An Open Letter to the Neighbor Who Filed a Complaint against my Black Lives Matter Sign

Dear Neighbor,

I don’t know who you are, but you surely know me. We’re a pretty conspicuous family: two dads—one white and one Asian—and two young kids—one black and one Latino—who live right up the street from Thoreau Elementary. Maybe you’ve seen me reading on the porch while my kids play soccer in the front yard and maybe I’ve even said good morning to you as you walked by. I can’t be sure though, since I don’t know who you are.

Black Lives MatterTwo weeks ago, we put up a Black Lives Matter sign. Our eight-year-old black daughter was so excited. Our white neighbors across the street put one up too, and I think that meant a lot to our daughter. I know it meant a lot to me. So when we came home last week to find a letter jammed in our doorknob from the town Building Commissioner stating that an anonymous complaint had been submitted through an attorney against the display of our sign, I was disheartened.

After talking with the Building Commissioner and the Town Manager’s office, I understand the ways in which the posting of our sign technically violated zoning bylaws. And as I drive around town now, I can’t help but notice the other signs that are also clearly out of compliance: signs touting an open house at one of the expensive private schools in our town or the latest incentives to go solar. I wonder if those signs are prompting you to call your attorney and file another anonymous complaint.

I wish I could talk to you face-to-face. I wish I could tell you why this sign means so much to my family. I wish I could tell you the ways our children, currently in second and third grade, have been the victims of both implicit and explicit racism in our town. I wish I could tell you the ways that I faced discrimination in my position as a teacher at the high school. I wish I could tell you that although more often than not the people we encounter in this town—the teachers, the town officials, the shopkeepers, the families—go out of their way to show our family we are welcome here, this rarely takes the sting out of the experiences that consistently remind us that we have to work harder than most to achieve a sense of normalcy we thought would be commonplace in the suburbs.

And that’s part of why we put the sign up. Certainly, we wanted to draw attention and show support for the black people being killed in our country at alarming rates, but we also wanted to prove to our children—and by extension our neighbors, including you—that equality is something that matters to us. It’s not enough to just expect equality, and sometimes it’s not even enough just to work for it. We need to demand it.

I wonder if you understand what we mean by equality. We explain it to our kids as everyone getting what they need, not everyone necessarily getting the same thing. Surely you’re aware of the insanely high statistics for black deaths in this country, especially in relation to their white counterparts. Surely you’ve heard about the high profiles cases: Freddie Gray’s fractured spine, Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street for four hours, the tragic shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and so many others.

When you see my son is bouncing a basketball in the driveway, do you see a younger version of these boys and young men? He has a head full of kinky hair and he likes to wear baggy basketball pants and sweatshirts with hoods. In a few years, he’ll look a lot like Trayvon Martin when he walks up the street at dusk to get a bag of Skittles at the 7-11 up the street. When my daughter was running through the sprinkler in her swimsuit this summer, did you see someone that might grow into the 14-year-old black girl that an overzealous police officer threw to the ground before drawing his gun last June in McKinney, Texas? These are the things we think about when we proclaim that black lives matter in the form of our simple lawn sign.

We’re not taking our sign down, although we will certainly make sure we strictly follow the town zoning bylaws from now on. And as a result of your complaint, I suspect you’ll see a few more signs around the neighborhood. I’m assuming you’ll still be able to pick out our house amidst the dozen or so Black Lives Matter slogans out there. We’ll be here if you ever want to talk.

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School Nightmares

For some reason, my husband and I lucked out with our kids in the sleep department.  They’ve always been great sleepers; typically they’ll sleep a good twelve hours no matter what time we put them to bed, and they rarely wake up with bad dreams (although our son had several sleepless nights after seeing Cats; Mr. Mistoffelees was just too much for him to handle…or maybe it was the hackneyed music).  In the past few months though, our daughter has woken up in the middle of the night with school-related nightmares.

A month or two ago, I had a trying day at school.  My kids will likely go to the school where I’m currently teaching, and feeling downtrodden on that particular day, I sarcastically broached a touchy subject over dinner.

“How would you guys feel if we moved?  You could go to a new school!”  The kids gave me a double take, and my husband rolled his eyes.  “Whatever…it was just a thought.”

