I walk the dogs almost every morning before work and school. Not very far – 15 or 20 minutes, usually – but long enough to get the dogs (and me) off to the right start. On particularly good days, the girls join me, pedaling along on their bicycles, patiently waiting as I grapple with the bags to pick up the copious poops our pups seem to create.
It’s a time when the world hasn’t fully awakened, when the rush of the day has yet to begin; a slower, quieter space that is somehow more open to conversation. So we talk, often about silly things, sometimes about not-so-silly things. It is one of my favorite parts of the day.
This morning (as has been the norm of late), only Ella accompanied the dogs and me, slightly out of breath after having returned to the house to get her jacket (these crazy weather patterns are exhausting, I tell you). As I looked out over our peaceful, comfortable, safe, largely Caucasian suburban neighborhood, I was met by the distinct feeling that this was a Teachable Moment, one in which I could Make A Difference by showing my daughter how important it is to have Difficult Discussions.
Do you think there are a lot of black families in our neighborhood?
Despite the fact that this is entirely changing the subject, she is not thrown off by my question; I take it as a good sign. Clearly, Nick and I have done our job in raising our children to be comfortable discussing race and privilege (which is probably good, considering that our girls are, you know, biracial). Kudos to us!
“No, there aren’t. Do you think there are?”
No, there aren’t. I agree with you. Tell me something, though. If you were to see a black person walking down the streets in our neighborhood – someone you didn’t recognize, a black man, let’s say – would you feel afraid or nervous or uncomfortable in any way?
She answers so quickly, it’s obvious that she is confused and taken aback that such a thing is even possible. “No, why in God’s name would you ask such a ridiculous question?” Again, I pat myself on the back. Teachable Moments FTW, boom!
“No, I wouldn’t feel that way, Mom. Would you?”
And there it is. Shit. In that one moment, all of my Making A Difference has flown out the window, because while every part of me wants to answer, “No, not at all. I feel absolutely as comfortable when I see an unfamiliar black man in our neighborhood as I do when I see an unfamiliar white man/woman/teenager/child” I know in my heart that it isn’t true. I can’t even form the word “No” because, despite fervently believing – knowing with conviction – that there is no reason to be afraid or nervous around strange black men, what I feel in those first few seconds is something else entirely. I cannot lie to Ella. Not about this.
Actually… I’m ashamed and embarrassed to admit this… But, yes. A small part of me deep inside does feel afraid or nervous or uncomfortable. It doesn’t last long, and I don’t think that I do anything because of those feelings – I don’t think that I treat people differently*, because I know it isn’t true – but, yes. I do.
She angles her head while turning the corner to get a better look at me. “Why?”
Why. Why, indeed.
* I realize that I undoubtedly do treat black people differently because of those feelings – subconsciously, without meaning to, without malice, yes… But still, I’m sure that I do. I’m not proud of that – in fact, I’m trying damned hard to change it – but, if I’m being honest, I’m sure that I do. I’m sure we (white folks like me) all do.
Well, I suppose it’s because I’m a lot older than you are, so I’ve had a lot more years to live in this country, which means I’ve had a lot more time to live in a society that somewhat subtly but persistently tells me that black men are scary. That was the message I got growing up – definitely not from Papa or Grandma, but just from society as a whole – that, when I see an unfamiliar black man, I have reason to be afraid. And I guess I took those words inside and must have believed them, somehow, because there’s a part of me that still has that reaction even now, even though I’m older and have educated myself and have wonderful black friends and know, without a doubt, that it isn’t true. I have no reason to be afraid. Since I know that, I don’t consciously act on it – I don’t walk away from that person, I don’t avoid them, I don’t go and ask them why they’re in my neighborhood or pretend like I’m giving them directions when I’m really just trying to figure out if they’re up to no good. I certainly don’t act violently or run away or call the police. And, if I do notice that hint of fear creeping in, I get pretty mad at myself – Emily! What is wrong with you! What, a black guy can’t just be walking in your neighborhood? Knock it off, you idiot! And then I stop feeling afraid at all. But in that moment, that first instant, yes, I feel the tiniest bit nervous because that’s what I’ve learned, is to be nervous. I’m working hard to change that.
