I have a fairly diverse friends group and it’s important to me that my son (who’s four) grow up accepting of all races and creeds. However, I’m having an issue with my neighbors that I’m afraid my son may interpret as racially motivated.
Two nights ago there was an issue with my neighbors down the street. The boyfriend was in the street yelling at his girlfriend, shoving her, cornering her against their car and getting in her face. I, stupidly, didn’t call the police but instead went outside and asked them to keep it down. I was trying to check on the girlfriend but they both turned on me and started yelling things like ‘cracker’ at me. (Needless to say, I’m white). The woman also made several derogatory comments about my son and how much noise he makes in the morning before school. My son wasn’t home at the time, thankfully, and I hightailed it back into the house. They drove away before I could call the cops.
This weekend my son and I were playing on the front lawn and they both came out of their house. After the incident in the street I don’t feel comfortable with them around my son, so I grabbed him and took him to the backyard. When he asked why I told him it was because the male was a ‘bad guy.’ But I’m really worried that my son may read into my neighbor being a bad guy because he’s black, not because he was treating his girlfriend poorly. And I also don’t know how much of a discussion I want to get into on domestic violence with a four year old. So, any advice on how to handle this in an age appropriate and hopefully non-racist manner?
Dear Anxious White Lady:
First, I’ll answer your question straightforwardly: nothing you did or said in front of your son had anything to do with race. I think I have an idea of why you were worried it might, which I’ll get into later, but you did not teach your son bigotry. If your son is meeting plenty of other black folks in his day-to-day dealings (and it sounds like he is), he will not think that your desire to avoid a neighbor has to do with race. If you take nothing else away from my letter, please take this: you had the word ‘cracker’ ringing in your mind the next time you saw your neighbors, but your son didn’t. You are fine on that score.
(I do encourage you to consider talking to your kid in an age-appropriate way about WHY someone is a ‘bad guy;’ saying: ‘he hit his girlfriend’ is something kids understand — they hit each other all the damn time and they know it’s wrong. The more specific you are with a child about why you are avoiding someone, the less likely they are to leap to conclusions, race-based or otherwise.)
Here’s why I think you are worried that you did something racist: because in the earlier confrontation you had, they brought up race, and you probably had no idea why they called you a ‘cracker,’ and you worried that maybe your unconscious bias was showing somehow.
But (and it pains me to tell someone so worried about being conscientious like you are) your white privilege was.
Please understand that I am saying this as a white person myself, who has had similar interactions: I felt like the other person brought up race out of the blue, and sometimes they did, but most of the time I had, in fact, unwittingly tripped a trigger.
I am guessing that you, like me, haven’t had to think much about the fact that there is a long history of white folks telling black people to pipe down in all kinds of ways. When a white person tells a black person to be quiet(er), we have have a loud chorus of invisible-to-us white racists standing behind us, adding: ‘you people’ are too loud. Uppity.
All of this is unrelated to you, of course, but they were in a horrible, stressful, upsetting moment in their lives, and they looked up, and there was some white lady telling them to ‘keep it down.’
I could be wrong, but I think that’s the reason they brought up your son’s morning noise: they hadn’t told the white boy to keep it down.
Because privilege has a way of slapping blinders on us, we find ourselves stumbling upon moments like this many times in our lives. We can either decide to learn from them and move on, or we can anxiously bash ourselves over it.
I think learning from these moments is better for ourselves and for fighting racism.
This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on September 24, 2015.