I have two daughters, ages twenty and ten. Almost every single white person in their world is not just a staunch liberal but an active part of the movement to stop –isms on every level. My kids attend marches and engage their friends, (black and white) on social issues. As far as they know, not a single white person in their world is racist.
When I talk to my ten year old about Charlottesville, her eyes glaze over. She understands that it’s a Big Important Thing. But it’s so removed from her reality that I might as well be telling her about the moons on Saturn. She would care if I told her there was a new moon discovered—but not really.
She attends private school. She’s indulged and coddled when it comes to her formal and cultural education. In general she has a protected life. She knows the facts about everything in this world. But it’s not her everyday life.
My life was pretty much the same until I was her age.
I first heard the word nigger in 1983. I was walking down the street with my parents and my younger sister while on a family vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia.
I’m actually pretty sure I’d heard it before. My dad used the word often with his friends and family. I also overheard Richard Pryor’s comedy albums and it was every other word.
I thought it was a simple curse word—not a slur.
But when a car full of young white boys screamed it out of a car—I knew immediately that this was different. I saw my parents’ reaction: fear, rage and helplessness. They knew it was time to have a talk.
I pretended I hadn’t heard anything. And I also pretended I didn’t know what the n-word meant. I knew. As soon as I saw their faces I knew it was a horrible word for Black people. Not just a punctuation to use in a funny story.
The worst part of that day was not the boys driving by and hurling the n-word and speeding off laughing. It was watching my parents struggle to explain to my six-year-old sister and me what happened and why it was wrong.
But I got it. I understood. It changed me. I was forever on alert.
How do I get my ten year old to get it? Do I even want her to? Do I want her to be fearful? Do I want her to start tuning in when she hears me talking to friends and family when we discuss the current political climate? Or do I want her to continue to tune us out and watch Family Guy. Steal her innocence? Let her remain a kid? Or find something in between.
For now, she needs to know about Charlottesville. She needs to know how grave this situation is. Yesterday, I know she heard her dad and I talking about what needs to be done about everything bubbling up in this country right now. We were driving home from Ocean City, Maryland after our family reunion. She was pretending to be asleep but I knew she wasn’t. I asked her dad: “What are we going to do? This is getting insane. What are we going to do?”
We drove in silence.
I looked back at the ten year old who was looking at me. I don’t have to tell her about the n-word. But in so many ways, telling her about Charlottesville and the truth about the so-called alt-right and white supremacy feels so much more difficult. I know that even though I don’t want her to—she sees in my face the same fear I saw in my parents back in 1983.
(Photo: JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images)