In 1992, I turned 9 years old. It was the year that Rodney King was beaten and my awareness of a much bigger, much more confusing world became apparent.
In 2020, my son turned 9 years old. It is the year that countless black women and men have been killed by police and his awareness of a much bigger, more confusing world became apparent to him.
What would you change about your childhood?
The truth is that I wouldn’t change much. There are specific moments I might change. Moments I remember wanting to hide in a shell. On the whole, my parents are amazing and my childhood was a good one. I imagine a lot of people might say the same thing about their parents, too. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just lucky. My parents set an incredible example of hard work, integrity, how to treat others with respect, and I try to live up to that standard every day.
But my parents didn’t raise me to be as good as them. They raised me to be better. Honestly, this is a bit of a swipe at the idea of nostalgia bias – the thinking that things were better the way they used to be, mainly because they were good for us as individuals when we were younger; if we just kept doing things the same way, we would somehow be better off. I do know that bypassing the wisdom and advice of our older generations is naive. But doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always done is equally naive.
Maybe there are a few parents out there who are just like, “My life was pretty awesome and I hope my kid has the exact same life I did,” but I am not and neither are my parents. I want my kid’s life to be better than mine and I want the world to be a better place for my child and because of my child. That won’t happen without work. So I not only have to meet the expectations and example my parents set, but exceed them.
My family rarely talked explicitly about racism, gender roles, or socio-economic differences. Most of those messages were implied, which is sometimes helpful, but, in my opinion, not enough. Obviously, we all learn implicitly from the adults around us, and I think my parents did a good job demonstrating what it means to be a good person. Yet, we live in a world that, in many ways, hasn’t changed much since I was nine years old, the year that Rodney King was beaten and I became acutely aware of the bigger world around me that I didn’t understand. So when my nine year old son watched the protests this past week, reality sunk in about a few things that have changed (social media, news cycles, resources available to kids and parents) and many things that haven’t (systemic racism, oppression, police brutality).
I don’t remember any conversations with my parents about the Rodney King video or the riots. I don’t remember reacting viscerally to what I was watching. Some of my memories are most likely a result of seeing the videos in the years since 1992 as much as that time. The way my son responded last weekend, however, makes me think that he is going to remember this moment in a very different way. And that is a good thing. And it is my job to make sure this moment doesn’t pass without him learning and our family taking a new trajectory going forward.
Choosing silence is tolerating racism
I still remember, very vividly, the scuffle that broke on the playground when I was 6 years old and a a classmate said, “Fight, fight, between the n—– and the white.” I don’t think I really understood that word, but I knew who the target was and that it was awful. Worse, no one spoke out to shut that kid up or find an adult to address it. I don’t even remember if a teacher came in to break the awkward rolling-tumbling-fight-thing or if it just fizzled out like most little kid fights. But I very clearly remember what that kid said.
I am 37 years old. That was 1988 in southeast Pennsylvania. We’re not talking about the 1960s civil rights era. We’re not talking about the deep south. And we wonder why black people in this country are treated as less than. In that singular moment, individuals paid for those remarks. The black kid who was singled out. The black kids who are nearby. Our society pays for those moments 5, 10, 20 years down the road, when those bigoted kids are now adults and still think that those ideas are okay. Maybe they were just okay at their house. Maybe they were just okay on the playground when an adult wasn’t looking. But they clearly received the message that those ideas were acceptable. We also pay because the bystanders haven’t built up the skills to speak out against bias and racism. Because they weren’t taught how to respond in the moment. Because they didn’t feel comfortable asking an adult for help.
There were a lot of kids around that day, and not one of us stood up to say it wasn’t right. Probably because some of us were confused or dumbfounded, some because we were scared of getting hurt for saying something. The truth is that asking a six year old to stand up in that moment is a lot, and that moment was as overtly racist as you get. As most of us have seen/heard/read, being anti-racist and anti-bias is rarely about these egregious moments, but the more subtle ones. All of us have been around them, and still, rarely do kids stand up when they know it is wrong.
My parents set a great example, but we didn’t talk about being anti-racist. Anti-racist books were not in the popular book stream. Sadly, only now are they starting to find real traction. My parents also never said there way was the one, only, best way to raise kids. They did the best they could at the time. I would let them down immensely if I weren’t doing better now, if I weren’t doing the best I could in my time. The ability and opportunity to do better as parents now is greater than it ever has been. I have to educate myself and then my kids. I need to seek resources and ask for help, because they are readily available and we know how critical this work is to our success as a society.
I wish my parents and teachers had more resources thirty years ago. I wish the adults around us took moments of bias and racism as seriously as we are taking it now. I wish for a lot of things, but I can’t change those actions, and placing blame on anyone for that feels fruitless. But I can be the change I wish to see. I can read and listen and watch all of the books and podcasts and videos available to me. I can, as a parent and a teacher, determine the best way for us to share that information with our children. I cannot guarantee that my words or actions will be perfect. But I can take action. I can speak up and speak out in a way that empowers children to do the same.