Later that night, our daughter woke up inconsolably crying, and when my husband went to check on her, she told him through her sobs that she had a nightmare about going to a new school and missing all of her friends.  I’m sure he was really happy with me at that moment, but I can’t know for sure because I had already gone back to sleep.

Last night, she woke up from another nightmare, this one not quite as powerful but enough to produce some saddened moans that stirred me when I went in to turn off her night light.  I rubbed her back, and she slowly opened her eyes.

“Daddy, I had a nightmare.”

“What happened honey?”

“I dreamed that I was at school and every class I went to I was the only black kid.”

This is of course nearly a reality for her living in our mostly white suburban town.  Our daughter just turned eight, and she’s been showing more and more interest in her racial identity, which couldn’t make me prouder while at the same time making me very nervous.  I want to make sure we’re providing a sound foundation for her, and I’m constantly worrying that what we’re doing isn’t enough.

“That’s unfortunately going to be pretty close to what your experience will have to be going to school in this town because there aren’t very many black people who live here.”  Had this been a daytime conversation, I certainly would have given her a little age-appropriate lesson on redlining, but it was late and I was just about to head to bed myself.  “You know that because we live where we do, Daddy and Poppy try hard to make sure you have black people in your life.”  I named a few key individuals, including two friends who had attended her birthday party who are kids of color and also have gay parents.

“But they don’t have skin as dark as me.”  Another teachable moment on the realities of colorism, but again, it was late.

“No, but black people come in all different shades, and they’re still going to be identified as black; they’ll be great friends that you can turn to as you all grow up because you’ll each know what it’s like to be in a different kind of family like ours.”  I could tell she was starting to come around; I decided to remind her of last year’s classroom teacher.  “And you know what?  I’m sure Ms. H. would be happy to talk to you any time.  You know she’s the only black teacher in your school, so she knows kind of what you’re going through.  I’m sure if you just stopped by before school, she’d find time to talk to you.”  She smiled a bit remembering that connection.  “And as you get older, there will be a few more black kids that join you.  When you get to middle school, there will be a few from each of the elementary schools in town that will all go to school together, and then more when you get to high school.  And then for college, you might decide you want to go to an all-black college.”

“They have those?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“Yup, and that’s why learning everything you can in school is important because it will give you options down the road.”

“I want to go to one of those schools.”  I was suddenly reminded of a video I show in professional development courses I teach where a black Boston student attending school in the white suburbs describes her impending shift to a historic black college.  She says that she had felt like an exchange student her whole life, and she was excited about finally getting the chance to relax that aspect of herself in college.

“Well that’s totally up to you.  If at some point before college, you decide that being around other people that look like you is important, then we’ll talk about you going to a different school, but right now, I think you’d rather stay with your friends right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but if that ever changes, you let us know.”

I kissed her good night, and as she drifted back to sleep, I did what every great parent does: I questioned every decision we’ve ever made on behalf of our kids and hoped for the thousandth time that it would all turn out alright.

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.

NaBloPoMo Ultimo

With this post, I meet my goal of posting every day for the month of November in honor of NaBloPoMo!  Woo-hoo!

As I close out the month of daily posts, I’m thankful for the ways in which stopping each day to take stock of our family’s daily life has helped put things into perspective, both from the personal meditation and reflection this forced upon me and from the commentary and feedback I’ve received from friends, followers, and fellow bloggers.  When I start to freak out because things in my life are spinning out of control, and I’m screaming at my family like an unmedicated bipolar alcoholic, at least I can look forward to decompressing a few hours later and processing it all through writing.

I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to read these posts themselves; I anticipate some interesting and difficult conversations will arise, and I look forward to the challenge.  With that in mind, I’ll continue to blog…but I’m definitely going to give myself a few nights off this week!

Conversations Postponed

This morning, I walked into my office at work, saw a trusted colleague and friend, and started sobbing.  It was one of those moments where I didn’t really know it was going to happen.  I kept thinking I could recover, but it soon became apparent I couldn’t.  We found a private space, and she talked me down off the ledge.

