Managing Editor’s Note
I’m pleased to offer the first two guest posts in our series addressing social justice. In the first, Jennifer Minotti confronts fellow parents after one of their children uses a racial slur against her daughter. In the second, Vanessa Lewis challenges the idea that to “take a knee” during the anthem at a football game is unpatriotic. Lewis questions whether those who insult these NFL protesters are defending patriotism, or are in fact defending the entrenched racist status quo in our country.
If you enjoy these guest posts, please leave a comment below. Thank you!
It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race
by Jennifer Minotti
It was Saturday morning. The kids were gathering their hats and gloves from their baskets near the door, neatly lined up on the tall, antique shelf we bought when we moved back to the city a few years ago. Downsizing was the easy part. The harder part was starting over, grieving the famous, picturesque little Vermont town that no longer worked for us after adopting our three- year-old daughter from Ethiopia.
But now we’re in a much better place, I recently thought. I love being back in Cambridge and my young children have grown to love it, too. When we first returned, my daughter—five at the time—told me, “I like it better here, because people don’t ask me questions all the time.” In other words, people in the city are less intrusive. Less scrutinizing. She’s no longer distinctive. Or obviously out of place. No one stares.
Stella also no longer cries and tries to scrub off her brown skin in the bathtub.
But there’s no perfect place, I know for a black child whose parents are white and privileged. Choosing a private school in a nearby suburb, for example, was a choice we labored over yet ultimately decided would give our children the best education. Only one of two black children in the entire school, I questioned repeatedly whether this was the right choice for Stella. I knew that one day my daughter would bear the brunt of some racial slur. Somewhat naively, I just didn’t think it would happen in this school, nor in the third grade.
“What’s a nagger, Mommy?” Stella asks casually as we’re getting ready to leave our condo.
“What?” I respond, my hands frozen on my jacket’s zipper.
My daughter, now eight years old, repeats, “I think it’s nagger?” in an unsure tone.
The three of us stare at her—myself, my husband and our 11-year-old son—eyes fixated.
“Where did you hear that?” my son asks, immediately coming to her defense.
“At school,” Stella says.
“Who said that?” I ask calmly, attempting to sound unfazed.
“James,” she says.*
“Well, it’s a very, very, very, very bad word,” I say, indignation rising with every very. “And that’s not how you say it.”
Stella adjusts the black, nylon skullcap she wears underneath the blue, striped hat she crocheted at school. Unlike her classmates at her all-white school, she wears a do-rag to keep her cornrows from getting fuzzy.
“How do you say it?” Stella asks.
With my hand stuck on my zipper tab, I look at my husband. His look tells me that he supports whatever I’m about to say. I glance quickly at my son who is putting on his own hat, shuffling his feet as he often does when he is uncomfortable.
I stun myself with the intensity of my own voice. I’ve always hated that word, I think and this is the first and last time I’m going to say it, because she needs to know it. “And it’s an awful, awful word.”
“Is it a curse word?” Stella asks.
“No,” I say.
“It’s way worse,” my son proclaims, fury in his young voice.
My husband watches. I can see that his Italian ire is bubbling.
“Yes, it’s far worse,” I repeat. “It’s something white people call black people to be mean. It’s a horrible thing to say. We never, ever say that word. Ever. It’s unkind.” I purposely use the word, “unkind,” since it’s a word she understands. It’s been part of her school’s curriculum since preschool.
Stella nods and adjusts her hat. She seems satisfied by my explanation, ready to move on from the conversation and on to the park, flitting to the next activity like many eight year olds do. But I continue, immovable in the tiny hallway near our front door. I lean forward so that we’re eye to eye.
“What did James say exactly?” I ask.
“He asked me if I knew what it meant,” Stella answers.
“And what did you say?”
“I said ‘no’.”
“And then what did he say?” I pressed.
“He said, ‘Well you are one.’”
The next day, I call Stella’s teacher. Fortuitously, there is a class evening coming up in just a few days and we devise a plan. We strategize how best to talk about this incident—and a few others that recently transpired—to the parents. I’m angry and I know it’s time to start this conversation.
At the class meeting that night, Stella’s teacher explains what has been happening in the classroom, stating specifically some of the insults that have been lobbed at Stella over the past few months. Things like:
“I don’t want to sit next to you, because of your brown skin.”
“If I had a slave, you could be my slave, because you’re black.”
“Your parents bought you.”
And the clincher, “Do you know what a nigger is? Well, you are one.”
As the teacher spoke, parents fidgeted uncomfortably behind their children’s tiny desks. A few looked shocked, but mostly they looked down and into their laps, their legs extended awkwardly from tiny wooden chairs. Not a single parent looked at me. I suspect most were praying it wasn’t their child who called my daughter the N word. Had I been in their shoes, I probably would have been doing the same thing.
Stella’s teacher then asks what, if anything, parents are talking to their children about in terms of race and diversity in their homes. One mother eagerly volunteers that she reads stories about good and evil to her son. Another father self-assuredly tells us that he tells his daughter, especially when she reads the newspaper over his shoulder, that there are some people in the world who are simply not kind. Another father says he takes the lead from his child. One mother asks our teacher if it is appropriate to discuss the Black Lives Matters banner her daughter sees as they drive to school each day. Another mother proudly explains to the class that when her daughter asked if there are still slaves in the world, she said, “no,” because she doesn’t want to “frighten” her. Another parent asks if it’s developmentally appropriate at this young age to discuss race at all, to which others nod their head in agreement, wondering the same thing.
