White people like me need to talk about race, justice, and what’s right. Even when we are worried we’ll get it wrong.
You can draw a line between the spot where the police killed George Floyd and the spot where the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct used to be before it was burned to the ground. On that line, in the very middle, there is the spot where I live with my children.
My children’s skin is white, and so is mine. If this were not happening right here, where we live, I cannot say for sure what I would have told them about what is happening in Minneapolis. They are, after all, just two and four years old. Maybe I would not have told them anything at all. But we do live here, and I had to tell them something.
I had to tell them because their bikes’ training wheels crush meringues of ash when they ride. I had to tell them because we have to raise our voices to be heard above the sound of helicopters buzzing our skies. I had to tell them because it was the right thing to do.
The problem was what to say. I worried about finding the words. I worried I would get it wrong. I worried so much that I waited until the fourth day after George Floyd was killed to start talking to my children about what happened. I think that worry about being right can sometimes stop us from doing right. I was not willing to let worry stop me anymore.
A funny thing happened when we started to talk. It is something I notice whenever I talk about something difficult with my children. What I noticed is this: The process of finding the words for my children, the process of making sense of things for them, helps me, too. Finding words for my children requires that I distill the complexities of the world into what is most essential about it. It illuminates what is most important.
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We started talking in the back yard. I was surprised at how easy it was to find an opening. The air smelled the way a campfire would if it was built with tires rather than sticks, and my children wondered about it. I said the smell had to do with something important that I wanted to talk about.
There is something going on that has to do with fairness, I began. Do you remember how we have talked about the way that some people have the wrong idea and treat people unfairly because of the color of their skin? Well, here in our neighborhood, someone was treated very unfairly. Lots of people want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Lots of people are standing up for what is right.
When I say that someone was treated unfairly, I mean that someone was hurt because of the color of his skin. The name of the person who was hurt is George Floyd. George Floyd liked to play football, and he worked at a restaurant, and his skin was dark.
There is something else you need to understand. It was police officers who hurt George Floyd. You’re right, I told my preschoolers, police officers are supposed to help people, not hurt them. I agree, I said, I don’t think those people should be police officers anymore either.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time something like this has happened. There have been a lot of stories like this for a lot of years, and people are very angry about how unfair this is. In the movie Inside Out, Riley’s anger helps make sure that things are fair. That is what anger is doing now, except not just one person is angry, but our whole community is angry. Anger is helping make our community more fair.
There is something else about anger that is important to remember. You know how when we are angry, we say that we are in the red zone? An important part of the red zone is that sometimes when we are there, we can feel out of control and can be unsafe with our bodies. Well, that is happening right now to some of the people who are standing up for what is right. They are in the red zone, and they are feeling out of control, and they hurt some buildings. That is why there is ash by your feet and smoke in your nose and the sound of sirens and helicopters in your ears.
I am sad that the buildings we went to before are hurt, too. Even though it is normal to feel sad that these buildings are hurt, it is much sadder that a person was hurt and that other people have been hurt many times because of the color of their skin. It is important to remember that people are always more important than things.
The good thing is that lots of people know this, and lots of people in our neighborhood and our city and even our country are joining together to stand up for what is right. There are lots of ways to stand up for what is right. Some people are joining together to protest that George Floyd was hurt. Some people are helping to fix the buildings that are hurt. Some people are sharing their money. Some people are putting up signs and writing words like, “Black Lives Matter.” Our family is doing some of those things. There is always something you can do. The important thing is to do something.
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As conversations with kids tend to, this conversation was not exactly a straight line the way I have written it here. I have edited out some things.
For instance, we occasionally found ourselves on the moon where, it turns out, woolly mammoths excavated themselves 10,000 years ago. At one point, this lunar lark required that we launch from our backyard into the streets. As we talked and traveled through the neighborhood where all of our adventures begin, the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed, my children pointed out every dollop of ash. They commented on every chopper. They shouted for every sign in the windows and in the yards and on in the trees and on the walls and on the sidewalks. They learned the shape of the word, “Justice.” We talked about it all, and, together, we worked to understand our world.
I know that our understandings are imperfect. I know I did not get this conversation exactly right. Getting a conversation about race, justice, and fairness exactly right is an impossible standard. What is most important, I think, is to have begun talking.