Totally Freaking Out (but not at my family…for once)

A few days ago, I went off the rails.

My husband’s high school musical is in tech and production this week, so I’ve been a single parent for a few weeks.  He said good night to the kids last Sunday night, and he didn’t see them again until yesterday morning.  He left an hour before they woke up every day and he got home four hours after they went to bed.  In spite of this, things were really going fine.  I find that the kids are more cooperative when I’m alone with them; maybe that’s because my expectations are lowered and I can’t be passive aggressive in hoping that my husband will say, “Let me do dinner and clean all the dishes and put the kids to bed…you just have a glass of wine.”

Wednesday was going to be especially rough, driving back and forth, dropping off one kid and then the other across town, picking up pizza, popping it in the oven on low wondering if I’d burn the house down if I left it on while I picked up one kid and then the other, deciding that was stupid to leave the oven on and texting our neighbor to see if she could turn it off for me.  (She did.)  Amidst all of this madness, I get a text from my friend J in St. Louis: a flame war was crackling on her Facebook page, and she needed some back up.  She had posted a link to this great post on talking to people about Ferguson, and one friend in particular had responded with some calmly worded counterpoint.  I took a look on my phone while idling in the parking lot of the Gymnastics Academy:

As a law-abiding person, you want to believe that the facts show a clear indication that Michael Brown was surrendering because that makes it easier to process – the lazy narrative. Your friend in Boston wants to teach his children that Michael Brown was doing “nothing wrong” when stopped, even though I think most people would not describe robbing a store, assaulting a store clerk, fighting a police officer and resisting arrest as not doing anything wrong. Again, the lazy narrative. So if the take away lesson to the children is that police shouldn’t shoot people who aren’t doing anything wrong, how does that not perpetuate the notion that people who ARE doing something wrong probably deserve it (an attitude displayed repeatedly after the robbery video was released)?

I am of course the “friend in Boston” and she’s referring to my blog post last week.  While my daughter whined in the backseat about getting out of the car, I glanced at the clock and realized I had a few minutes to respond.  I tapped out an improvised comment:

Am I the friend in Boston you’re referring to? What evidence do you have that I want to teach kids that Brown was doing nothing wrong? Did you read my blog post? My feeling is to focus in on why people are so upset and how biased impact daily actions, fatally sometimes when it comes to law enforcement officers. I agree with you that the solution is to approach situations with as little bias as possible, but I think that’s simply impossible. We are all victims of bias; it’s in the air we breath. We need to be aware of them and teach children to do the same in the hopes that those biases will have less of an impact on action.

I turned off my phone and returned to my soccer mom duties.  During a (thankfully still warm) pizza dinner, I read her response:

In your proposed explanation of the Ferguson issue to a toddler, you suggest telling children that “a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.” I’m not quite sure how else that statement can be interpreted? I certainly won’t pretend to know how difficult it is to have that conversation with a child of color, but I do feel strongly that it’s important to be honest when speaking of the circumstances for a number of reasons. And honesty often does require a painful, intentional decision to not take the easiest way out (i.e., the lazy way). There are many difficult discussions around this issue that are highly charged with emotion. How difficult it has been for hardworking people in Ferguson to see their property values just absolutely sunk over the past two decades because of an influx of poor residents and the increase in crime and damage to educational system. The officers who are working in an area so dangerous that often ambulances will not respond to 911 calls without a police escort. So if you’re going to use the “you don’t understand” card, then you need to be open to those discussions as well.

Now you’ll see that she later claims she is being rational and logical, and my gut reaction to this was pure hatred.  Certainly, it was fueled by the events of the previous two weeks.  The Ferguson news hit me very hard, and the story in Eric Garner’s case had similarly knocked the wind out of me.  Still, even discounting my extremely emotional state, how could I not take offense at her suggestion that I was lacking honesty in these discussions about race with my children and taking the “easiest way out”?  And not only did she attack my parenting, she then had to go and call attention to how poor people were to blame for the issues in Ferguson!

