There are life's small concerns, that endless string of details that keeps a low hum in the background of our minds at all times, eventually taking on the same familiarity as a kitchen appliance; harmless little things like permission slips, emails awaiting reply, overdue library books. The decibels ramp up steadily as the worries grow into larger subjects like an unexpected home repair, a child who is heartbroken over an argument with a friend, the existential crisis that seems to plague us all at some point in our adulthood...divorce...a health scare.
I foolishly assumed, for some time, that this was the loudest the noise would get, that the things listed above were the likely culprits to look out for. And while the world did not suddenly change, the landscape shifted. I thought we were doing our part to speak openly and frequently with our white, middle class, suburban sons about the issues of race that had plagued our country in a historical sense and what the future might look like for them as they grow older. I still remember the conversation we had with our son, then ten, about white privilege - a gauzy, hard to grasp concept that life would somehow be easier for him because he happened to be born white, likely heterosexual and male. My son instantly took offense to the notion that he, someone who works hard, looks out for others and cares about humanity in general would ever expect special treatment because of these seemingly insignificant factors, over which he had absolutely no control. "No, no," we assured him, "it's not that you'll ever expect it. We know that. It's that it will happen automatically. It will be so subtle, you won't even know it's happening. You will work hard, you will try your best. There will be things that are difficult for you and you'll have to overcome those obstacles." Unfortunately, prejudice does not share the same helpful identifier as pornography. It's shadowy appearance can allow it to slip by undetected and we don't always know it when we see it. We tried to explain that the world at large will naturally bend, ever so slightly, for people like him and that he should never take that for granted, that he should always be open to the existence of this inequality and not allow it to make him bitter or angry but instead, more concerned about the difficulties of others. After this conversation I couldn't help but think of the flip side, undoubtedly happening around other kitchen tables, where children were told about the ways in which the world would not be bending ever so slightly to help them. It bolstered us to keep the talks going as our children have gotten older. We had ripped off the bandaid and now, each time the opportunity presented itself, we started to look deeper and speak more openly.
The weight of injustice of all kinds was a hum back then but it's steadily grown to a siren over the last few years. Even as I had these "difficult" conversations with my sons about race and gender inequality I was keenly, uncomfortably aware that they were a luxury not afforded to many. I tried to temper their knowledge of racial issues, bigotry and homophobia with age appropriate stories from my own childhood, a treasure trove of cautionary tales that I found, ironically, to come in useful for such a thing. I wanted to prepare them for a reality they would someday encounter without forcing it on them. I wanted to help them transcend that sticky layer of white guilt so many of their peers would likely wade through, starting with the appropriation they would try on through their very (very) limited exposure to other cultures. I told them of my cousin, who found himself the only black person in a suburban white neighborhood with a police officer stepfather. The relief he felt when he transferred to a predominantly black high school, only to be shunned by his classmates because of his cluelessness around black culture, his light skin, his amber colored eyes. How alone and confused he must have felt. I told them about my own feelings of helplessness as I watched this unfold. That as much as I understood his pain, I knew even then that his situation held nuances I could never grasp. Relaying the story of someone close to me, it felt awkward to be speaking a story that was not, ultimately, my own to tell. I did my best to honor that experience and to acknowledge that my retelling it may skew it or inadvertently diminish it in some way.
These conversations then carried us over to puberty and as my son bemoaned his own slow train to men's shoe sizes, we talked very candidly about what it must be like to be a girl, the gender who typically "gets" to advance first. The feeling of towering over your classmates, the horror of starting your period unexpectedly halfway through the school day. The sudden addition of training bras to your daily wardrobe. Uncomfortable and awkward subjects? Yes, definitely, but we've kept on, a sense of obligation to build this compassion and empathy just as we do with multiplication facts and diagramming sentences.
There are times that the heartache and anger I feel when I see the news feels like one that needs to be shared with my kids but I've learned that the hardest thing is to know when to temper their knowledge of things that will likely confuse and terrify them. Because of their ages, who they happen to be and where they live, they don't see or experience examples of injustice and prejudice every day, so they have no frame of reference for these larger, more egregious occurrences. Knowing that these events still deserve to be acknowledged, that the conversation must continue, we've started to frame the discussion with our kids in a way that will hopefully serve them better in the long run. We've discussed that their jobs, as children and young adults, is to pay attention to how others are treated. ALWAYS. In school and sports, with their friends and classmates. Among parents and neighbors. Animals. Nature. Pay attention to how people are treated.
Armed with their new edict, our kids started to come back with observations and questions. They've told us of times when they felt compelled to point out the unfair treatment of someone, slights big and small that they felt deserved to be righted. We talked about their other responsibilities - the importance of being curious about other people, interested in their stories as individual humans and to not put the burden on their black friends, Hispanic friends or even girl buddies to be their own personal translators. That it's unfair to ask someone to speak on behalf of an entire people. The danger of stereotypes. The time and effort it takes to really understand someone. And, mostly, that there are so, so many times in life when they will not be the person in the room who has all the answers or the best solution to a complicated problem. There will be many times when your job is just to go into a situation being open to hearing what others have to say. Since those initial conversations I feel like this notion of paying attention to how others are treated has given me, as a parent, a bridge to connect the larger issues I am aware of to the ones my children bring home. On those nights I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep as I churn over the events taking place in the world I wonder, like all parents, what more I can do to heal, to help, to take action. We choose our path as adults in the bigger work we take on with our activism but I take comfort, too, in knowing that as my children grow, so will their awareness and their understanding, and that they will not have the feelings of crippling naiveté many of us have felt as adults, that their generation is already well-versed in the realities they will face. I take comfort in the fact that by the time they can vote, hold jobs, run for office or start families of their own they will already have the power of knowing how others are treated.