“Mommy, why do all those kids have brown skin?”
I got this question from my 10-year-old when we were pulling up to a field trip at the Georgia Aquarium recently and my first reaction was just confusion. What in the world was she talking about? Then I realized that she was looking at a class of children from an inner city Atlanta school and I followed confusion with horror—am I somehow raising a racist kid? And then my mind finally rested on the most likely meaning of her question:
“Do you mean, ‘why are there no other races in that class?’”
“Yeah. My classes always have kids with light skin and brown skin. And Friana’s family is from India and Eliza’s family is from Vietnam. There are lots of colors. Why doesn’t that class have different races?”
So I took a deep breath and started to formulate an answer that was both accurate and age appropriate and possible to get out of my mouth during the time it took us to get into the parking deck and meet her class at the Aquarium.
I bet a lot of my mom friends have been in that same awkward, and yet incredibly important, moment of parenthood. When your kid asks you a question without an easy answer, or a short answer, or even an answer one could give to adults.
Why are there still all-Black elementary classes? Good grief. That just makes my heart heavy with the responsibility to get this one answer right.
I have been thinking about how to talk about race relations with my children a lot recently. We were in Baltimore about a week before the Freddie Gray death and subsequent riots and my daughter asked me about that. She saw me looking at pictures of the Orioles playing in an empty stadium and asked what was going on in that picture.
We had just driven by the stadium and pointed it out to the kids. We found Charm City to be lovely and gracious and everyone we met was so welcoming. To see parts of it burning and hurting was painful and sad. And my children, who have been taught that police are the good guys, were very confused by the violence.
We have toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston and seen the tiny shackles made for little children and listened to the stories of men and women sold on the auction block. I did not take pictures because it seemed too awful to have smiling white children posing for photographs where human beings were bought and sold for the wealth of others. My children know of our country’s history with slavery and are shocked when they realize that it happened in our home town, in our state, in our own family’s history.
It is shocking. Still. I don’t think we can ever let it cease to shock us.
When something like the shooting in Charleston, or Trayvon Martin, or the riots in Ferguson happen I am again confronted with the awful, “what in the world do I say about this to my children? What are they capable of understanding? What role do I, a Caucasian woman, play in healing this terrible wound?”
As usual, when I don’t know what to do in a parenting moment, I play back the advice of my mother. If we still lived in a world with “wise women,” my mother would be one. She has an innate ability to see the world from other people’s eyes and act with understanding and compassion. Honestly, it is convicting and inspiring all at once.
Mom says that when a child asks a hard question you answer honestly, without your own emotions getting in the way, and answer only the question asked. Then you wait for more questions.
I have some experience with this because my husband, Jay, experienced the death of a parent at a young age. I have been asked various questions about “what happened to Daddy’s Daddy” and it is always hard. I have had to say, “yes, mommies and daddies can die, but it is not very common.” And, “yes it is very sad for Daddy that he doesn’t have a daddy anymore.” I answer the question they ask and wait for a follow up.
Thus far it has been solemn and heavy and difficult, but I can’t ignore their questions or gloss over the hardest parts or tell them that they don’t have to worry about their parents because I don’t know if that’s true. It wasn’t true in Jay’s life.
So while mulling over my sadness at yet more death and racial pain in our country I had this challenging thought: I cannot avoid the question of parental death because it is a real part of our lives and our personal history. And if I’m avoiding the hard parts of the questions my kids ask about race inequality (and they DO ask) I’m acting as though it’s not a part of my life and my history. And that makes me part of the problem.
So in the Aquarium parking lot I made myself say, “Well, honey, students come from the neighborhood around the school, and that neighborhood has mostly African-Americans.” And when she said, “Why? Why don’t people of other races live there?” I replied with, “our city was segregated for a long time and certain neighborhoods were Black and certain ones were White.”
And as the “whys” kept coming, I slowly outlined the concepts of changes to laws without changes to people’s hearts and perceived property values and social mobility all in short, halting sentences as best I could in a tiny amount of time. Clearly, I could not do this topic justice in the situation and possibly not even if I’d had all afternoon and a map and a timeline at my disposal (which I would have loved, by the way).
I don’t need to attack my kids with information about every frightening news story I hear, but I can’t shy away from mentioning a church bombing in Birmingham or a protest downtown if it answers a relevant question.
I cannot fix our nation’s painful history. I cannot cause crazy people to choose murder victims by some other means than the color of their skin. But I can tell my children the truth about our ugly past, I can do my best to explain our racially murky present, and maybe I can raise adults who will be better equipped to create bridges in our society than we are.