Talking to White Children About Ferguson and Racism in America

Written by Josh Michtom-Public defender, bandleader, father. Thinking about class, race, language, and law. Hartford, Connecticut.

Josh Michtom's boys

I can see my two boys from the kitchen as they settle in at the table, the ten-year-old’s unkempt blonde mop pillow-molded into an unruly bird’s nest, the seven-year-old’s curls imperturbable as he tucks his head down to lessen the distance between cereal bowl and mouth. While they slept last night, I listened as the St. Louis D.A. laboriously told me what I already knew. In the months of anticipation, I had probably allowed myself no more than five minutes of hope, but that was enough to make the inevitable feel disappointing.

When I turned off the sounds and images of protest last night, I promised myself that whatever else I did, I would not shelter my children from this awful, rage-provoking truth. They probably know more than most kids their age about “the system” — courts and crimes and the maddening indifference of prosecutors are regular topics of conversation when your father is a public defender. But the weight of the wrongness of how this country treats people of color cannot merely be a regular topic — it must be inescapable.

The night of the grand jury’s no-bill, Jazzmine Hughes wrote on Twitter, “White people: your privilege lives in the fact that you can be outraged, horrified, and upset about tonight. But you are not afraid.” She was right of course: it would be silly of me to try to instill fear of the police in my white children (probably just as silly as my constant attempts to convince white adults of the inherent racism of American policing generally). But with my kids, who are still impressionable and mostly guileless, who still assume I know all there is to know about the world, there is an opportunity. Maybe I can make the awful weight of Black people’s fear real to them, and make them see that morality demands that they feel this as struggle as pervasively as their Black and Hispanic classmates will feel it over the coming years, whether they want to or not.

I am reminded of Passover, when Jews celebrate our ancestors’ escape from slavery and oppression in Egypt. During the ceremony, we talk about the four sons — the four types of children and how we must explain the exodus to them. To the “wise” child, the understanding one, we tell the whole story, unedited; to the “wicked” child, the one who stubbornly refuses to engage, we insist and point out that we adults care, even if we are thousands of years removed from the events; to the “simple” child, the one of limited intellect, we give a simplified version of the story that impresses the emotional importance, if not the nuance and substance, and even to the child too young to ask, we continue to speak and recite so that she learns the rhythms and cadences of the story of our freedom, so that it feels like her own story, before she even knows why. I think of this as I consider how to talk to my boys about Ferguson and our country’s racist reality. Especially, I remember this: there is no category of child to whom we do not tell the Passover story. It’s too important. Everyone has to hear it.

I slide into my usual spot at the table with my coffee and cereal. “Guys, I need to talk to you about something serious.” They look up a little tensely. They probably think they’re in trouble. “You remember this summer, there was a story in the news about a teenager in St. Louis getting shot by a cop, and people were really upset about it because it seemed like he got shot for no reason?”

“Yeah,” says the ten-year-old, interested, and probably relieved that he’s not about to get scolded. “What happened now?” The seven-year-old works on his cereal.

“Well, last night, the prosecutor there said that there wouldn’t be any trial. There wouldn’t be any charges against the cop. Basically, the prosecutor said that the cop didn’t do anything wrong.”

“But why? He killed the guy!” The ten-year-old seems truly incensed. The seven-year-old just listens.

“Well, there are a lot of reasons, but there’s a big one that I want to talk to you guys about. A lot of people all around the country are really upset about this, about the cop not getting charged. They’re out in the streets marching and protesting because they’re so frustrated. But it’s not just about this one guy, Michael Brown, who got killed. Black and brown people have been getting killed and beat up by police for no good reason for a long time, and a lot of people are frustrated, because they feel like it will never end.

“Here’s the thing. This country is not fair to Black people. All the stuff you’re learning now,” and here I point to the ten-year-old, who is the middle of a unit in fifth grade on the Constitution and the branches of government, “it’s good and wonderful, and as Americans we should love it, but in real life, it doesn’t get applied the same way to Black people.”

“You mean,” asks the seven-year-old seriously, “that it’s not a free country?” He loves the phrase It’s a free country.

“It’s free,” I say, “but it’s not as free for Black people and Hispanic people.” (I’m not sure they know the phrase ‘people of color,’ and I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics. They know what Black and Hispanic mean.)

“You know that for a lot of years, White people kept Black people as slaves in this country.” They nod. “Well, White people had to convince themselves that that was OK, so they came up with this whole made-up story about how Black people weren’t as smart, weren’t as good, that they were just strong and dumb like farm animals. And when slavery was over, White people held onto that idea, and even now they still do.”

“I don’t think that!” protests the ten-year-old. “That doesn’t make any sense.” He has a big crush on a Black classmate. I raise a hand for him to wait and listen.

“Fifty years ago, a lot of White people — not all of them, but a lot — would have said it that just like that: ‘Black folks are stupid.’ Now, you won’t find anyone to say that, because everyone pretty much knows that racism is wrong. The trouble is that those ideas are still deep in people’s heads, in the way they think, and it comes out in how they act.”

“What do you mean, ‘how they act’?” asks the seven-year-old.

“You know how sometimes when your brother is feeling sad about the divorce, he treats me and you kind of rotten?”