While my kids noshed, I launched my counterattack:

I didn’t recall writing it that way, and I stand corrected. I’m not sure that I would consider now characterizing it like that without assessing all of the facts myself first. With the exception of suggesting that no wrongdoing took place, I stand by most of what I wrote otherwise. I was of course improvising after a call from a fairly distressed friend. At the same time, I was contemplating how I will have to have this conversation over and over and over again with my two children of color, how as they grow older I will have to make sure that the message becomes more and more mature so that they understand that behaving the same way a white person would behave in the same circumstances might actually mean death, how they need to fear the people who are supposed to protect them while they should also respect them. I don’t know for sure, but based on your profile picture, these are not conversations that you will have to have with your children. I say you don’t HAVE to have them, but I don’t want to presume that you won’t have them. That’s what I applaud our mutual friend J for doing: moving beyond the privilege of her family’s skin color and helping her children develop empathy and understanding for someone else’s experiences even if those experiences result in a reality that is far different from her children’s. I’d love for you to explain the difficult of navigating these conversations–both for me as a parent to two children of color and for J as a parent to three white children–is “lazy.” I’m trying to convey this without a sense of malice or meanness, something that is nearly impossible in this medium, and I’m hoping that your choice of words (considering the connotation of the word “lazy”) was unintentionally unkind in a similar vein. I’m not sure if any of this counts as playing the “you don’t understand” card, and again I’ll try not to take offense at the suggestion that this discussion about people’s lives and deaths can be reduced to a game playing analogy.

And I do need to request further explanation of your suggestion that poor people have ruined Ferguson over the past two decades. I won’t presume to know about the class dynamics at play in St. Louis County, and at the same time, I’m wondering where you think those poor people should have gone instead of moving to Ferguson? You seem to be suggesting (and I hope you’ll correct me) that those poor people should have had more consideration than moving to an area and ruining property values and the school system. Should neighborhoods have standards about who can move in so that property values don’t fall? Oh wait, our country totally used to do that with redlining, and it’s actually illegal now. (Yes, I’m getting a little snarky now). Should certain types of kids be sent to certain types of schools? Or do all of our nation’s children have the right to a free and public education regardless of their zip code? I guess regarding your final comments above, I’m playing the “I don’t understand” card, and by all means, I’m open to the discussion.

I put my phone away, so my son and I could walk our daughter to her piano lesson.  I was pretty sure there would be a reply once we got back.  I was right:

I certainly didn’t mean to call anyone lazy or be unkind, but was talking about “lazy narratives” in the general sense. I have four white children and, unlike J, have chosen to remain in the city and send our three youngest children to school in a neighborhood more racially and economically diverse than our own. I have had conversations with my children about race and religion but have been careful about not unintentionally passing on my own biases and untruths. I also strongly believe that experiencing the positive aspects of diversity is just as important as the conversations, though I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses otherwise. I believe in racial, gender and sexual preference equality and can assure you that I have put my time, effort and money where my mouth is. Interestingly, in no way did I suggest that poor people have “ruined” Ferguson – that is your assumption. I have been a very vocal proponent of subsidized housing in my area. But, if you look at municipal demographics over the past two decades in St. Louis County, it is a fact that as poor people move into an area, crime increases, educational scores are reduced and property values are lowered. This DOES have a very real consequence to long-term residents and it is a factor. It’s interesting how people can care so much about their own economic situation, but are so quick to dismiss the plight of others. I also in absolutely no way suggested that poor people should be redlined – again, I pointed out historical information based on fact patterns – and the jump to that conclusion is completely your own bias and assumptions about me.

