How I Taught My Black Kids How To Teach White People How To Treat Black People

I’m white. Red headed, freckled, fair.

My husband was black. A beautiful shade of brown, actually. Big, strong, handsome. Larger than life.

I knew nothing of racism before I started dating him. He taught me, not only to recognize those feelings in others, but how to overcome them.

The first time I recall encountering the blind distaste of the uninformed by myself was a beautiful summer day in a small town where my husband was working for the season. I had taken two of my kids, my son who was aged six at the time, and my daughter who wasn’t yet two on the long drive into town. I wanted to stop in a country craft store to pick up a few things, and peeking in the windows, saw it wasn’t the kind of place to bring four very curious little hands.

The shop was in a small commercial building, its windows fronting on to the street, but its entrance located just inside the building, along a large wide corridor that led to other shops within the building. I left the kids together, baby in the stroller, 6-year-old proudly standing guard, and popped into the store. I was in there about fifteen minutes, found what I wanted, and was waiting in line at the cashier beside the door.

It was a feeling more than exact words that drew my attention from the packages in my hand to the customers around me. The cashier, who also happened to be the owner of the shop, was confidently discussing the lack of parenting skills it takes to raise such brats. My first thought was that I was going to catch it for leaving my kids alone outside, despite my white privilege knowing them to be perfectly safe.

But that wasn’t it. The cashier was doing her best to convince the other customers – there were four ahead of me – that (whatever it was that my kids were doing) was to be expected from ‘those’ children, ‘obviously raised by imbeciles who shouldn’t be having so many kids in the first place,’ etc. etc.

I could just make out the top of my son’s head from where I was standing; they were fine. So I continued to listen to this woman’s critique of me and my family. As the first customer in line left the store, I could hear my daughter laughing loudly, and knew her brother was doing his best to entertain her while he was in charge.

So I eavesdropped some more. The cashier went on with the next customer, and the next, and the next. While none of the customers outright agreed with her, there was the odd nod of agreement, and not one defied her claims. I was looking forward to paying for my items, my inner mama-bear taking a deep breath and prepping for battle.

And then I heard my husband’s words in my head.

Racism isn’t hate; it’s fear.

Some people just don’t know better.

Getting mad at them doesn’t solve anything.

Know when to walk away.

I got to the counter and the woman greeted me warmly, but with an apology for the ridiculous behaviour of that coloured (!) kid right behind her on the other side of the window. Despite all instinct to pull her eyelids up and over the back of her head, I reacted calmly and rationally.

“What exactly is he doing?” I asked.

“I just paid to have that window cleaned, and that kid is out there licking it. Licking it! All over, like a dog with an ice cream cone. ”

I cringed on the inside. Not one of my proudest Mom-moments.

She took a deep breath to begin again, but I stopped her, interrupting sternly. “I’m sure he means no harm by it. He’s just a little boy.” I smiled, paid quickly, and stepped away from the counter before she could go on. But she continued her tirade with the customer behind me.

I stepped out the door to find my son, face pressed up against the glass, blowing against it so his cheeks would puff out, and, yes, licking the window. As my daughter fell over in her stroller in peels of laughter.

He wasn’t being just some kid; he was being an awesome kid.

I crouched down beside him and hugged him tight.

“I love that you’re such a great big brother,” I told him. “But the lady who owns the shop is really angry that you messed up her window.”

He looked at me with bright eyes, clearly considering the window for the first time. He looked at it, all smeared and lip printed, not sure if he was in trouble.

“Oh Sweety, I’m not mad. But I think someone needs a lesson here.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I won’t do it again,” he promised earnestly.

“No, not you. The lady inside.”

He looked genuinely confused.

“That lady got mad that you messed up her window. She didn’t care that you were making your sister laugh. She didn’t care that you were having fun. She didn’t care that you’re only six years old. She only saw that you’re black. So she thinks you’re bad.

“Now it’s our job to go change that. It’s not ok for people to treat you like that. You have to teach them how to treat you. And you do that by showing them that you’re a good person.” He seemed agreeable enough.

So we went back into the store, waited patiently in line, and I will never forget the look on that poor woman’s face when she recognized me, connected me with the kids, and realized what an ignorant fool she’d been.

Before she could apologize, I pushed my son up front and centre. He was amazing.

“I was the one licking your window. I was only doing it to make my sister laugh. I’m sorry I made a mess. If you can give me a cloth I’ll go clean it up.”

The woman looked at me and my mama-pride screamed loud and clear that he had come up with that on his own.

She looked back down at him and visibly melted. I felt the win.

She came around the counter, squatted down to him and my daughter and apologized to him for thinking he was a bad boy when she didn’t even know him. They swapped names, had a bit of a talk, and then she happily returned his great big little boy hug. She told him not to worry about the window, apologized to me, and we headed home feeling like we’d made the world just a little nicer that day.

Dad was pretty proud of us, too.

We saw that woman around town several more times that summer. She always stopped to say hi, introduced us to whomever she happened to be out with. And I am positive that she’s shared this story with others over the years as well.

Now, fifteen years later, all five of my kids know that they are ambassadors for their people. All of their people: the black, the white, the mixed-race, the short, the tall, the overweight, the underweight, the disabled, the mentally ill; they cover quite a few subgroups!

It’s a big responsibility; and they’re ok with that. They understand that they are role models, whether they like it or not, whether they want it or not. The minute they get out of bed in the morning, someone is watching them. Someone is making assumptions and opinions based on their behaviour, every minute of every day – and more so these days. And while they’re certainly not perfect – did I mention one of them spent 15 minutes licking a shop window once? – they make me proud.

And maybe, just maybe, one of the best things they’ll ever teach anyone, is how to teach others how to treat them with respect and dignity.

