A couple weeks ago, a casual conversation about the 5 borough marathon in New York led my son to ask if there had ever been a protest in all five boroughs. I told him there had not been a five-borough protest that I was aware of but that there had been a protest a couple years ago that went from Manhattan to Brooklyn and stopped at the Barclay’s Center. I told him it was called the Black Lives Matter protest.
He looked confused. “But that couldn’t have ended at the Barclay’s Center. That took place in the 60’s and the Barclay’s Center wasn’t built yet.” My heart sank as I realized: somehow, even through all of the election stuff and our endless discussion of the Civil Rights movement, we had never discussed the Black Lives Matter movement with our eight and six-year-old children.
So my husband and I carefully explained the nature of racial profiling and, without getting too specific, told them that police have been treating people of color unfairly for years. While the Civil Rights Movement did a great deal to move the country forward, it did not do everything, we said. My son interrupted and said he wanted to tell us a joke. There was silence.
“This isn’t the right time for a joke.” my husband told him. “This is very serious.”
Our son continued to insist on telling a joke. We eventually shut the conversation down but he came back to the joke later when we were getting the kids ready for bed and my husband allowed it.
It was horrible. He told a story about a black person who was driving in a car and gets pulled over by a policeman for no reason, and arrested. My son looked at us expectantly, waiting for us to laugh. Horror seethed through my veins.
“That’s not funny.” I told him. As I was brushing my daughter’s teeth, I asked my husband to take him to the other room to explain why it wasn’t funny. Of course, my daughter, not wanting to be left out, demanded an explanation as well. “It’s not funny because those things really happen.” I told her. As I watched her absorbing the information, my confidence grew in what I should tell her and I decided it was gloves off time. Our kids needed to understand; neither one of them could ever tell a joke like that again and think it would be funny.
So I told her that sometimes police will pull over cars that black people are driving and search them (which they’re not allowed to do) until they find something that they think they can arrest them for. Or they’ll ask them to step out of the car and hit them. “There have even been some police officers who have done this when people’s children are in the backseat.” I told her. And that’s when her jaw dropped. I explained to her that these were police officers who were not obeying the law and not doing their jobs of protecting society. I told her that the only way that black people have been able to bring some real attention and proof of this to light was to use videos on their phones.
My daughter listened and was quiet. I decided to take it one step further. I asked her how she would feel if that ever happened to us, if we were driving and a police officer took me and Daddy out of the car while they were in the backseat. “Upset.” she said.
And then she said something I never would have predicted. “When I grow up, I am going to create an organization that teaches police officers to treat black people equally.” I was stunned; it wasn’t the response I was expecting from a six year old. And I was pretty sure I had never heard her use the word “organization.” But she was off and running with logistics: she would employ her friends to help her and they would make the police officers listen by having guns.
“You can’t have peaceful talks with guns.” I corrected her. “No one will listen.” She conceded the point but said the police officers would need to have their guns taken away to attend her class where she would make them be nicer.
Somewhere in the middle of her planning, she realized this could affect people she knows. One by one, she went through the parents of her friends: who was black, who was white. Though it crushed me to explain it, I told her that the evidence bore it out, and that I had had a friend, growing up, who had been stopped on the street by the police many times.
My daughter now has a short-term plan to give some of her allowance to current organizations working in tandem with Black Lives Matter (she was bummed to find out that they were invented before she got there).
While all this was happening, my husband talked extensively with my son in the other room. He showed him a YouTube video of a black senator from the South who said that he had been stopped by the police 7 or 8 times in one year. My son was astounded. “How many times have you seen me getting stopped by the police?” he asked, “Never.” This was why my son’s joke was not funny, my husband explained.
After bedtime, my husband and I compared our experiences educating our children, I realized, with sadness and shame, that, if we had been black, we would have had these conversations long ago. And not just these conversations—but conversations about what to do if a cop came up to them in an aggressive manner or came up to one of us in an aggressive manner. This is something many white parents are realizing now.
We have had many conversations about inequality related gender and race and sexuality. But we have not had to talk about violence, sometimes on the part of people working for the state. The truth is, we have not wanted to saddle our children with the ugly truths. We wanted them to preserve their childhood and innocence for as long as possible. But unfortunately, we are now living in a time where innocence is impossible: even children need to be prepared to fight racism at a young age.
In the end, we concluded that my son thought the joke was funny because to him, it was incongruous: a police officer, a good guy, pulling over another good guy and arresting him for no reason. In the bubble that has been his world, it made no sense to him and it made him intensely uncomfortable. We’ve popped the bubble, and I’m glad we did, so that he can understand what is real in the world around him.