Okay, now I really needed someone to hold my jewelry so I could go off on this woman.  In the moment, in seemed like the right thing to do:

Thanks for the clarification, although I’m still a bit confused. I’m probably jumping to conclusions again, but it sounds like the bottom line is you’re sad for the long-term residents because poor people moved into the neighborhood. Again, I’m probably still leaping, but It sounds like you don’t mind if poor people move somewhere, but only as long as you get to shake your head at how sad it is that they bring their downtrodden life with them. As a teacher, I can attest that kids who come from poverty have a much more challenging time learning than kids who come from middle and upper class families. (It sounds like you’re admitting that too.) So what is the answer? I didn’t think you were suggesting we go back to redlining, but I brought that up only to say that I don’t see your point. Yes the violence and looting has hurt people’s livelihoods. What other obvious ramifications of the last few months can we point out? Linking that to impoverished people choosing to move to a particular neighborhood sounds elitist. (Sorry, jumping again.) You can’t simply point out “historical accuracies” and not think people are going to draw conclusions in a heated topic like this, especially when we’re talking about race and “historically” minority groups have been overrepresented as the nation’s poor.

And I still don’t know what you meant by “lazy narratives,” not even in the “general sense.” I just Googled it because I was starting to think I was out of the loop on some hip urban white slang, but I came up empty. (Now I admittedly might be getting a little rude, but ask J, I’m sardonic by nature and it’s part of my charm.)

As I was typing this, J posted a short response about your kids. I had already typed that it’s nice to hear that you’ve chosen to send 75% of your children to public schools, but that’s crazy me jumping to conclusions again. You apparently have NOT chosen to send your kids to public schools. Why not? Because of those terrible poor kids who bring down test scores? (Okay, now I’m just getting bitchy, but come on, why not mention that you send your kids to private school in your clarification above except to imply otherwise?)

I’m open to the discussion even though I’m a bit fraught and coming off a bit pissy. Facebook certainly isn’t the best place to discuss these things, but in what other context would you, a white mom with four kids in urban St. Louis (who I’m assuming is fairly middle to upper-middle class given the private school option) get the chance to touch base with this New England subrban gaysian dad with a white husband and two kids of color?

I was pissed, and although she couldn’t do anything other than take offense at my words and tone, I was doing my best to keep things at least a little bit lighter.  She didn’t see it that way:

Three of my children attend a city parochial school where most families pay a very reduced tuition and the average family income is less than half of the median income in J’s public school. As I said – it is more racially and economically diverse than the city neighborhood in which I live. Our public school system is unaccredited and so the selfish choice I made is to not send my children there. J can tell you if she thinks that is more or less selfish than her decision to live, work and send her children to one of the most intentionally white municipalities in St. Louis and you can review if you have made similar decisions. I understand that this is an emotionally-charged issue that is very personal to you and probably makes it more difficult to approach rationally. And I’m sure that my preference for logic and honest analysis comes off as cold. But tell me how approaching it your way – i.e., making up all kinds of statements that I never said or even insinuated, name-calling and snark as a mode of deflection – going to derive a solution? Is this even about finding a solution or do you just want some smug satisfaction that you have all the answers (which, by the way, is a by-product of the confirmation bias that started this all)? I actually do think I can bring up historical accuracies and think that people are not going to draw irrational conclusions, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all of the lawyers and scientists in my FB feed! My point in bringing up the changing demographics in Ferguson is that it has created two separate and quite distinct groups – the haves and the have nots – which has created a tension not only among the residents of the community, but the municipal government, police, etc… This isn’t about minding where poor people move (seriously, how do you come up with this stuff?), but about figuring out how to address the tension in a way that promotes equality while protecting the structure of the neighborhood. Do you not care if your children’s school declines? I know J cares based on her decisions. So if we care, why shouldn’t the residents of Ferguson? Why should we not anticipate it and find solutions? How else are we going to promote truly diverse neighborhoods where all children have access to the same educational system? Elitism would be believing that I am superior to poor residents. Pragmitism is recognizing that, historically in this area, neighborhoods that have poor residents have issues that need to be addressed, which is what I described. “Lazy narrative” describes a tendency to identify individual’s roles early on based on per-conceived notions and then not change those roles as additional facts are uncovered. I’ve seen it used most frequently as a criticism of biased media reporting.

