Today it happened. I experienced a flashback to a moment in time before I had the succinct awareness I have currently. At that moment, reality hit me like a ton of bricks. I was taken back to a time in my life which seems so far away to me now. But that person that I faintly recognized was me, the parent of a white 5th grader who hurled that very insult at a friend of his in a playground fight.
At that time, my white son had several Black friends he played with on a regular basis. One day at school he got into an altercation with one of these friends and during the fight he yelled, “Well at least I’m not Black!” As a result of the racial comment made by my son and the school’s obligation to address such incidents swiftly, I was immediately notified by the principal of his school. I was horrified that my son used this kind of language; after all, he had Black friends and a biracial sister whom he loved immensely. Yes I realize now how ludicrous that sounds. I used the identical rationalization countless people do when they futilely claim it would be impossible for them to be racist due to their association with said Black friend. At this time of my life, I was entirely naïve to the subtle ways racism sneaks into the lives of white people without any recognition of it taking root. I believed it had no hold on me. I believed all my thoughts about another race were impartial. My implicit biases went unchecked. Therefore, I was utterly baffled that my son would succumb to resorting to such a vicious verbal attack. Racism is often passed down from generation to generation. This is outwardly evident in many families. However, I certainly had not raised my son to be racist. Although I hadn’t raised my son to be racist, I also had done nothing to raise him to be anti-racist. I didn’t consider the fact that my silence allowed the same stereotypes and lies I had been breathing in my entire life like poison, to creep into my son’s thinking. It never occurred to me it was necessary to have discussions with my white children about racism. I could not have been more wrong.
When my biracial daughter was about 7 years old (making my son 19), I began to realize I needed to teach her about Black history to ensure that she knew her roots and to instill pride about that part of her heritage. As I studied the subject I began to realize how white washed the American History I was taught was and how that has changed very little in schools since my formative years. This exploration led me on a search for a better understanding of racism and racial issues. I grew up believing numerous lies that my schools, society and the media taught me.
Until I began understanding the history of racism on a much deeper level, I never saw the importance of passing this knowledge on to my white children and so I neglected to do so. I thought teaching them to treat everyone the same regardless of their skin color was enough. I thought the colorblind thinking I grew up on was the way to go.
Today I raise my children differently. The son I spoke of is grown and just starting a family of his own. I try to make up for lost time and educate him when the opportunity presents itself with the hope that he will pass on the same knowledge to his own children. I have two girls still at home. We have frequent discussions about racism in our household and Social Justice is part of our world.
Of course, I cannot be sure that my son would not have reacted the exact same way even if I had armed him with good, solid truth and knowledge. Implicit biases may still have taken over for him in that moment of anger. But if nothing else it would have been an opportunity for an open and honest discussion.
Today, I understand I can cause tremendous damage as a parent or a member of society by not giving children the tools they need to confront racism. My silence upholds the system of white supremacy by default. As quoted by Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. And this means it is absolutely imperative that I am teaching, not only my Black daughter, but also my white children about racism and white privilege. I implore parents of white children to have regular discussions about race and the ways in which race still matters today. My son said a lot when he used that insult toward his friend and his statement probably holds more truth than either one of us realized at the time. Because just being Black can mean the difference between life and death.