“Yes!” I interrupt, motioning with my palms facing upward and outward over my daughter’s tiny desk.
“I have been discussing race and differences with my children since they were toddlers,” I say. “Partly, because I knew I had to with Stella, but also because it’s just part of our every day conversations, even the ones we had with our son before we brought Stella home.”
The room goes silent, so I continue. By now I’m red-faced and shaky.
“We need to talk,” I say, my voice quavering. “No matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. It’s our obligation to talk about race with our children, because we are white and we’re privileged.”
And then I sit back in my chair, thinking, soon I will have to tell my unsuspecting friend, the one sitting across the room from me, the one questioning whether it’s developmentally appropriate to talk to her son about race, the one who just told us that she studied African-American studies at a prestigious university in college, that it was her son who called my daughter the N word.
Because here’s the take-away: I don’t believe my friend’s son called my daughter a nigger with malice and I’m 99% sure he didn’t hear this word spoken at home. But he did hear it somewhere in his upper-class, Caucasian community AND
… Probably he was just testing this word out as in, I am this and you are that;
… Most likely he was trying to make sense of his own eight-year-old self in the complex world around him;
… And mostly, I would even go so far as to say that his unfamiliarity with the word is 100% excusable given his age.
The scenario with my daughter was completely avoidable. It happened, BECAUSE white parents were not proactive in discussing race with their children
… Before they began imitating their peers;
… Before they were influenced by the social mores of their communities;
… Before the media persuaded them to think a certain way;
… Before a little girl wondered why she was wearing the wrong shade of skin.
“It’s never too early to talk about race,” I tell the parents in Stella’s class after a ridiculously long silence. I tell them that I read that children are ready to talk about racial differences as young as four years old. I tell them that we’re hard-wired to notice differences. That kids are not colorblind. That neither are adults.
I pause to look at the speechless faces of the parents in the room. Uneasy with my own level of discomfort yet propelled to speak I say, “You may not be ready to talk to your kids about race, but they are.”
* All names have been changed to protect their identities
JEN MINOTTI is the Community and Development Manager at Write the World and a Visiting Artist at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University. She is the Founder of the Women’s Writing Circle, Co-Creator of The World’s Very First Gratitude Parade and helped establish Gratitude Day in the City of Cambridge, MA. For 17 years, Jen worked at the Education Development Center (EDC) in a variety of technology, research and management roles for projects that focused on education, health and human development. Jen is a graduate of Boston University (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.A., M.Ed) and is passionate about writing and spreading gratitude (see http://gratitudejar.org)!
Tailgating the Truth About Peaceful Protest
by Vanessa Lewis
Not too long ago, a Monday morning in the conference room meant alternating between sips coffee and chit chat over Sunday Night Football. Today we are talking less about the opposition on the playing field and more about when it is appropriate to exercise our freedom to protest. Often missing from this dialogue is the reason for the protest, a different kind of unnecessary roughness.
Institutional racism is such a foundational part of the United States that when it is spoken against, Americans are inclined to receive criticism as an attack on the country itself. Even the beloved anthem is polarizing, in this sense. The Star Spangled Banner was written in 1815 – when African – Americans were still enslaved – and signed into law as the anthem in 1931, more than 100 years later. The song in its entirety is pro-slavery and anti-black as it berates the Black soldiers who had the audacity to fight for their freedom; a fact many of us aren’t privy to since that verse isn’t the one we sing aloud.
It makes the anthem the perfect backdrop for social media discourse on the cross-section between football and protest. On August 26, 2016, then NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” when asked about his decision to sit during the anthem. For many Americans, including our politicians, this kind of activism is the interception that ended the game.
Vice President Mike Pence left a recent NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers after observing some of players taking a knee during the national anthem. His abrupt exit from the stadium and the consequential travel changes used upwards of 1.2 million dollars in US resources to coordinate. Money better spent on disaster relief and recovery or the veterans so many of us champion in this argument.
The Colts’ opponents, that afternoon, happened to be the team that Kaepernick played for when he began the kneeling protest. Just one year after being asked why he sits, Kaepernick and the reason for his protest have become an afterthought in this debate.
What has he been up since the end of his fourth quarter in the NFL? For his charitable work, Kaepernick was named Community MVP by the NFLPA in week one of this season; even though his commitments to social justice have kept him off the field. An unemployed Kaepernick has donated one million dollars over the last year; the NFLPA thought that worthy of recognition. The quarterback who incited the anti-protest rhetoric wasn’t just on his knees seeking attention for the cause; he was throwing Hail Marys to organizations whose missions are in alignment with the change he wants to see.
Opinions about kneeling on the NFL sidelines will continue to differ, depending on whether the argument is focused on dishonoring patriotic symbols or our deep-rooted struggles with institutional racism. But I think we can all agree – if you are booing, throwing projectiles or otherwise antagonizing peaceful protestors during the anthem, you do not care about patriotism. By your very own logic, anything other than standing with your hand over your heart and tears in your eyes is treason.
If this is truly the land of the free, we must not waver from the real goal – giving voice to the consistent and prevalent violation of our civil liberties. More than 750 people have been killed by law enforcement this year; let’s turn our attention away from who is standing or kneeling and focus on making the United States a country whose creed truly speaks to all its citizens.
VANESSA LEWIS is a Boston area digital content creator and novelist. In addition to her own writing projects, Vanessa has been providing writing, coaching and editing services to aspiring writers for over four years. Vanessa especially enjoys helping writers to develop an online platform and social media presence to promote new work and engage with their fans. You may learn more about her services at www.byvanessalewis.com