The US is on fire right now. Literally and metaphorically. The murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis shocked the nation to the point of action, with millions joining overwhelmingly peaceful protests across the country which have been used by their government to justify brutal responses from “law enforcement” officers. People are being gassed, beaten, shot and arrested for making use of the very laws that are supposedly being protected, all of whom are trying to say that cops shouldn’t kill black people.
Which is mental.
I write this in the full knowledge that I am an outsider to this subject in almost every way possible. I am British, white, male, middle aged, middle class, not pertaining to any faith, straight and able bodied. I am as unpersecuted as it is possible to get; the only thing I have to call back on was a challenging start to my life, but that is nowhere near on the same level as the struggles of those growing up with any non-white skin colour in the “land of the free”.
In my life I have only once been stopped by police and searched. A robbery had taken place nearby at the same time of night that a friend and I were walking home from the pub. They were looking for two white young men, and of course we fit the profile, so they stopped us, searched us, took our details and eventually let us go (being obviously innocent). Not for a second did I worry that my innocence wouldn’t prove enough to be released, that the colour of my skin would make them see me differently or that they would treat me worse than I should have been treated. My entire life has been spent without that level of persecution and fear, so I will never really know how it feels to have it as a constant issue at every turn.
One story that struck me recently was that of a black man in the US who walks his daughter and his dog through his neighbourhood every day for exercise. He felt he needed to take them both not for their protection but for his, that without those two things humanising him and showing him to be a loving father and dog owner he would be seen by his predominantly white neighbours as a threat; all they would see would be a black man prowling the neighbourhood and not see him as the regular man he is.
What is that teaching his children? How can that fear and oppression not simply seep into their very souls and affect them as they grow up, leading to them passing down that subtle sense of oppression to their own children, thus perpetuating the situation? No father should have to teach his children how to act differently if a police officer approaches them, how merely being innocent and polite isn’t enough to be safe from harm at the hands of those who are there to serve and protect.
I can’t imagine the sense of pain and shame I would feel were I to be in a similar situation with my own children. Teaching them that the injustice of the system is so deeply ingrained that it is easier to learn how to navigate it safely than it is to change it. That they need to have a shield up and be on alert constantly, only to know that it may never be enough anyway. That would exhaust and break me.
My eldest children were born when we lived in Walthamstow, East London. Their school was made up of students who predominantly had backgrounds that weren’t simply white British. About 70% or so of their classmates had ancestors from Africa, Asia, Europe or elsewhere, be that their parents or further back in history, and that reality was normal for them all. Their friends were of all colours and backgrounds, and knowing no different they thought nothing more of it.
When we moved to Kent the situation changed drastically. There were only a handful of children in the entire school who weren’t white British, a situation that took my children by surprise. Nearly every one of those children soon became good friends with my own as they simply felt comfortable having friends with a mixture of backgrounds. It was normal; they saw who those children were and not what their skin colour was.
Racism isn’t built into us, it’s taught, by society in general and by our own actions and words. As parents we hold immense power over how our children act and think, and therefore how an entire generation of children act and think. Every one of my children are influenced not only by me but by the parents of their friends, who influence them directly by speaking with my kids and indirectly by shaping their friendship groups. That’s an incredible responsibility we have to get things right.
It’s not enough to teach our children not to use racist language; we need to teach them to challenge others when they hear it. It’s not enough to know right from wrong; we need to teach them to challenge injustice wherever they see it. It’s not enough for them to know how to stay safe themselves; we need to teach them how to use their privilege to help others in less privileged positions than they are in. After all, if you have a right that isn’t afforded to someone else merely because of their skin colour then that’s not a right, that’s a privilege.
As parents we want what is best for our children, and that includes them growing up in a safe, inclusive society for all. Even though there is no set way of doing it, no single training course we can take or a particular book we can read, we MUST educate ourselves to the real problems that have been facing society for hundreds of years and teach our children so that they can help make things better in the future. We need to have those difficult conversations with them even if we don’t know all the answers. We need to make them aware that merely not being part of the problem is not enough to make them not part of the problem. We need to teach ourselves so we can teach them.
If you have young people in your life right now, be that as a parent, an aunt, an uncle or in any other way, use this time right now to talk with them. Tell them what is going on in America and why. Answer the questions you are able to answer and admit when you don’t have a good answer. Don’t stay silent and try to protect them from what is going on, because that is the problem. You aren’t protecting them, you are protecting yourself from difficult discussions and embarrassing truths. Your entire existence is not to protect yourself but to protect those kids.
It’s time to step up and protect them. All of them.