally. The laws were changed. But do you remember the very sad thing that happened? White people were scared and angry, and Dr. King was killed because he was standing up for freedom and fairness.

I know that you know a lot of these things, I know that we have talked about it in bits and pieces. And I know that it's probably sad and overwhelming to hear this all at once like this. But I am almost done talking, and almost done for now. I want to talk just a little bit longer on this, so hang in there.

Even though all the laws have been changed for about 50 years, some people still haven't changed their hearts and minds. There are a lot of white people out there who still don't think that black people are equal to white people. There are a lot of white people out there who still treat black people unfairly, and think that it's okay to do that. They use cruel words and cruel names. Or sometimes it isn't even mean - they just believe it and act it, not in any obvious mean ways, but by little things that are hard to see. There is a word for this that you have probably heard but I don't know if I've explained it before. It's called racism. Racism means that you believe one race of people is better than all other races. Or that you believe one or more races of people is not as good as others. It's sort of tricky, because there is only one species of people, right? All people are equal, all people are the same. But sometimes people make judgements just by looking at someone. They look at the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the texture of their hair, and then they make up a story in their head of what they believe that person is like, just by their appearances. That's not right, it's not fair, and when you treat someone better or worse just because of how they look, that is racism.

This year, there has been a lot of stuff in the news about racism that I have been thinking about. I have been thinking about how to talk to you about it because it is serious, and I didn't want to get it wrong. But, as I say to you about so many things, you don't have to get it perfect, you just have to try, and so I am trying. We have it pretty good as white people. We feel pretty safe in our town and our state, and I am so happy for you that you are mostly pretty safe, as long as you follow the safety rules. But there are people for who that just isn't true. Racism means that some white people are scared of some black people, and sometimes that fear makes them hurt people who do not deserve it. Lately I have been so so sad, because I have been reading and watching and listening to a lot of news stories of black boys, black men, who were killed by white people who were scared of them. White people who had power, white people who had weapons, who were scared of these black boys and black men who were in situations where they didn't have power, didn't have weapons. These white people did not listen to these black men & boys who tried to explain themselves, tried to show that they were not doing anything wrong. These white men reacted out of fear - fear of their black skin - and they did terrible, unfair things that will never ever be forgotten. It makes me so sad to think that we still live in a country where this sort of unfairness happens every day. We have done a lot of right things in this country - but there is still so much work left to do.

I know that's a lot to tell you. But I think it's important to talk about, because my mom and dad never said to me "black people are still getting killed every day by white people for no reason except fear." I was taught that slavery ended over a hundred years ago, and the Civil Rights movement brought us all equality in the 1960s. and those things are both true. Slavery is over in this country, and the laws were changed. But it is not fair yet. Not at all.

I love you, and thank you for listening to me. I know this was hard. We can talk about this now if you want, or you can think about it and talk to me later. Please please please know that you can ask me any questions you want, ever, about anything at all.




So how did it go? Charlotte was surprisingly unsurprised, so maybe she's been paying more attention than I thought. She did instantly start worrying about her black friends, which, I'm not exactly sure is what I intended, but we talked again about how she can keep an eye out for any language or actions that make her worry for someone's safety, and then act on it. I recommended that she go for a trusted adult. That's the best I can do for now. I will keep working on this.