I don’t think there was any one thing that set me off, but the last few days have been personally tumultuous.  With the news out of Ferguson on Monday night, I came in on Tuesday morning to a school-wide email from a fellow colleague that she planned on addressing the events in Missouri overnight in her classes and she hoped the rest of the staff would as well.  I was conflicted.  I know the conversation is important, and I know that talking all of this about openly and honestly is the only way to get to a better place.  Things were just too raw for me, and I knew that if a kid started talking about how race played no role in Michael Brown’s death I was going to lose it.  And that wouldn’t be productive for any of us.  The focus of a classroom conversation like this needs to be on WHY people are so angry as opposed to whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted.  The classroom needs to be a safe space for all my students, not just the ones who have the same political perspective on the world as I do.  And I just wasn’t ready to maintain that kind of focus with my students.

So I chose to stay silent.  The few times I thought I might speak up, tears welled up in my eyes and I had to stop.  At lunch, some colleagues talked about how the conversations went in their classrooms.  Most of the kids reported that they hadn’t talked about it, and in one class a group of African American Boston students were more than ready to get a few things off their chest.

I called the friend who taught that class later that night and expressed frustration that we weren’t taking a more collective approach to addressing this issue as a school.  She challenged me to articulate which I’d prefer, teachers having the conversation even if they weren’t adept at leading it or simply promoting silence on the matter.  I know that teachers can actually do more harm than good if they aren’t careful and deliberate about how they facilitate these conversations with students and I also know that silence sends a much heavier message.  I just kept coming back to the idea that we needed to come together with some consensus as an institution about how to deal with issues like this.

Then I spent the rest of the night reading articles and blog posts and Twitter feeds about Ferguson, which didn’t help my emotional well being.  One post (I can’t remember where I read it, but I want to say it was Tim Wise) mentioned that white privilege surfaces even in the liberal reaction to the events in Missouri this week.  The post essentially said that if you are outraged by what is happening in Ferguson, you are still in a more privileged position than the millions of people who have had their fears reinforced by what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.

That made me pause for a moment.  I am absolutely outraged by the events that began last August, and at the same time, I fear for the day when my children will fall victim to the bias and prejudice that leads to innocent black deaths over and over, seemingly with increased frequency.  Our son is incredibly impulsive as a six-year-old, and I worry how that impulsivity will manifest in his teenager years, especially as brown-skinned boy in our all white town with a nearly all white police force.

During my breakdown this morning, I realized that my real issue is the way in which my husband and I have to prepare both of our children for the reality that they need to treat each encounter with a police officer as a potentially fatal one, no matter how unfairly they feel they are being treated or how safe they think they actually are.  And this isn’t something that my husband and I have experienced as fully as they will.  I can attest to a certain amount of fear when being pulled over with my Human Rights Campaign emblem and rainbow sticker on the bumper, but gay men aren’t strapped with the stereotype of aggression that black and brown men are.  And my fears are fairly irrational when compared to the statistics–not so for my kids.

After I recovered, I blew my nose and ran off to focus on Holden Caufield’s fictional problems, which ended up being far easier to do than focusing on my own.  And now that the Thanksgiving weekend has officially begun, I am hoping I can focus on my family, give thanks for the love that keeps us together and the wits that will keep us safe.  And next week, I’ll find the courage to steel myself from how very personal this all feels and chat with my students a bit about how Michael Brown is playing an important role in getting us all to talk about this country’s race problem.

Reacting with Understanding

In eighth grade, I was a short gay Asian kid with pimples and a mullet.  I was awkward, just like everyone is at that age.  My weirdness mostly blended in with everyone else’s; I had good friends and people liked me.

Except Maria.  She sat behind me in English class.  Every day, we’d shuffle into Mr. Anderson’s room for the last class of the day, I quickly learned to begrudge the seating arrangement.  Maria hated me for some reason.  I may have known why at the time, but I don’t think I did.  She’d say horrible things to me, whispering them in my ear.  When I didn’t pass papers back quickly enough, she’d shove me in the back of the head: “Come on.  Pass ’em back.  What’s wrong with you?”  I was known in middle school for being a smart ass jerk to teachers, using my witty repartee to put them in their place or get a laugh from the class without actually saying anything that could get me in trouble.  Still, I was willing to make a federal case out of being bullied like this.

