Recently I went for a run with my usual friends, talking about our upcoming All City Swim Meet. It is one of the largest outdoor swim meets in the country, and my oldest son is one of the coaches for our pool. He and his fellow coaches will be sneaking around in the dark, leaving treats in the front yard of each swimmer the night before this three-day event begins. My friends made comments like, “How fun.” And “How many kids do they deliver the treats to?” When out of the blue I blurted out, “If any of the coaches were black I would be worried for their safety.” There was a bit of a gasp from the group, a pause… and then they sadly agreed. More silence and the topic of conversation was changed.
My oldest son can participate in fun nighttime activities such as these without a care in the world. What would be the possible outcome of having a fellow coach of color out there at night, wearing dark clothing? Would he or she decide it wasn’t worth the risk and stay home, missing the fun? Would the other white coaches understand such a decision?
My boys are clean-cut, middle-class, cisgender white and Asian males and they have the world at their fingertips. They have gone toilet papering and trick or treating when they were too old for it. They play with Nerf and water guns in broad daylight and assumptions will never be made about what they hold in their hands. They have never been followed in a store.
One time my oldest son was pulled over for a broken tail light. He came home a few minutes later with a verbal warning. I am far too aware that this is not the usual outcome for a teen of color. My oldest sons are tall and bigger than average, yet if you encountered them late at night wearing a hoodie with the hood up, you would most likely not feel the need to cross to the other side of the street. My oldest is heading to college this fall and I do not worry that if he has had too much to drink someone will get the wrong idea and assault him.
Teachers, fellow classmates and other parents have never made unfair assumptions about them because of the color of their skin. They have never been called the N word on the soccer field.
And my Asian child, well, there will be assumptions made about him because of the color of his skin. But it is a different set of assumptions. Ones that do not carry concern for his safety.
Children of color participate at our All City Swim Meet. I know that assumptions are made that they must be there on scholarship. No one would ever make that same assumption of my kids (even though they were on scholarship for a season when my husband was out of work). Because they are white. Because we are “good people.”
Not too long ago I mistakenly believed that I needed to focus on teaching my kids to be kind, to be fair, to be loyal and loving. I wanted to teach them to be honest, to be aware of strangers and to love one another.
But the events of this summer alone make me painfully aware of the bubble in which we live. What I need to add to my list, what I think is the most important thing of all, is to help my children realize the privilege that has been given to all of them. This is not a simple task. It is easy to be defensive and deny such a privilege exists. And yet, I need to try. I need to take every opportunity to show them what the world gives them every day that they take for granted.
Years ago I learned a phrase. When you see a hurt, when you see something that isn’t right and you don’t know what to do, you can ask this simple question: “What can I do?” Maybe if more of us asked this of those who are hurting around us, instead of judging or making assumptions we can make a difference.
I am hoping, as a white mom of white and Asian males that I can use my small amount of awareness to show my children what they have and how they can use what they have to make a difference in the world. Maybe it’s conversations with my boys when they go toilet papering or jump in their cars to go to a friend’s house without a care. Maybe it’s teaching them to stand by their friends of color when they see an injustice; to be a witness to what is happening in front of them and to speak out when they see a wrong.
Maybe I need to teach them awareness of their position, courage to speak up when they should and humility to step back when they don’t understand.
I don’t understand.
But that won’t stop me from trying. I’m not going to give up on this world that we are leaving for our children.
So, please tell me, what can I do?