Earlier this year I read a piece called “Fairy Tales and the Bodies of Black Boys” in the Paris Review, written by Sabrina Orah Mark. She is white and married to a Black man with whom she has two sons.
The column opens with her walking into Target, glancing down to see one of her sons shoving his stuffed animal under his shirt. She makes him give it to her instead, fearing it might be mistaken for stolen merchandise or something worse, simply because of the color of his skin. She doesn’t give him a reason—how do you explain such a thing to your 6-year-old without stripping away his childhood innocence in one sentence?
She describes a post shared by a friend, a list of rules she’d given her son before allowing him to go to the store alone. “I imagine it continuing,” she wrote, “‘we have given him invisibility powder, we have given him the power to become a rain cloud and burst, if necessary, into a storm.’”
The thought of wishing my husband and I could give our 4-year-old daughter the power to disappear instead of simply existing in her own skin was enough to turn my bones to dust.
I felt that same sense of breathlessness watching the protests unfold in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year. Stores were looted, windows smashed, cars flipped, highways blocked.
I sat glued to my phone as I watched live videos of Wilmington being destroyed. Our daughter was at the beach with my in-laws at the time, and all I wanted to do was bring her home, to hold her, to show her what was going on in the world and teach her to do better.
I checked in on the people of color in my life and asked them what I could do to actually help. I ordered every book I could get my hands on, devouring them one by one, taking notes as if I were back in school. Every single thing I read made me uncomfortable in my own skin and forced me to take stock of myself and those around me in a way I’ve never done before.
White privilege. Microaggressions. The feeling of disembodiment that goes along with being Black in America, how Black children are taught to be twice as good but to accept half as much. How Black parents are forced to set rules out of fear and find ways to explain the realities of the world without making their children feel like they’re at fault just for being born. Juggling the unbridled joy of watching your child develop their own personality with the fear of how society will inevitably view them one day.
I called my friend Rob—a husband, a father, a Black man—to get his perspective. I hoped against hope that he’d tell me some of it was exaggerated, that it wasn’t really that terrifying of a world for him or that some of these experts had gotten it wrong. I started rattling off everything I’d learned.
“Munchie. Yes,” he said.
“Yes what?” I asked.
“All of it,” he replied.
Rob and I had worked together for several years, often seeing each other more than we saw our own spouses. But I learned more about him in that hourlong conversation than I had in all the years I’d known him. How his garage is filled with outdoor sports equipment, but stories like Vauhxx Booker’s make him afraid to use it. How he’d spent his early years in foster care with a white family in Utah and considered himself “lucky” that he made it to the age of 9 before he was called the N-word for the first time.
We talked about the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Floyd, and how we’ve both felt helpless in the face of it all.
The difference between Rob and me, though, is that in the wake of atrocities like those, I’m clutching my daughter to my chest out of relief that I’m never going to find myself in the same position as their mothers.
He’s holding onto his daughters out of sheer terror.
Because if he loosens his grip, even the tiniest bit, it could be his daughter shot while lying in bed in her own apartment, or murdered in cold blood just for running while Black in a predominantly white neighborhood.
It could be his child lying on the ground with a knee on her neck for nearly nine minutes while people beg the offending officers to stop. His child pleading for her life, crying out for mercy, for water, for help.
For her mama.
Let me be clear: If that were my child, I’d set the whole world on fire and watch it burn.
It’s not OK for us to sit silent in the comfort of our privilege any longer. So what can we do, as white parents, to support people of color? For my family, it means continuing to educate ourselves so we can have the hard conversations with our child. It means teaching her the true history of our country and how to use her privilege for good.
It means explaining to her that learning about the civil rights movement in school might carry a different weight for some of the other kids in her class. The realization that our country was quite literally built using bodies that look like theirs as currency is a burden no child should have to bear. It means teaching her to say, “I see you,” and mean it.
Before I hung up the phone, I asked Rob if he thought his daughters would one day need to have the same conversations with their children.
“Honestly, they probably will,” he said. “And if they don’t…” Rob stopped, his voice heavy with emotion. “If they don’t, that means we raised kids who changed the world.”
No more turning the other cheek, or letting a nervous laugh escape your lips when your uncle starts spewing racist vitriol at the dinner table. Stand up. Say something. Flip some tables if you have to.
Our kids are watching.