Given the horrific massacre in Charleston and the subsequent church burnings, my first and most visceral thoughts are for the individuals and families targeted in those acts of terrorism. My heart, mind and body are weary with grief, but I realize how shallow that sentiment sounds.
Wrapped up in that grief, comes trauma from the unending list of racial violence victims. I see mourning magnified in the weary eyes of my 16-year-old son, in the tears of his 12-year-old sister, and in the anguished words on the lips.
For black parents experiencing, reading about, and processing these events, the heaviness in your hearts is palpable. With the increased media awareness since Ferguson, there has been a steady onslaught of high-profile stories chronicling violence against your sons, your daughters, your loved ones, your elders, your clergy, and now your churches. It is simply too much.
I see the markers, the telltale signs of what Howard Stevenson at the University of Pennsylvania refers to as “racial stress.” Stevenson reflects that as he grew older, “I began to understand her burden of being the one who called out the injustices of the world, of the country, of the local school system. While parenting racial matters is stressful for all parents, there are different health consequences for parents of color, and thus there are different levels of stress that these parents experience.”
Black parents, I have no salve for your pain, but I want you to know that I see it, and I hope to help share the burden and fight the fight ahead.
Because my two oldest children are black, I feel the gut-wrenching blows from the news, but I am fully aware that being white and mothering black children and personally experiencing a lifetime of racial stress are unequal experiences. My black children, on the other hand, are experiencing the news, the stress, and the burden of it all fully and in real time. It’s heartbreaking.
My 16-year-old is weary. He has seen his identity transformed by the quick perception of others, rather than by anything he’s said or done. He has grown up to a soundtrack of compliments about what an amazing kid he is, how personable, how responsible, how caring. How people would love for their little boys to grow up to be just like him.
Then Trayvon Martin was killed the same year my son came of age as a black teenager. As my son’s growth spurts hit, we could see he was viewed differently both at school and in the wider community. He had his first “walking while black” experience last fall just a block away from our home. Having a 6-feet tall black teen, I intellectually prepared for it to happen, but that did not afford either of us any buffer when it actually did.
Both despite and because of this, he has tried to work for change. He has led marches, attended vigils, and even tried to organize a group for black students at his school. He wears “Black Lives Matter” messages both on his t-shirts and in his heart. He talks about each high-profile death, and forwards me links that offer glimpses into how he is making sense of it all.
Yet after a solid year of experiencing the fight for racial justice, I can see he is tired. One of the advantages of youth is the genuine hope that change can happen. But in the last year, the news just keeps getting worse, and I don’t think he was prepared for that. I don’t think any of us really were.
He is mourning the escalation of violence and the lives lost, while he also mourns the the safety and confidence he used to feel in his own skin. His identity is intertwined with all that’s going on in the world. It’s scary, tiring and stressful.
As is her nature, his little sister has wanted to talk far less about it all. So instead, the stress wormed its way into her dreams. She woke up at 3 a.m. last night, terrified and crying. She has never woken me or reported a nightmare in her life. She dreamt she “was in an arcade with my best friend and a man was shooting black people, and he was chasing us and trying to kill us.”
My heart stopped and broke into a million tiny pieces for her, that at 12 years old (or at any age), this is something she fears. I comforted and held her and let her cry and tell me how scared she was. I told her how sad I am that she feels like a target. I told her that she was was safe in that place and that moment. But I could not reassure her that it could never happen to her, her friends, or her brother. This last year has taught us all that it could.
Simply put, my black children are mourning, but they’re not the only ones.
I know it might be easy to discount my interest in this issue because I have black children. But I also have two white children, and this is just as critical for them.
Despite their junior status as just second and third graders, they are outraged by the hate crimes, the police brutality, the educational injustices and the economic inequality they’re learning about. They’re becoming aware that the system is rigged, and rather than ignoring that fact, they concoct schemes for upending it.
