I had a lovely Thanksgiving. There was good food and abundant wine and pie with real whipped cream and no one got in a fight over politics – that’s about all you can ask for. But if I escaped the controversial discussions on the actual day, Ruby made sure I made up for it in the days before and after by initiating talks with me about race relations, sex, and the existence of Santa Claus.
Sometimes I listen to my childless coworkers discuss their social lives – the birthday parties at trendy bars, the elaborate Secret Santa exchanges, something called “Friendsgiving,” – and I wonder how on earth they have the time and energy for these things. Then I remember that they don’t have kids and thus don’t have to negotiate questions like, “What’s an accidental pregnancy? Don’t you only do that to make a baby in the first place? Why else would you even do that?” while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to drama class. Or “So if I have a black boyfriend and we get stopped by the police when we’re older, will me being his white girlfriend make things better or worse?” Or “Can I tell other kids that Santa isn’t real? I feel like they all need to know, right?”
I answer these questions as honestly as I can, but really, I just kind of want to throw Barbie dolls and candy at her until she shuts up and I don’t have to discuss it anymore. The emotional energy expended by fielding these questions is immense.
I never thought I would escape the sex or Santa talks (although I didn’t anticipate them both in one weekend …), but I did, for a short while and obviously with my head buried in the sand, think that maybe by sending Ruby to a diverse elementary school – one that has “diversity” as one of its cornerstones, not as an afterthought – she would never really be conscious of racism. I realize how dumb that sounds, typing it out, but I think I really wanted to believe that kids are color-blind. And also, I didn’t want to discuss racism with Ruby. I was – and still am – terrified of saying the wrong thing, conveying the wrong message, presuming things I shouldn’t presume, using words that I don’t even realize are dripping with privilege.
Speaking of privilege: Last summer, after the Trayvon Martin decision, a black mom I am friends with posted on Facebook that her son was devastated by the verdict. And as much as I preach being nonjudgmental or claim that I don’t care about other people’s parenting decisions, I am ashamed to admit that a brief hot spark of judgment rose up in me and I thought, “Well, you’re the one who told your son about this case! My daughter doesn’t know who Trayvon Martin is; you didn’t have to involve your son in this whole thing in the first place.” And then, just as quickly, I thought: “Oh. Oh, shit. Your son is a young black boy. You have a completely different responsibility as a mother than I do to make him aware of these events.” That? My willful shielding of my daughter from an unpleasant situation, the choice I had to keep that from her? That’s privilege. At least I realized it, eventually, and vowed to try to do better.
And so when the Michael Brown decision came down last week, I made a point to discuss it with Ruby. Ruby is not color-blind – she is already aware of race as a concept – but she probably has more black friends than white ones, and she, unlike me, is not afraid to discuss race. She had and still has a lot of questions, and I am just trying not to fumble the answers too badly. Unlike our conversations four years ago, she just keeps coming with the questions and the follow-up questions and the follow-ups to the follow-up questions. I can only imagine the conversations she is trying to start at school – about slavery, the Civil War, segregation, the civil rights movement, protests.
And unlike our conversations four years ago, I no longer feel like I have some pat answer or some optimistic bow to tie on the end of everything. I am feeling particularly bleak and discouraged right now. Maybe that kind of realism is actually some kind of progress? I don’t know.
All I know how to do is to keep answering the hard questions as best I can even when I don’t feel like I have any good answers, to keep the conversation going when all I really want to do is put my fingers in my ears.
Maybe that’s the only way we will ever move forward.