My son grew very still as he listened. “But it’s not like that anymore, is it?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “it’s complicated.”
A lynching may be especially difficult to explain to a child, but I am far from alone as a parent who struggles to talk to his kids about race and its grim history in America. We take great care to teach our kids to treat others kindly, to share, and to forgive. But teaching them about America’s racial history is another project entirely, burdening us with the knowledge that in giving them the truth, we are taking away some of the joy with which they behold the world.
Every parent—whether deliberately or not—sends a message to his or her children about race, but the legacy of race-based chattel slavery means that for black parents the process of deliberation is unavoidable and particularly fraught. Every black parent has to have “the talk,” about how to survive an encounter with the police. In truth there is not one talk but several. There’s the talk about how people will fear you and consider you threatening no matter what you do. The talk about working twice as hard for half as much. The talk about how black kids don’t get second chances.
And even then, no matter how carefully parents inculcate a sense of racial awareness, there is the ever-present threat of bigotry’s random brutality. To be a black parent in America is to be in a state of constant vigilance. All parents know this caution to some degree—keep sharp objects out of reach, make sure they don’t play in the street, check out what kinds of friends they’re making. Black parents, on top of that, have to worry about shielding their children, and healing them, from antiblack racism.
They also, in having these conversations, often have to revisit old traumas of their own: having the word nigger hurled at them, having lost out on jobs or promotions because others viewed them as less competent than their lighter-skinned peers, having been pulled over simply because of their skin. I, for instance, dread talking with my son the first time he goes out on his own with a group of other black and brown-skinned boys. Having that conversation will take me back to the discomfort of how, when I was a kid, police officers seemed to have nothing better to do than follow me and my friends at the mall or the arcade.
The talking, the preparation, the vigilance is endless—and, frankly, exhausting. I admit I get tired at times, as I try to fight off anything that might smuggle a notion of inferiority into my black child’s mind. I have to investigate the racial representation in the latest animated movie and try to decode any of its subtle biases against people of color. I try to find children’s books that don’t feature black kids only in supporting roles or in the ghetto. I have to consider not only the racial composition of my child’s classroom but whether the leadership is diverse and racially sensitive as well. I absolutely will not buy him toy guns or let him play with them, even if the neon color of the plastic practically glows. I won’t even let him fix his fingers into the shape of a gun.