I’m so glad you don’t feel the way that I do.
Within the span of thirty seconds – the half-minute within which I was supposed to be Departing Wisdom and Making A Difference – my nine year-old has schooled me and shown me that Difficult Discussions are not necessarily the ones we carefully plan out, but the ones that occur when we least expect them. They may be some of the most important ones, too.
I cannot even begin to get into a full discussion about what the lack of an indictment for officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown means for us as a society. My feelings are complicated and messy and angry and self-righteous and defensive and frustrated and all over the map; I just can’t quite process everything right now. But I do know that one of the most important things all of us, every single one of us – whether we’re black or white or brown or tan or male or female or transgender or old or young or gay or straight or bi and everything else in between – needs to do is to be willing to have the Difficult Discussions, the REALLY Difficult Discussions, and to never stop asking “Why?” until we reach some sort of re-do start-over where we can begin again together.
Why do I feel afraid? Because that’s the narrative that’s been spun for forever; that black men are to be feared. Even though I know it’s not true. But don’t black men commit more crimes than white men? Honestly, I don’t know if they commit more actual crimes (although they’re certainly incarcerated more often than whites) but if they do… Why? Criminality is not inherent in black DNA (which is the same as white DNA, so obviously). Well, maybe it’s because black people face higher rates of unemployment than whites. Why is that? Maybe it’s because they don’t receive college educations as often as whites. Why? Because maybe their parents didn’t receive college educations. Why? Because they grew up in “bad” neighborhoods where education wasn’t valued. Why? Because that was where they were born, and upward mobility, breaking out of the social class into which you were born, is really freakin’ hard, despite what all of the American Dream stories may tell you. Why?
(These are not really what I think are the “right” questions to be asking, nor are these the only possible answers to these questions; the answers are far more multi-layered, nuanced, detailed, and broad. These questions are only to illustrate the point that, for each answer, there is another “Why?” that gets us deeper into the conversation.)
Until we are able to have these discussions, until we’re really able to ask why and really able to consider the answers – no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to face our own prejudices and -isms and fears – we will continue, as a society, devaluing the lives of others, especially the lives of young black men, which does all of us – black, white, tan, brown – a tremendous disservice.
You only need to listen to the opposing, anguished, raging, defiant voices of both Michael Brown supporters and Darren Wilson supporters to understand why our current system isn’t working so well. We need to bring about change. I don’t have any more solutions now than I did when I wrote about this issue more than a year ago, but the gist of my argument remains the same: there needs to be dialogue – with ourselves, with each other, with our kids.
Especially our kids.
There’s a lot that we can teach them, both about how to behave and how not to behave (not that I’d know *cough*), but there’s a hell of a lot that they can teach us, too. After all, they haven’t had the opportunity to develop racial biases (I mean, they don’t come out of the womb with them), unlike those of us who have been around the block a bit longer; maybe if we catch them young enough, they can help us understand their perspective. Wouldn’t it be incredible to look at the world with their lack of fear, prejudice, and judgment?
Talk. Ask questions. Ask why. Listen, even when it’s hard, even when we don’t agree. Try to understand. Take a breath. Move forward, together.
That’s what Ella taught me. I’m going to take her hand (once she’s off the bike) and give it a go.
Note: I have done a lot of (informal; i.e. I’ve read dozens of Internet blogs, posts, and articles) research into correct terminology and grammar when writing about race – Caucasian and African American or black and white (or Black and White)? – and have come to the conclusion that both are acceptable (it’s really what you’re comfortable with, and what your audience is comfortable with), and capitalization is not required.
Also, I realize I switched tenses from past to present and back again in the middle of this post; it’s on (stylistic) purpose.