This daily assault continued until one day I snapped.  She shoved me in the back of the head, calling me stupid, and I turned around and backhanded her.  In the middle of English.  It was one of those moments where all you here are the proverbial crickets in the background as everyone’s head quickly turned to find the source of the sharp crack as my hand met her cheek.  Maria immediately started crying, and Mr. Anderson asked us to stay after class.

When I explained myself, Mr. Anderson felt I had been pushed into a corner after Maria admitted that she had been treating me horribly.  He moved my seat and made us promise to treat each other better in exchange for not reporting any of the bad behavior that had taken place in his room.

As I sit here today trying to make sense of the news out of Ferguson last night and the resulting protests–both the peaceful and the violent–I’m reminded of how quickly any one of us can be pushed to that snapping point.  The violence isn’t a result of one simple grand jury decision; it’s the catalyst for a mixture of volatile chemicals that has been simmering for far too long.  When I slapped Maria, I wasn’t thinking.  I was angry and embarrassed and I wanted to hurt her.  I look back and I know it was a mistake no matter how good it felt or how much mileage I’ve gotten out of the story in the last twenty-five years since it happened.  This morning as I watched the footage of the looting and the burning, I thought about how I can understand the reaction.  I don’t necessarily agree with it or think it’s the right thing, but I can understand it.

That same year in middle school–I wasn’t the best behaved kid–I got kicked out of choir.  There must have been about sixty kids in chorus, and all of my best friends were in the room.  I would talk and talk and talk with them any chance I got.  Mr. S, our choral director, would pause for a moment to chat with the pianist, and I’d zip over the sopranos to talk about last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.  Mr. S was incredibly frustrated by my behavior, constantly letting out a sigh as he called me back to me seat.  He often ignored the other people talking to focus in on me, and I started to feel like he was unfairly targeting me.

Then one day, I decided to make a change.  I wasn’t going to talk in class today.  I was going to stay focused and wait patiently in between songs.  Mr. S. pauses for a moment between numbers and turned his back to the choir, which immediately burst into gossipy action.  I sat quietly looking at my music.  Mr. S. turned around and with barely a glance at the room he called my name and asked me to be quiet.

“What?” I was incredulous.

“I asked you to stop talking.  Again.”

“I wasn’t even talking!”  Now I was getting riled up, and I started yelling.  “You’re always focusing in on me.  I know I talk a lot, but so does everyone else!”  By now the entire room was focused on me.  “You’re always calling on me to be quiet and today I wasn’t even talking!  What’s wrong with you?”

Mr. S. remained calm as the class listened for his response.  “I get the feeling you don’t respect me.”

“Well Mr. S., that’s something you have to earn.”  A few kids gasped.

“Please take a seat.”

The next day, I was informed by the main office I was no longer in choir.  Mr. S. never had a conversation with me and I resented him for years, even when I saw him at a wedding about ten years later.  I’m sure he didn’t feel that he’d done anything wrong.  I was a talkative kid who drew focus from his teaching.  As a teacher now, the kids who act like I did are the ones that drive me the most crazy, and I am in awe of how calm Mr. S. always in response to my constant pushing.  At the time though, I was even ready to admit that I was a talkative and distracting kid and I felt that he wasn’t treating me the same as the rest of the class.  Both of these realities existed for each of us, and maybe if we had a chance to sit down and talk about them, each really listening to the other, we might have reached a different end.

This is my contribution to the Ferguson reaction today.  There are many people in this country who don’t believe the black perspective.  Someone else’s point of view isn’t for any of us to believe or disbelieve; it’s for us to understand, even when its truth serves as a complete antithesis to our own.  In my professional work in these topics, when someone says that they simply can’t believe a particular position is true, we ask, “Well what if it were?”

These conversations need to happen more authentically more often.  And then maybe we won’t feel the need to react to perceived indignities with anything more than a measured dialogue.

Racism Explained to a Toddler

A really great friend of mine moved to St. Louis in pursuit of love more than a decade ago.  Being raised on the east coast, she was anticipating having to shift her fairly liberal mindset for her move to the midwest.  Thankfully, the amazing man she followed to St. Louis, a lifelong Missourian, helped ease her into this new life.  They settled in a liberal part of downtown, and as she quickly popped out three kids in succession following her marriage, she felt a loaded decision looming: where should they send the kids to school.

