by David J. Grummon
I knew the day would come when we would have to have this painful, awkward conversation, but I suppose I had been just avoiding it. I know we’ve been lucky not to have to talk about it until now, but I knew eventually one of my kids would start asking questions and we’d have to have the talk. No, not that talk. The one we really don’t like to talk about. Race.
“How did Mahtun Loota King die?”
This was the question lobbed from the back seat by my five-year old as I drove him and his nine-year old brother home from my office where they hung out with me during their day off of school for MLK Day. They had heard mention of King and his death on the radio, no doubt. And I have a few framed posters of him at my office, so they knew the name. But there was no way to answer this question without going into some very uncomfortable territory.
See, I want my sons to think of the United States as a good country, worthy of pride, loyalty and patriotism. My oldest is in Cub Scouts, the youngest can’t wait to join, and scouts is all about honoring the flag, veterans and our emergency responders. But I’m also a history major and an attorney and I know there are things about America and our history that we have every reason to be ashamed about. The Alien and Sedition Act. Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears. The systemic decimation of Native Americans, their land and their culture. Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. The mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And slavery, our original sin. We want to forget it. I want to ignore it. Kids don’t need to know that much about it, right? Schools have been desegregated, the Civil Rights movement achieved its goals, and everyone is treated equally under the law now, right? I mean we elected a black man to the White House, for pity’s sake. Why not just tell them that everyone is the same no matter what they look like and leave it at that?
There is this part of me that wants to protect them from the ugly dark side of our world and our society. We’ve screened what they watch and listen to for so long, avoiding the all too prevalent stream of physical and verbal violence portrayed in all kinds of media. Not yet. When a drunk guy randomly got out of a car in front of our house and started screaming at his girlfriend, I naturally ordered the kids inside as fast as I could. I didn’t want them to see that kind of behavior or hear that kind of language. Not yet. Their mother and I do the best we can to model positive forms of conflict resolution and treating each other and strangers with kindness and respect. We haven’t taken them around people or places where chauvinism or bigotry or hatefulness is on display. Naturally, we didn’t watch this year’s presidential debates together as a family. Not yet.
But at the same time, I’m teaching a Sunday School class around the book 20 Teachable Virtues which begins with empathy as the starting point for all other virtues. To learn empathy, my children need relate to the feelings of other people beyond themselves and our family. To learn helpfulness, they need to be able to consider the actual needs of the person they are helping. To learn fairness, they need to be able to consider other people’s experiences and rights as also being worth consideration.
Beyond that, every day through work I see the differences in the opportunities and starting points for their peers of color. My office sits in a neighborhood where most people on the street—and most of my clients—speak English as a second language, if at all. Insofar as I’m trying to be empathetic, helpful and interested in fairness and justice for my clients, I have to know about and understand what their experience has been and how they see the world. Even more, as of late I’ve been reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and how seeing and embracing the beaten and suffering traveler by the side of road is what transformed the Samaritan in to a remarkable hero of compassion and grace. I recently read a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written as he sat imprisoned by Nazis, that “[i]t is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
And if I’m really honest, I only have the option of not discussing race with my children because we’re white in a majority white community. Parents of color usually don’t have that choice. And to be honest, their conversations with their kids will almost certainly sound and feel a lot different than mine will.
Moreover, if I keep my kids sheltered in a cocoon of white suburbia and privilege, how can they “participate in the sufferings of God?” Especially because I know firsthand the uneven playing field that exists in our city and our country, if I allow them to believe this is how the rest of the world lives, am I not deceiving them into thinking that all they have in life is a result of their own efforts? (It’s really, really not, by the way.) If I tell them that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, but never tell them how our country has not always lived out that creed, how can I expect them to stand up and fight for that belief? How do I expect them to relate to others in a diverse workplace, or to stand up for the oppressed, or to do justice and walk humbly with their God?
“Somebody shot him.”
There was a short, stunned silence from the back seat. They had been read a storybook about Martin Luther King, Jr. in church about what he said and what he did, but it didn’t tell them this part.
“Why did somebody shoot Mahtun Loota King?” he asked in disbelief. I know, kid. I know.
“Well, you remember he wanted all people to be treated equally and have the same rights?”
“The person who shot him didn’t want that.”
“I know!” piped in the older one. “Segregation!”
“What’s segwa-gay-shun?” asked the younger one. Wow. Where do I begin?
“That was a system, mostly in the South, but in other places, that tried to keep Black Americans and White Americans separate in all kinds of things. It made black people sit in the back of the bus, or use different bathrooms, or drink from different water fountains.”
“Why did some people want to keep whites and blacks separate?” asked the older one.
“Some people back then believed white people were superior, or better, than black people and anyone who wasn’t white was less.”
“That’s a lie!” exclaimed one of them.
“Yes, that’s true. But it was told a lot back then.”
“Who started segregation?”
“Um, I don’t know exactly… it was probably left over from slavery.”
“Um… Well, it’s where one person claimed they owned another person like they were property and could use them however they wanted—usually to do work without getting paid.”
“Like in Egypt?” exclaimed the older one. Dang. These kids are smart. And listening in Sunday School, apparently.
“Yes, like Pharaoh used Israelite slaves to build things in the Bible before Moses and them crossed the Red Sea. Exactly like that.”
“We had that here in America?”
I sighed and was quiet for a moment. “Yeah. We had that here in America.” More silence. “But there was a big civil war that was fought over it and after that slavery was outlawed.”
We drove in silence for another minute or two. Finally, the older one had one more riddle for me.
“Who started that lie about white people being better than black people?” Who indeed?
“I don’t know, buddy. I don’t know. But I think it’s getting better. I think there are less people who believe that than there used to be. I want us to keep talking about this whenever you have questions about it.”
And that’s all I’ve come up with so far for “the talk.” Instead of pretending that race or bigotry or injustice doesn’t exist, I’m choosing to talk about it with them. And I probably won’t get it quite right, but I don’t think there’s any other way. I will talk about what we believe and what we can do to help America be the country God meant it to be. Because at the end of the day, I believe talking about it may be the only way I can help them become the men God means them to be.