Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What is the answer?

I have two beautiful, smart, and for the most part kind children (let's face it, they're kids, and they bicker with each other NON STOP). We've tried to instill in them pride in their family and heritage. From Mom's side (me), they are English, Irish, French, Scottish, Slovak, Czech, and much more. From Dad's side, they are Hispanic. They are a wonderful mix of so many cultures and backgrounds and have family members of all different races, and we love talking about it because I never want them to feel like they are better or less than anyone else. Their friends aren't defined by color - they're defined by their personalities or some skill they accel at. Everyone is just a person.

Growing up, I've been teased and bullied, and I've been the teaser and bully. But never, ever, have any of those instances been about race. About being a girl, or hitting like a girl, or not wearing the right clothes, or something like that perhaps, but NEVER have I been discriminated against because of race - because I'm white. And there is, unfortunately, an insane amount of privilege that comes with that one piece of who I am. And no matter how much I believe that all people are created equal and how much I try and teach our kids that we don't judge others, especially on looks or skin color, I know that how I expwriwnce the world is far different than how my husband does. Even though I try to have a better understanding and he educates me constantly, I find that as knowledgeable as I think I am, I am never knowledgeable enough - but I want to understand more. 

Take for instance the time the radio DJ was talking about interracial couples - it didn't occur to me that was us. Because I see him just as hubs, and don't view us as different. He'd caught the looks from others or snide remarks that I'd never even noticed. Or the time we went on vacation in Virginia, and went to a nice little pub where I hippity-hopped through the front door without a second thought, only pausing inside when hubs seemed a little out of sorts. When I asked what's wrong, he said, "Did you see the 'decor' out front?" (There had been some things that could have indicated it may not be welcoming for him.) I hadn't. Because I've never had to feel worried that I'm going to be discriminated against because of my skin color whether it was a restaurant or a business or anything else. It hadn't even crossed my mind. 

What really hit home for me was this past year, when our son had an incident with another child who made a disparaging comment about two races of people (Hispanics included). He had come and asked me if he could talk to me privately, and I was a little worried about what was going on. Maybe he'd flunked a test, I thought, or maybe he had a question about the puberty classes they'd just started at school. When he told me, through dry-heaving sobs, what this child had said, I did what a mama bear does: pulled him into a bear hug, told him it was wrong of others to say that, that it wasn't true, that being Hispanic was a wonderful thing, and then I called for his dad to come up. Because in that moment, I did not know what else to say. I knew I couldn't understand that experience and I couldn't say "I know how you feel" because I didn't. I'd never had someone say something like that to me. 

I don't fully think the kid thought through what they were saying, and the situation was handled appropriately, but regardless, it was the first time in our son's life that he experienced someone saying something to hurt him simply because his nationality and skin were different. "Are there people who think I'm bad just because I have tan skin? Because I'm Mexican?" he asked. And that was a turning point for me. I couldn't tell him no, because that's not true. There are people who will think that, and he will have to deal with this again. And again. And again. No matter how much I want to protect him, I will only ever be able to do so much. I could comfort him as any mother would, but sweeping the issue under the rug wasn't going to make the situation disappear. And what would doing that teach him? There are times where you tell your kids to turn the other cheek, and there are times where you take a stand. Mom and Dad had to stand up for him and show him that it is not acceptable for others to make those comments (and we did). He had to stand up for himself and say it is not acceptable for others to treat him as less than. And we also needed to remind him that we will always be there in good and bad times, and we will face the bad times together - and remind him again that no one is less than anyone else because of skin color. 

I could sit here and tell you a million great things about my kid but I shouldn't have to, because he doesn't need to defend who he is. He knows who he is, he's proud of who he is, and he works very hard to maintain a good reputation. And none of his accomplishments or pitfalls have anything to do with his skin color.

It's not the first time or the last time that it's going to happen to him, as is evident in the many news stories dominating our timelines, especially today. 

So I stood in the doorway that night and listened as my husband talked to my son about racism, but this time, it took on a new meaning. My hubs spoke about times that he's been picked on for his heritage and background; times that he's been attacked for it whether physically or emotionally. And he talked about how to deal with it, how to protect himself in those situations, how to talk to a trusted adult, and so on.

And then I went to my room and cried because I knew that was the first day of the rest of his life: a life where he'd notice people's skin color because now, someone had pointed out to him that he was different because of it. In today's world it was only a matter of time until it happened, and it would be naive to think any differently. 

He's learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., in school. They are learning about the history of our country and both the good and the bad that came with it. He's learning how African Americans have not been treated well or fairly, and that other nationalities have faced discrimination throughout history. But this was a real-life lesson for him on current events because bias still exists for so many and no matter how far we've come, we haven't come far enough.

I don't have the answers for what's going on or what can change the world. Every day, the news shows us another example of the hate that fills our world. It will take education and understanding and trust and camaraderie to change the narrative. Saying it shouldn't exist or pretending it never happened or telling people to get over it is not the answer; it starts with acknowledgment, understanding, kindness and knowing our past to help reshape the future. And I don't have the answers, but I am more than willing to listen and try to garner a better understanding.

So when my son asked this morning why there are the riots in Charlottesville, I found myself remembering a sad little boy whose world changed last year.

"There are people out there who believe they are better than others because of the color of their skin and they are out there shouting it to the world. And there are others who are standing up against it, fighting for equality."

"Is it going to happen here?" I wonder if what he's really asking me, with that concerned look on his face, is if he and his friends are safe. How do we change this narrative? How do we find common ground and rebuild a better future for every generation today and in the future? How do we become more aware of the inequalities and come together to change that?

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