In the face of Baltimore: Reflecting on conversations with my son about Ferguson
This post is being re-posted as part of a week-long series highlighting supporters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), both in their parenting of race-conscious children and their activist work for racial justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. For more resources and information check out SURJ’s website.
My son is 4. He is Vietnamese and White (Irish and Russian), I’m a White woman and his dad is Vietnamese, the first of his family born in the US.
During the weeks after the Ferguson non-indictment, I listened to many stories on the radio about Mike Brown. I thought about each one and whether the radio should stay on or off (when my son was present). I usually turned the radio off when there was a really gruesome description, but otherwise I left it on.
One day when a story came on, I was listening and thinking about if I should keep it on or turn it off. A reporter asked an African American man in Missouri about his seven-year-old son. She asked,
“Surely you don’t talk with your son about this, right?”
The man jumped in and said,
“Absolutely, I have to! A few months ago, the police forced me to the ground in front of my mom’s house, with my son looking on. I can’t avoid talking with my son about it. I tell him that some police are good and some are bad.”
I kept the radio on, and shared this moment on Facebook. My mom of color friends spoke up with appreciation, since they also felt that this isn’t a reality they can shield their children from. As a White mom, this is something I have the luxury (privilege) of choosing to engage or not, and for now, I’m leaning towards not sheltering my son from this reality.
When the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict the officer who killed Mike Brown, I started talking to my son about it immediately. Or really, talking at him. I think I was upset and felt compelled to do something right away. My son asked why the police shot Mike Brown and I started to stumble to find words to say that the police are more likely to shoot Black people. My husband jumped in and said “Mike Brown hit the police officer.” I was instantly pissed off, since I saw that as my husband repeating the talking points of people who are ignorant and racist. We shot each other looks of death, and my son, who is a sort of peace maker at his school, stopped the conversation.
After my son went to sleep, we talked about what we wanted our son to understand, and how we wanted to talk with him about it. My husband pointed out that I was talking a lot about Black people, and not about the experience of Asian people. I agreed that was a fair point, and started looking more actively at Asian experiences with the police and vigilante brutality. We agreed that we should focus on the bigger trend: police not treating people fairly and being more likely to hurt Black, Latino, and sometimes Asian people. We agreed that the back and forth around what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson wasn’t helpful to talk about.
We disagreed about what we wanted our son to know about the police. My husband wants my son to feel safe turning to the police for help, I’m not so sure that this is the best advice. This is even though my husband is a person of color and I’m not, though I’ve worked a lot more closely with low income communities of color through my work as a community organizer. We still don’t know the answer to this question, and we might never agree.
We both want our son to grow up to continue to be a peacemaker, and we want to nurture the way he jumps in to make sure other kids are being fair to each other. We want him to be someone who can diffuse a situation with the police and his friends. We agree that we want our son to feel safe. We agree that we want him to know about the ways that people are working to make the system more fair.
After talking with more people about this, I realized that a better approach is to ask my son if he has questions, and to let him lead the conversation. The other day, I asked him if he knew who Mike Brown was.
“Yes,” he said, “the guy the police shot.”
Another day I asked him if he wanted to go to a protest to stop the police from hurting people like Mike Brown, and he said he did. He picked the slogan “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” for a sign (though mostly because I think he liked the idea of playing good guy/bad guy with guns -sigh).
On the way to the protest I asked him what questions he had. He wanted to know, again,
“Why did the police shoot Mike Brown?”
I told him that the police don’t treat everyone fairly, and that they are more likely to shoot someone who is Black, or Latino, or Asian. My son asked, “Asian like me?”
“Yes, but I’m going to keep you safe, and that’s why we’re going to this protest, to stop police from hurting people like you, and other people who are Black and Latino and Asian.”
My son didn’t seem afraid in this conversation. I think if he did seem to be afraid or becoming afraid, I’d use less strong language, but keep talking about racism and injustice in other ways. The conversations seem to be getting traction. When they talk about Mike Brown on the radio my son will say “They’re talking about Mike Brown!”
“Listen,” I told him during one radio story, “they’re talking about people protesting to make the world safer and more fair for everyone!”
“Safer for me?” he replied.
Today he said, “That’s scary momma,” and that made me wonder if it’s starting to go too far. I asked him about what was scary, but he got distracted and I couldn’t get an answer about what it was that scared him. It’s making me think that I should dial back what I’m sharing with him, and shield him from the reality a little more. I’m torn between protecting him from a reality that many children live and can’t be sheltered from. It’s partly about what is right, but it’s also partly about what is best for him.
My son is Asian and White and is growing up in a neighborhood that is historically African American. Many of his friends are children of color. I think a lot about the day when they are teens, hanging out somewhere, and are approached by the police. On that day, I won’t be there to shield him from a reality where the police might see him and his friends as threats or ‘demons.’ I know I want to change that reality for him and for the other kids in our neighborhood, because our society will be better for it. But I really don’t know if I’m doing the right thing in terms of what I’m shielding him from or not—and how I’m talking with him about it. I’m still figuring it out, and reserving the right to change my approach over time.
Julie Roberts-Phung is a long time community organizer turned consultant and coach, and a member of SURJ. Through her business, Empower Together, she coaches change-makers on a variety of topics, including leadership and career issues. Julie is mom to two children, a four-year-old and a one-year-old.