She’s an educator like me; we actually met teaching at a pseudo-urban school district outside of Boston.  At this school, most of the parents were working class, a large percentage of students lived in the projects, and the AP classes were populated with the children of upper-middle class parents who wanted to stay close to the city without being directly in it.  After the move, she found herself in a fairly similar suburban school in St. Louis County, although the cultural identity of the school was clearly very different than where we met.  A few years went by and she had the opportunity to apply for a job in a wealthy suburban school district; we lived strangely parallels lives, as I was making a similar shift at the same time.  We both ended up taking jobs with these new districts, and we both ended up moving our families out of the city into those districts where I children can earn a top-notch education.  And go to school with mostly white kids.

Of course my friend and her family are all white, yet the decision to move her kids out of the city and into the suburban schools was one that she weighed just as heavily as my husband and I did.  She is an amazing ally for equity of all sorts, and she often pushes herself to have tough conversations with friends and family simply because she knows she has the privilege not to.  She’s referenced on many occasions that knowing the way my family must live its life has often influenced her decisions in what issues she feels she must address in her world.

Then this past August, she found herself near the epicenter of racial tensions in this country when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.  She says that Facebook became a place she could no longer frequent due to the vitriolic postings that she felt she couldn’t ignore.  The result of course were rampant flame wars battled out online with people she felt had always been measured and calm in their understanding of the social constructs of this world.

I spoke with her on the phone this weekend.  As the country eagerly awaits word on whether the grand jury will indict Darren Wilson on murder charges, the anticipation of violence has permeated the media where we live.  She assured me she was safe, and she told me some of her struggles:

“This is going to be in my kids’ textbooks in twenty years, and I don’t want them to wonder why they had no idea this was going on right down the road when they were kids.  But how do I tell them about this without totally betraying their innocence?  I’m just so completely aware that I don’t have to have this conversation, but families like yours do.  And that feels really horrible.”

I told her I think she need to have the conversation.  She needs to lay the foundation for the more in-depth conversations that will occur as her children grow older.  She needs to provide a bedrock for the inevitable loss of innocence that her children will go through when they really see how race works in this country.  Without that, she runs the risk of shielding them from every knowing their privilege and actually contributing to the problem.  (I may be elaborating a bit more here than I actually did on the phone.)  Of course, she needs to do all of this in an age-appropriate way.  I took a stab at it and took on her role:

“Listen, mommy needs to talk to you about something very serious.  There is a lot going on in St. Louis county right now.  We’re safe where we are, and there are a lot of people nearby who don’t feel as safe as we do.  We feel comfortable knowing that the police officers in our town will protect us, and there are some people who don’t feel that way.  Isn’t that awful?  Well you know that sometimes police officers have to hurt people in order to keep them from doing bad things to good people right?  A few months ago, a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.  The police officer was acting on impulse, which means he just acted without thinking, and a lot of people think he had a bad reaction simply because of the color of the other man’s skin.  Is that really bad that someone would react like that?  What has made people really mad is that this has happened a bunch of times before, and people are just tired of it.  Mommy is really sad about it and wants it to stop happening too.  Think about the people we know with black skin.  If someone hurt them, even by accident, we would probably be really mad and sad right?  Well that’s what’s happening right now.”

No work of art, but that’s essentially what I suggested she do.  I’m not sure if she’ll be able to follow through, but it makes me incredibly happy to know that she is pushing herself beyond her comfort zone to educate her children about what the world is like for others; she surely doing her job as an amazing parent by improving her kids’ empathy and guiding them to consider the world from a perspective other than their own.

Maybe her kids will have questions, and she might have to say, “I don’t know.  Let me know think about that and get back to you,” or maybe her kids will simply ask if they can go play with their Legos.  The important thing is to have the conversation so that they start hearing that dissonance to the message being promoted by the high decibel silence in most white families’ homes.

Who knows what will happen when the grand jury verdict comes out, which may happen any minute now.  Whatever does happen, it will likely result in another difficult conversation for every black household in this country and the choice to ignore the conversation in so many more.