“Yeah,” says the seven-year-old. The ten-year-old nods guiltily.

“And it’s weird, right? Because he’s upset about one thing — he’s got one thing in his head — and he’s not talking about it, but it changes the way he acts. You and I didn’t do anything wrong, but he’ll act angry at us, because he has feelings in him that he doesn’t even notice.” They both nod. We’ve all talked about this before. “Well, a lot of White people don’t know it, but they have bad feelings about Black people in them. Mostly, they’re scared.”

“Scared of what?” asks the ten-year-old.

“Well, all those years of saying that Black people weren’t as good, that they weren’t as smart, that they were strong and dangerous, that’s in people’s heads. And it makes White people afraid of Black people in a way they can’t even explain, they just feel it. Like, there’s studies that scientists like Mom have done,” their mom, my ex-wife, is a research psychologist, “where they can measure how much fear people are feeling, and they figured out that White people mostly feel more afraid of a Black guy walking down the street than a White guy, even if they look and act the same, and even if they don’t do anything scary.

“And so White people mostly stay away from Black people and Hispanic people, even if they don’t know why. Like, have you noticed that we’re pretty much the only White people in the neighborhood?” They nod. “And not just who live here. You don’t see White people coming around to visit or hang out, either. That’s because of all those years of fear, and White people who were in charge making rules to keep Black and brown people apart.”

“There’s rules?” asks the seven-year-old, surprised.

“Not anymore. Not rules that are written down like laws. But there were rules and laws not very long ago. And White people, a lot of them, still have this weird, frightened feeling about Black people and Hispanic people. They think that if a neighborhood is mostly Black, it must be dangerous and they shouldn’t go there.”

“But that’s not true,” says the ten-year-old, half declaring and half asking. Our neighborhood is overwhelmingly Hispanic, but he has never lived in a mostly Black neighborhood. I wonder if he is thinking that Black neighborhoods might be different.

“Not at all,” I tell him. “You know where Kenny and Wildaliz live, their house with the spiral staircase that you hit your head on? That’s a mostly Black neighborhood, and you’ve seen what it’s like over there.” Both boys look at me blankly, and I remember that they have no sense of the city’s geography, let alone its demographics. I press on.

“Look, the point is that all those inside frightened feelings that all those White people have make this country really unfair to Black people and Hispanic people. When a Black person and White person apply for the same job, even if they are both just as good at the job, a White person is more likely to hire the White person, without even thinking about color. And when cops come up in the neighborhood, you’ve seen how they do with people. They’re rough.”

“They never even get out of their cars except to arrest people,” says the ten-year-old. I know he’s echoing me here, because I complain about this all the time.

“Right. Because they’re trained to see our neighborhood as dangerous, and they have all this history and these feelings in their heads as White people that make them see Black and Hispanic people as dangerous.

“So think about this: when I send you guys out to play outside, my big worry is that you might fall and hurt yourself or get hit by a car. But if we were Black, I’d have to worry about you getting shot by cops. I’d have to teach you all about how to behave when cops are around, how to be extra respectful and not run or play with a toy gun, just to make sure you wouldn’t surprise them or frighten them and end up getting beaten up or killed.

“We’re lucky. Just because we’re White, we don’t really have to think about that. We don’t deserve it. We didn’t do anything to be White. We just are.”

“But Michael’s Black,” says the seven-year-old, “and he’s the fastest kid in my class!” The seven-year-old assesses the merits of his classmates based on one metric and one metric alone. In his world, he has just said, essentially, ‘Michael is a fundamentally better human being than me.’

“Of course. People are just people, and they can be faster or slower or nicer or meaner no matter what color they are. I know you guys know that. But the other thing you have to know is that a whole lot of White people think something different. They don’t even know they think it, but it comes out in a million little ways.

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “We have to be aware all the time that a lot of people are going to treat us better for no good reason, just because we’re White. It doesn’t mean we’re better. And people are going to treat Black people worse, even though they’re not worse. They’re not going to say nasty things all the time, but in little ways, a lot of White people will treat Black people unfairly. Like, Black people would probably get a ticket for speeding when I might just get a warning, or —”

“Mom got a speeding ticket,” offers the seven-year-old helpfully.

“Sure. It’s not that White people can get away with everything forever. But in general, Black people are more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Scientists have done studies about it.” My kids respect science.

“So that’s it,” I say. “I just had to talk to you about that, and you have to know. We live in a country that is very very unfair.”

I should probably have the same talk with them every day until one of them complains, just so I can point out that people of color get just as tired of the topic, but don’t have the luxury of taking a day off. But the next day we are in a hurry to get to the ten-year-old’s early choir practice, and there’s no breakfast conversation at all: the boys eat at the table while I pack their lunches. In the car, we hear something on the news about Afghanistan, and end up talking the whole way about whom the U.S. is fighting there and why. We arrive at their diverse, majority-minority school and they trundle off to their happy classrooms, to their friends named Mario, Destiny, Laxmi, Serenity. They will not think about white privilege once all day.

Then again, they will not think about making their beds all day. They will not think about clearing the table or taking out the trash. The seven-year-old will not think about chewing with his mouth closed and the ten-year-old will not think about putting his dirty clothes in the laundry instead of leaving them lying on the floor. I will have to remind them again and again and again.