It was after the death of a young black man wearing a hoodie when many white Americans, like myself, first started to learn of the conversation parents of color have with their children as they begin to enter puberty.
This conversation is a warning to their children that they do not have the same freedom in their actions that their white counterparts have. When they walk down the street wearing a hooded sweatshirt, no one will assume their ears are cold. When they reach into their jacket at a traffic light, no one will assume they are reaching for their wallets. They must hold themselves to a different, higher set of standards if they want to remain out of trouble.
As important as this conversation may be, it is not the conversation that needs to be happening.
The burden of racism weighs heavily on our country, and the weight is not shared equally. As a white mother, I have the option to ignore it, or to pick up the lightest load. I could tell my children, “Everyone is equal,” and pat myself on the back for having done my share. It would certainly save me from uncomfortable conversations, but little good would come of it.
Living in a rural town presents its challenges in discussing race with small children. Most of our friends and family are white and it’s rare to walk through the local grocery store and encounter a person who does not look like us. But this is not true of the wider world, and so I bumble my way through awkward conversations on race, not knowing the right words to say.
I read my boys books with children who have hair types and skin tones we don’t see often around here. I point out to the differences, saying, “His skin is pinkish like yours, and her skin is darker. They are different, and that’s okay. That’s good!”
We watch NBA basketball and I tell them, “Look – everyone on the team looks a little different, but they’re all playing together.” The boys shoot basketballs into their toy hoop, and I wonder if any of what I am saying is sinking in. It probably isn’t yet, but I will keep trying.
I want to keep having this conversation with my children. I want them to hear me say that black lives matter, because if I don’t, the world will teach them otherwise. They will look at business leaders and congressmen and see white men who look like them. They’ll look at jails and inner city neighborhoods and see people with skin darker than theirs. They’ll look at who we’re trying to keep out of our country, and see people speaking in different languages, and people praying differently than we do.
And so, in hopes that they will listen to us over the roar of prejudice that still plagues our country, my husband and I will tell them: Black lives matter, Latino lives matter, Native American lives matter, LGBT lives matter, Muslim lives matter, women’s lives matter.
This conversation, the one where we tell them that the lives of people who do not look, talk, or think like them matter, this is the one that parents need to be having.
As they grow older, I will tell them that a traffic violation should not become a death sentence, that everyone deserves a good education regardless of their zip code, and that they, too, need to carry some of the weight of racism. It may feel unnecessary, or perhaps even counterintuitive to point out physical differences. But as a white parent, I cannot assume that my children will ignore differences the rest of the world emphasizes, or that they will somehow learn equality on their own.
I teach my children many things that I do not expect them to pick up by themselves – how to tie their shoes, how to share, how to say please and thank you. I will also teach them that the lives of people different than them, lives that the rest of the world minimizes, these lives do matter.