My nine year old made lego lasers the other day “for ‘black lives matter,’ so that if people start to hurt black people, the lasers will make them fall asleep for five hours and they forget what they wanted to do.”
My seven year old, unprompted, drew a picture one day that said, “I heart Tamir.” The campaign for racial justice has become part of both their art and play.
At the ages where the quest for fairness reigns supreme, they want to build a better world for their big brother and sister, but I can see they want it for themselves too. They want to disrupt the injustice and the violence. It’s been a powerful lesson for me, watching my young white children work to make sense of what’s happening in our country and seeing them personally invested in entering the conversation and working for change.
The movement towards change does not include time for white parents to be too insecure or weary to respond, speak out and act. Our country is steeped in sadness and shock right now because for far too long, the majority of white people (including myself) neglected to respond, neglected to speak out and neglected to act. That neglect is the perfect breeding ground for injustice.
Being white allows a certain ability or privilege to opt-out. To focus on our own families, our own schools, and our own communities. To share a quick, “praying for Charleston” image on Facebook and then go right back to summer vacations, swim team practice and potty training.
You want to protect your children, to let them have their childhoods. To be free of scary stories, to be sheltered from the guilt of white privilege and to be protected from the horrors of white supremacy.
Guess what? I want the same for my children.
But I know all too well that when white children get that sheltered childhood, black children become the victims of the society we’re all perpetuating. Your white child’s escape from reality comes at the expense of my black child’s freedom and safety, both now and in the future.
I’ll admit that it is stressful to engage in conversations and campaigns for racial equity. But if you are not lifting your voice above the din of silence in white communities, you are playing a central role in maintaining the culture and systems that keep hate alive and injustices against people of color thriving.
There is no middle ground; we are all part of the story now. Your character can either be part of the problem or be part of the solution; you can no longer pretend you’re not playing a starring role.
Racial stress & racial storytelling
What does it mean to enter racial work and racial conversations? It can mean discomfort, insecurity and racial stress for people of any race. In the face of this racial stress, Stevenson invites us all to become “racially literate.” To acknowledge the stress that racially-charged situations create for everyone, and bring it out from the shadows and into the light.
Stevenson sees “racial storytelling” as the first step towards healing racial fear.
“Without racial storytelling, educators, politicians, parents, law enforcement and children are stuck tolerating differences, acquiescing to levels of racial avoidance rather than committing to the higher ground of racial literacy and competence — of humanity,” he says.
Ah yes, humanity.
In response to the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, our family worked to create a group for local families around racial justice. Born out of shock, sorrow and a deafening call to action, we organized a Children’s March group online in less than a week.
Despite not having organized much more than a playdate before, we held a “Black Lives Matter” family-friendly march with almost 100 people amid a wintry mix in January. And we’ve been meeting together (in person and online), talking, marching, sharing resources and rising up ever since.
In that time, we’ve noticed that small conversations can be just as powerful as the marches. We’ve worked with other families to create conversations, to learn from them, to engage in storytelling within and across races, and to share our own stories as well. It’s an eye-opening and community-building experience, but it can also be uncomfortable and scary. We are all so vulnerable in these moments, and we make many mistakes.
Yet every time we talk together, we are honoring the stories of others, we are speaking the names of those lost to racial violence, we are getting involved and we are moving towards action. I encourage you and your family, whatever the color or colors, to start similar conversations with friends and family members, both at home and in the community.
Because this talk and this work? It matters for all of our children.
Not sure where to begin? Here are some links you might find useful.
Read the full text of Howard Stevenson’s “Hearing the Lion’s Story” about racial stress and racial storytelling.
Join our Children’s March page on Facebook. We have a growing, committed community and a well-used hub for resource sharing and support.
This article helps white parents think through ways to get over the hurdle of not quite knowing what to do.
This article schools us on race-based housing policy in Ferguson.
This mini-documentary has African-American boys describing what it’s like to grow up black in the United States.