Through quick glances in my rearview mirror, I watched my sweet 6-year-old sob on the way home from the grocery store yesterday. I wish it was because I wouldn’t buy her something in the checkout line. Or because she’d gotten in trouble AGAIN for her reckless driving of the shopping cart. But it was much more complicated–and painful–than that.
She was crying because she’d just come to the difficult (and necessary) understanding that some folks are not going to like her because she’s white. My outgoing, loves-everybody child found this particular truth heartbreaking.
Here’s what happened:
Jane and one of her closest school friends were in the back seat of the car. Sometimes I pick this friend up from school, if her mom needs a quick childcare fill-in. Neither girl had known they’d be hanging out together that afternoon, so they were super excitable. Chattering, squealing, giggling, saying bootie and chicken nugget constantly–the usual. Once her friend realized that she probably wasn’t going to get a full-length playdate at our house, she asked if I could drop her off at another friend’s house instead of taking her home. (Uh… NO. But good try) Jane protested that she wanted to hang out, too. Her friend responded, “You could come too! Oh… no. No. You couldn’t. She (this other friend) wouldn’t like that. She doesn’t like white people.”
To her credit, in the moment Jane kind of just skipped right over what her friend had said. They carried on. More BOOTIE! More CHICKEN NUGGET! And so much running around the store. They drove me crazy–and had a blast. They hugged each other goodbye one MILLION seven hundred and forty-seven times.
Then her friend was gone, and I got to have the tough conversation in the car. The one that made her cry.
I get it. I like to be liked. And, even though I have a much broader perspective of systemic racism and white supremacy than my six-year-old, it still stings when a person doesn’t give me the benefit of the doubt because I am white. But then I pull myself together, recognize my own privilege and acknowledge that, by and large, white folks have done very little to facilitate positive, interpersonal relationships with black folks. In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time doing precisely the opposite.
And that’s where I started my conversation with Jane.
This past weekend, Jane interrupted me in the second to last chapter of The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. She started talking to me as if nothing were going on, while I was mired in the child narrator’s perspective on the Birmingham church bombing–the one where four black little girls were slaughtered at the hands of white men. Once I finished the book, I had to explain why I was so upset when she interrupted my reading. I reminded her what she’d learned about the civil rights movement. How separate was not, in fact, equal. And how people fought so hard for the very basic civil rights that she and I enjoy every day. Then, I told her about the kind of hate that would drive grown white men to bomb a church and kill little girls. Just because they were black.
Fast forward a few days…as Jane sat crying in the backseat yesterday, I reminded her about the church bombing in 1963. That MLK got shot for leading black folks toward liberation (or civil rights, at least). That her black friends will not always get the same benefit of the doubt that she does, simply because of the color of her skin. And I reminded her that we still have to say that Black Lives Matter, because to so many, they don’t.
These are hard truths. These are truths her black friends are never spared.
Jane is a warrior for what’s right. It’s just in her nature. She believes passionately in fairness and equality. To her, someone not liking her because she’s white is the epitome of unfairness.
But when I reminded her of the unfairnesses–in education, employment, housing, incarceration, etc, etc, etc–that black and brown folks endure every single day as white folks keep institutional and systemic racism firmly in place, well… she found a little bit of perspective on the unfairness of some kid not liking her because she’s white.
And, just for good measure, I begged her to never say “not all white people…” because FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. NO.
Instead of worrying about what one little girl she doesn’t even know thinks about her, we agreed that maybe she could focus on all the lovely friends she does have. And that she could do her part to try to make the world more fair for everyone. And that, regardless of what comes her way, she would always, always be a warrior for what is right.