Note: Some of you may know that in my non-cancer life, I am a director of diversity. But I have always framed my experiences with cancer, pre-cancer, disability, etc., as all parts of a diverse experience. So, allow me to post the following entry here about my conversation with my kids. It focuses on race, but it also focuses on how we need to have open conversations. We need to talk. Talking/writing has connected me to other cancer communities. It’s kind of my thing. As open as I am about cancer, weight, body image, etc., I am very open about race and my experiences as a woman of color. So, I hope you see the connections here, too. My other blog is race focused, and yet I believed strongly in posting here, too. Peace, love, and ready to write, Liza
It all started with gluten.
My three kids and I were driving to Maine to visit a friend. As she is one of the most prolific writers, bloggers, publishers, feminist, moms that I know, I was looking forward to having a conversation about life post-verdict.
It didn’t seem right to just turn off Radio Disney, interrupt the Cups song, and dive into the facts about Trayvon Martin. So instead, we started with gluten.
“Kids, my friend Patricia and her daughter have allergies to gluten,” I started. “Do you know what gluten is and does?”
I truthfully know very little about gluten and celiac. I just know that I can’t use the same cutting board to cut my bread as I use for my friend who has a gluten allergy. I know that she doesn’t eat bread products. And I do know that I have to check labels and look for “gluten free.” That’s about it. I have no idea what type of pain it causes, what the impact can be, or how it is diagnosed (though, since writing this, of course, I have looked it up….).
It started with gluten.
It ended with “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” said my 7-year old. “What do you mean he killed a teenager, said he killed a teenager, and then didn’t go to jail?”
ME: “Jada, read me the labels on the cookies we are bringing to Patricia’s house.”
JADA: “They say gluten free.”
ME: “So, if I know that Patricia gets hurt when she eats gluten. And, I accidently bring something that has gluten, and she eats it, and she gets hurt, what does that mean to me?”
JADA: “It means that, even when it’s an accident, you might still hurt someone. Even if you didn’t mean it.”
ME: “What do you think should happen to me?”
EVAN — my 4-year old son: “You should go to your room and sit on your bed until someone says you can come out. But if it’s me, you should let me play.”
** insert laughter **
ME: “Okay, seriously. Now, if I accidently hurt someone, and even if I hurt someone because I think they are mean, you’re saying I should be, well, punished or, in my words, held accountable, for it?”
EVAN: “Yes, but only if I have candy.”
Our conversation went much like that for the next 20 minutes — a mix of laughter, seriousness, content they could relate to, and “what if” scenarios.
And, because they have grown up around conversations about race, we talked about Trayvon Martin, a young teen with Black skin.
Throughout this conversation, I was so thankful that this was not their first introduction to race. This was not their first time hearing about fairness, punishment, race, and gender. This was not the first conversation they have engaged in about skin color, about hair, clothing, or even being multiracial.
I’ve used the analogy about “crossing the street” many times when I discuss diversity and conversations with kids. I remember pushing my daughter’s stroller, waiting at the cross walk, and saying, “Okay, honey, now we look both ways and cross.” She likely had no idea what I was talking about, but as her mom, I knew to say it. I knew to warn her about cars. I knew to say the words, “Look both ways.” When my kids could walk on their own at a quick enough pace, I no longer picked them up when I crossed the street. I let them wrap their fingers around my pinky, cross with me, and said, “Look both ways.”
As adolescents, I still say the same thing. To my daughter with one eye, I say, “Look both ways …. ALL the way. Turn your head ALL the way until you can see to the other side.” She gets special directions. My one-eyed daughter gets special directions that the other kids do not get. These directions keep her safe.
Yesterday, in the car, at that moment, we were at the crosswalk. A dangerous intersection. Except the cars were race; and the traffic lights were broken.
And, I held their hand. We looked both ways.
They are 9, 7 and 4. So, no, we did not talk about the legal system. We did not talk about jury selection, the message this has sent, and we didn’t even talk about the pain I feel. We didn’t talk about my perverted relief that my son is light skinned. We didn’t talk about my fear that even as a college administrator, a soon-to-be-doctorate, and being a highly educated diversity director does little to protect the many young Black men in my own life.
But, we talked. And, friends, I have to believe — in order to wake up each morning — that even talking about race prepares my children to cross the road. They do not have to agree with me. They don’t even have to believe me. But they do have to talk about it. They do have to engage with it. They do have to see it.
There were many times during our brief conversation that I cried. I cried tears of sadness. I cried tears of joy. I cried tears of “that was the most hilarious thing I have ever heard” — mostly coming from my 4-year old son, whose solution to all of this was “Why didn’t he just take a sip of the ice tea, make a big bubble in his mouth, and spit it out a hundred ten hundred ninety-eight billion billion hundred miles at the man?” My son then proceeded to take a sip from his water bottle, create a big pocket in his mouth, and then spit it out all over the car….
My 7-year old said that the man should feel really sorry that the teenager was dead.
My 9-year old asked, “Do you think it would have been different if the teenager was a girl? Because if someone followed me and was driving slow near me, I would run fast and yell that someone is following me.”
My 7-year old replied, “But, the teenager was had skin that was black. If he ran, that might look like he was running away because he did something bad. Even if he didn’t do anything bad.”
And then I just listened. I asked if they had any questions. I asked them how they felt about all of this. I asked them what they could do so things like this wouldn’t happen.
And, because they are kids of color, I began to tell them what they should do if someone is following them.
And then I realized, it was the exact same advice that Trayvon had, too.