Trigger warning: Charleston shooting, racism
The tragedy in Charleston last week was neither unpreventable or unthinkable. It was rooted in a long history of violence against black people in the U.S., a part of our history that is taught about in school but few white people choose to face the horrifying results of today. But once again, like Michael Brown, like Tamir Rice, like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, this killing should compel us to consider this history and do all we can to heal and fix it. At church last Sunday, my pastor directed us to build peace: “If you are a father, teach your children; if you are a mother, teach your children. If you have any influence at all, use it.” As a mother, here is how I plan to help my son become a peacemaker, someone who doesn’t just passively accept the culture but actively works to make it more just.
Teach him to listen well.
My church has a prayer that has come up over and over again since I’ve been there: “Teach me to listen, teach me to learn, teach me to love.” It isn’t a coincidence that learning to listen comes first. Actively listening and respecting the speaker is a fundamental skill for anyone who truly wants to love their neighbor, but especially social justice advocates. Oppression robs people of the voices they should rightly have. The first step we have to take is allow them to speak about their experiences and needs and actually listen, even if (and especially if) conflicts with our own experiences. This is a skill I need to work on myself, but I hope to grow in the process of teaching him.
Help him build relationships with and expose him to media about people of different cultures and races.
One of the biggest determining factors to subverting our culture’s inherent racism is knowing and having relationships with people of other races. Having those relationships is one reason the LGBT movement has moved forward with a great deal of momentum – once LGBT people began making themselves known, people realized that had family and friends who were LGBT. Unfortunately, the racial and socio-economic segregation of the country (created and reinforced by policies like redlining), makes that more difficult in regards to race. Fortunately, we live in a very multi-cultural neighborhood. In addition to it being historically black, it also has a number of immigrants, who bring their own unique experiences. Just by going to the park on a regular basis, Sprout already plays with children of different races and backgrounds. His future elementary school is only 36% white and 24% Asian, 17% Hispanic and 14% black. In contrast, the school where I grew up was 87% white, which makes it much harder for those organic relationships to develop. The makeup of our neighborhood also makes it easier for him to develop relationships with trusted adults of different races and ethnicities, such as our neighbor across the street. Beyond personal relationships, we also try to have his books and media reflect the diversity of our country. The Snowy Day, Ten Nine Eight, and One Hot Summer Day all have main characters of color without it feeling like an after-school special. As he gets older, I look forward to watching Doc McStuffins and Dora the Explorer with him.
Help him understand his privilege.
One of the most difficult truths for white people to learn is the extent of our own privilege. My own realization came from some mildly awkward situations that were nonetheless very illustrative. The sooner we can help him understand that he has advantages over other people for no good reason – even if he doesn’t want them – the easier it will be for him to process later on. I’m terribly grateful for the fact that even if she never used the word, my mom taught me early and often about my economic privilege. I plan on doing the same for Sprout for race and gender as well. While we will always congratulate him on his achievements, knowing that other people could do the same work and not be recognized in the same way is fundamental to knowing what needs to change in society.
Teach him that not all rules are just and sometimes need to be broken.
Changing society often means changing the rules of it, whether they are actual laws or just social norms. Most little kids are taught that rules are there because they are inherantly right. Many people never grow out of that perspective. Fortunately, even though I was an inveterate rules-follower as a kid, that evolved into a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay between rules and morality as an adult. I want Sprout to think hard about rules and where they came from instead of just accepting them as Good. Whether that results in him trying to change the rules legally through lobbying, breaking the social rules about not talking about uncomfortable subjects, or even participating in civil disobedience if necessary, I want him to follow his conscience most of all.
Communicate that violence is never the answer.<a
The number one rule in our household is that purposefully hurting someone is unacceptable. More than anything else, we want to teach him that we value kindness and compassion. True justice and peace flows from healing and love. While anger certainly has its place, violence itself does not. Learning how to channel that anger into something productive is one of the most powerful tools in the activist's toolkit.
Creating peace isn't just about not being violent and hoping peace shows up. It's a continuous process of building relationships and connections, of offering a willing ear or hand, of being willing to look at society through someone else's experiences. I hope that these core skills can help Sprout have the foundation in the future to be a truly good neighbor.