Conversations (not) about race

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Last year, during the height of the Trayvon Martin news cycle, I wrote a post in which I wondered if I should talk to my young son, Luki, about racism. Should I explain to him that, because of the color of his skin or his ethnic last name, he would have to tread extra carefully around certain people? Should I tell him that, regardless of his actions or intentions, he would always be perceived by some as a threat?

Martin
  • Martin

I wondered these things for a while and then forgot about them as the Trayvon story stopped being front and center news. But on the year anniversary of his death, and then Martin Luther King Day, I was confronted with the issue again.

***

We decided to march in the MLK Day parade with the group from the Latin American Coalition. In the car on the way over, I tell Luki that we are going to celebrate King's birthday, that he was a very good man who wanted everyone to be treated equally, no matter the color of their skin.

"What color is my skin, mami?" he asks me.

"What color do you think it is?" I respond.

He looks down at his arm. "I don't know," he says. His particular hue doesn't match any of the colors in his box of crayons.

"I don't either," I say cowardly, avoiding the conversation about being a person of color. "What matters is that we should all be treated the same, no matter what we look like."

"Do we have a present?" he asks me.

"A present?"

"Yes, for Martin the King, you said it's his birthday"

"Oh...well, we are his present. All of us, coming together and marching in his honor. We are his present."

***

It's 2:30 a.m. on the on year anniversary of Trayvon Martin's killing. Tony jumps out of bed alarmed and finds a drunken man standing on our deck banging his head against our back door. We call the police. The cops come out and coax the man off our property. We watch through the window as they speak to him on the sidewalk, they allow him to make a phone call; one of the cops speaks to whoever is on the other line. The man is harmless but, as drunks tend to be, unaware of boundaries. The man gets very close to the police officer's face; he even touches the cop a few times. The officer steps away from the man. A few minutes later, three of the man's friends come to take him home and the police drive off. The man doesn't want to go home and his friends end up chasing him down the street.

The man is white, and I am in shock. I've never witnessed such a blatant example of white privilege before. Had that man looked like my brother or my husband... or Luki, he would have been arrested, maybe even tased.

And then I wonder about the part my own skin color played in the situation. How much of a difference did it make that we are not white?

I barely sleep that night.

***

Luki hears me on the phone telling my mom about our drunken visitor.

"There was a man here last night?" he asks. He slept through the whole thing.

"Yea, just a man knocking on the door very late."

"A bad man?"

"No, not a bad man. A lost man. He was just lost."

I didn't want the drunken man to go to jail. He was young and stupid, but not dangerous. I don't want a silly mistake to ruin his life.

And I want the same thing for Luki. I want him to be able to make mistakes. I want him to be given the benefit of the doubt. But I know that's a risk I can't take. I have to tell him. I have to tell him about Trayvon Martin. I have to talk to him about being a boy of color and what that means.

***

He is sitting at the kitchen table finishing dinner as I do the dishes. It's just the two of us, and he's negotiating how many more bites of food he has to eat.

"I'm getting full, mom. Five more bites and then a gummy bear"

"If you're so full, why do you want a gummy bear?"

"Oh, well, I'm only a little full, not too full."

I look at his face and think, "this might be a good time, it's just the two of us, I can bring it up casually," but I decide against it. I put if off because it's too freaking hard, and sad, and innocence-crushing. I put it off because he's going to ask me why and I'm not going to have all the answers. I put it off because he is still so young and I'd much rather negotiate about gummy bears.

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