Selfish?  What now?

Thanks for the link and update; I’m curious if based on the discussion here you still consider me a lazy narrator.

I hardly think that this Facebook conversation is going to “derive a
solution,” and my snarky commentary isn’t meant to deflect; I think it’s fairly clear that it’s meant to fan the flames. And in what name-calling am I engaging? Are you objecting to my suggestion that some of your remarks could be considered elitist? Like maybe the one about the abundance of lawyers and scientists in your FB feed? I don’t know where I got that idea!

I wonder at your intentions in bringing this up on J’s page as well. If you know her well, you know she’s an incredibly deep and thoughtful and meaningful person. Your posts here have done little more than call her out as a major part of the racial problems in your area. She has made a different choice than you did with your kids. You seem to suggest that you don’t judge other parents for their choices, but you sound pretty judgey to me. Our children are not social experiments. We do what we deem is right for them, just as you have for your children. As you know from our long history together, I like to make assumptions, and it sounds to me like you’re the one whose defensive about what your community lost when J’s family chose to move to the suburbs. Parents second guess themselves, and it seems like you’re no different. I like that about you. I think it’s why our relationship has lasted as long as it has. But don’t pretend that your guise of calm and rationale demeanor masks the way in which you have consistently called out a woman you claim is a friend.

This thread has clearly digressed. Perhaps the other reason we’re such good friends is that we both like to have the last word. I assume this isn’t the end, but I’m calling it a night.

Surprisingly, that was the end of it.  Now I still stand by most of what I wrote, but in the end, it wasn’t very productive.  This was a white, urban, middle class woman in the Midwest who believes in diversity.  She seems to champion her pragmatic liberalism, and it’s that very quality that allowed her to feel comfortable challenging J’s posts about Ferguson.  She clearly had judged me.  She’d decided upon reading my previous blog post that I was avoiding the truth with my kids, and that allowed her to believe that I am part of the problem.  I am excruciatingly honest with my children about the world in which they live, and I never deliberately lie to them about the realities they will face.  As I wrote in one of the comments above, I stand corrected in my original suggestion on how to talk to kids about Ferguson.  It’s not easy to explain all of this to children who will actually experience the racism in this world as opposed to the allies out there who do the same with their while kids primarily for the purposes of empathy.  It’s difficult, and sometimes I get it wrong and have to go back and fix what I’ve said or done.  In no way is it “lazy” to make a mistake.

Of course, in this exchange I judged her as well.  As I mentioned, I’ve been extremely sensitive with the media frenzy over all that’s going on, and I so rarely get to be allies to my ally friends that I jumped at the challenge the second I had the opportunity.

I think part of what motivated my vehement reactions was my own jealousy over this woman’s purported anchoring logic.  I’ve had the same reaction with teachers in my school who have addressed the news in their classrooms.  I’m honestly so envious of the calm and measured response because that’s something I’m still not capable of.  In two of my classes for adult educators this week, I’ve broken down into tears in articulating how this all affects my children.  I know that this conversation is hard for many people; my friend J in St. Louis is testament to that.  But this woman’s ability to suggest that if we simply step back and look at the completely contradictory and conflicting evidence we might be able to clam down a bit was just too much for me to handle.

What I’d like to convey to this woman now–to her and to all like-minded white people who consider themselves part of the solution as opposed to the problem–is that this is about so much more than individual guilt or innocence.  It’s about feelings of helplessness and inequality and the lives and deaths of our children.

Verna Myers’ TED Talk “You Can Help Stop the Violence Against Young Black Men” helped me a lot this week, both in distilling for me the issues of bias at play in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases (and so many more) and by providing so actual hope for what we can do about “the Ferguson in all of us,” and that includes the people of color in this country.  This video at least got me to a place where I could facilitate some productive discussions with my students, and I hope it will help me to stop fanning the flame wars on Facebook.