White people like me need to listen to black people and keep talking to our children about race, justice, and what’s right.
“What are the odds, do you think, that our house will be destroyed tonight?”
When we began to assign probabilities to the particular risks of our particular block in our particular neighborhood where the police murdered George Floyd — the gas station on the corner, the minority-owned businesses across our alley, the intersection of two major commercial corridors — it was the day before the fifth night of the uprising. When I heard us, my husband and I, get into the weeds about whether a Bayesian inference resulted in a probability of bodily harm that was greater or less than COVID-19’s presumed mortality rate, I knew it was time to go. The time had come to evacuate our two young children.
I notified the three other families on my block that I had been texting. By nightfall — before the highways in and out of the city were shut down, before the City of Minneapolis notified residents to chain our dumpsters and drench them with water to protect our homes from arson — we each would decide to move our children to a safe home.
Before and after I decided, I worried about whether I, as a white woman with white children, should be leaving. I worried about ethics, and I worried about optics. It was not until I sat down to write this essay that it dawned on me: All of the other children were black. It was not a black or white issue. It was an issue of children and keeping them safe. Hours later, our City Councilmember would confirm our decisions. “Im advising vulnerable populations to evacuate the Lake Street corridor,” she tweeted, “This area will not be safe for children + elders.” Keeping children safe is the job of every grown-up, no matter the color of their skin.
* * *
It is not possible, at least for me, to evacuate a 2-year-old and 4-year-old due to a chaotic, violent uprising and hide it from them. Instead, I had to explain it to them.
You will see us putting some things we need into our backpacks and suitcases, I began, and then we will put those bags into our car. Then we will get in our car and go somewhere else for a few days. We are doing these things because it is our job to keep you safe and, right now, that means that we need to leave. I do not know yet where we are going or when we will be back, but I do know that we will all be together the whole time. Daddy and I will always take care of you.
It is normal to ask why this is happening. I am wondering the same thing myself. Right now, no one knows everything that is going on. But I think there are three main things. I can tell you about them if you would like to hear.
* * *
The first thing is what we already talked about a little bit: Many people are angry because of how unfair it is that police hurt George Floyd, and they are protesting. The protesters’ anger is helping to make things more fair. We call this kind of anger righteous anger. Now the police are also feeling angry, too. They are angry because lots of people are saying the police did something wrong and they feel bad.
But there is another thing about anger, even righteous anger. Just like when you get into the red zone, sometimes people who are angry become out of control and do things that are not safe. When people are in the red zone, they sometimes lose control and act in unsafe ways. At the same time that we support the people who are righteously angry, we will not allow you kids to be in an unsafe situation. Grown-ups take care of their kids, I said as I pulled their birth certificates from the fire safe in our basement, and we promise to keep you safe.
* * *
The second thing that is going on is that some people still do not believe that black people deserve to feel safe the same way that white people deserve to feel safe. This is a wrong, racist belief.
I agree that this belief does not make sense, so I am not sure that I can explain it to you in a way that does. But this is important so I will try.
I think it will help to first talk about buckets. Do you remember how we all have buckets? Our buckets are where our good feelings go. We feel good when our buckets are full, and bad when our buckets are empty. It is normal, when your bucket is low, to want to fill it up. The way to fill up buckets is with kindness. The magical thing is that when we are bucket-fillers for someone else, our own buckets are filled-up too! But some people do not know this. They have the wrong idea and think that they can fill their bucket by dipping into someone else’s. But this does not work. Bucket-dipping only leaves your bucket more empty.
Now I will tell you about what buckets have to do with racism, I continued while I photographed every room in our house to remember it, in case none of it was there when we got back. I think that people with racist beliefs are bucket-dippers. They think that the best way to fill their own buckets is to dip into the buckets of black people. They do not understand that the only way to truly fill their own buckets is to work to fill up the buckets of black people, too. It is like the magnet on our fridge says, “We all do better when we all do better.” Bucket-dippers do not know that. Some of them have even come to our neighborhood thinking that they can dip into the buckets here, but that will not work.
Even though there are bucket-dippers around, you should know that there are even more bucket-fillers. I see protestors standing up for the rights of black people. I see our neighbors protecting our neighborhood. I see our restaurant owners giving away food. I see our friends rescuing books from our library. I see people across our country donating money to rebuild what has burned here. Our community is stuffed to the brim with bucket-fillers, and they are all getting to work filling each other’s buckets.
* * *
There is one more reason why I think this is happening. The third reason is that the people standing up for justice are trying very hard to tell us something. You know that we can say things with our voice, and we can say things with our actions. For many years, a lot of people have been using their voices to tell us that something is very wrong in our community that has to do with racism. But not enough people listened, so now people are trying to tell us in a different way. They are using their actions to tell us about what is wrong.
This last reason is important because when people are trying to tell us that something is wrong, it is our job to listen. I have been listening, and I am learning. This week, one of the things that I learned is that the problem of police hurting people is even bigger than the police officers who hurt George Floyd. It is a much bigger problem than I thought it was. I am listening and learning more about what we can do to make our community more fair for everyone, especially for black people.
When we learn about something that is wrong, we can do the same thing we do when someone in our family makes a mistake. We say, “I was wrong. What can I do to make it right?”
These systems are wrong. We need to take action to make them right, I said as I loaded the final things — the green froggy potty and two fluffy cats — into the car. It is the grown-ups’ job to make this right, and I want you to know that Daddy and I are listening so that we can help make it right.
* * *
When we had driven for a while, we stopped to get gas. Before we went inside to use the restroom, I looped my striped cotton mask over my ears, then I helped my children fasten their masks, too. Our family started wearing masks as soon as we learned that wearing masks can help keep the people around us safe.
As the cotton pressed against my mouth and nose I realized something: When we learn that we can do something to keep other people safe, we must do it. It is what I do for my children. It is what I do when I put on a mask to slow the spread of coronavirus. When black people tell us there is more work to do so that they, too, can be safe, white people like me must listen. We must listen, and then we must do it.
This essay was syndicated in Fearless She Wrote and Scary Mommy.
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