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Happy (real) Mothers Day!

I’m sitting here listening to the quiet and sluggish sounds of the kids eating breakfast and getting ready for their day. Somehow, the excitement of the first day of school has changed drastically, yet imperceptibly, over the years. With two moved out, one away to university, and the last two starting high school today, everyone is one step closer to the front door. My latest mantra? “Everybody! Out of the house! (I love you, but you all have to go…)” They get it. They’re ready. I’ve made sure of that…

But there was that year that I had all five of them at the same school, in the same place, at the same time, all day, every day. Ohhh, that was a good year. They spanned the student body, from first to eighth grades. As Parent Council Chair, everyone else seemed to automatically defer to me as the expert. I got a lot done that year.

It was hard-earned. And I knew it would go quickly; I was only ever going to get that one and only year of ease, comfort, and routine. I saw it coming. Realized the gold value of it right about the second day of kindergarten, when I was bundling and trotting two kids to school every morning, taking one back home, taking that one back at lunch, bringing them both home, feeding them lunch, trotting them both back over to school, leaving the other one,…. well, you get the idea. Every day. In all weather. For a year.

I know. I chose to have kids. But in my defence, no one ever manages to think through all the little crappy details.

And so, on the third day, I downloaded a countdown app on my phone. And I set the thing for the first day of grade one.

362 days. And counting.

Every time I felt the pressure and despair of the daily grind, I’d check the screen.

361 days.

Halloween came and went. Threw an awesome party for the kids. Christmas. Valentine’s Day. The milestones were ticking off the calendar. March Break. 171 days.

Summer relief lasted 37 hours. With teacher dad and all five kids home in my hair for two months, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I am no entertainment director, though I did learn the secret to keeping kids busy 24/7 with ease and a big long chore list! 70 days.

30 days.

Back to school shopping. Good and early, smiling all the way through WalMart. Erasers for everyone!!!

5 days. The grumbling started. Rooms to clean. Laundry to be done. Clothes to try on/throw out/replace. Groceries to be replenished. So much work.

1 more day.

I couldn’t sleep. For the first time since motherhood set in, I was going to be by myself. Completely alone. For five and one half solid hours. I had a plan: celebratory breakfast with the moms, a long hot shower, crepes for lunch, maybe a little tv – something R-rated. Oh yes, this was going to be a good day.

As I happily escorted the children down the street, that fine September morning so many years ago, my feet barely touching the sidewalk, my good friend and neighbour waved from her porch.

“You’re looking mighty happy this morning,” she called.

“11 minutes ’til the first day of school!” I bubbled.

“YES!” she agreed. “I just saw your husband; he didn’t look quite so enthused.”

“I know! Did he even talk to you?”

“Oh yeah. And then mumbled something that sounded like, ‘302 days until summer…'”

Yeah, he used to be a morning person…

So as I watched the kids line up and disappear into the big double doors of scholarly bliss, I heard the choking sobs of some of the other moms waving goodbye to their offspring like they would never see them again. I had the dubious privilege of having five incredibly well adjusted, confident kids; never understood the separation anxiety. But I tried to respect theirs, as I went around the corner of the building to flip a few cartwheels. I skipped back home with the weight of the world sliding right off my back like water on a duck.

Putting the key in the front door, my phone beeped with a text from my husband.

‘Happy Mothers Day ;)’

‘I love you too X)’

My last two highschoolers are now watching me type; they’re ready a half hour early, and I know that’ll pass. But the celebratory breakfast is a mere hour away. The house will be empty, even if just for a few hours. And I do know, that when everyone has gone and moved on, and there will be times that I’ll miss them, I also know that I will have earned the right to sleep in a little, eat the good jam, and shower with the door open.

Happy (real) Mother’s Day everyone!!

Raising Steel – Or Maybe Just Jello

Dear Village:

I have a gift for you.

Having now reached the age of adulthood, my 18-year-old daughter is now a full-fledged member of society. She’s a wonderful young woman. Bright, beautiful, and popular. You’ll love her.

At first.

And then you’ll start to see that she’s short a few marks on the responsibility scale. frustrated mom

You’ll start to take note of her growing absentee record at work. This will cross over into late bill payments, missed medical appointments, and more expressive frustration at others who cause her inconvenience. Eventually, she will have trouble holding a job, maintaining a home, and caring for her personal health. And if luck prevails, she will marry and have children to whom she will pass these remarkable skills, creating an evolutionary spiral into a blase pit of indifference.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of such ill-tidings. But I’ve tried to warn you. I’ve tried to get you on board with my kids. I’ve tried to teach them true values and ethics. I’ve done my best.

I am the mom who sent the 11-year-old down the street to the women’s shelter on Christmas morning to donate all of her presents, including the entire contents of a well-stuffed stocking, because she was clearly not impressed with either the quality or the quantity of goodies under the tree. I am the mom who spot-checks cell-phones and computers, who insists on meeting the friends – and their parents, who requires manners, who monitors bank accounts. My kids all clean toilets and do their own laundry; they know how to use the stove, the lawnmower, the vacuum cleaner, and the power tools. They know the difference between fault and responsibility.

frustrated mom2But in the end, they reach an age where I’ve got nothing left. I’ve explained, told, asked, begged, pleaded, threatened, warned, taught, yelled, screamed, cried, and given up. Over and over again. I’ve now even used up my last vestige of power – the holy grail of teenage angst – the wifi password.

And still I sat here and watched this morning as the now-adult daughter jolted out of bed at 8:57 a.m. to ask me in a mild panic if I could drive her to school in ten minutes.

“Of course,” I replied between sips of my coffee, “not!! You’re on your own, Sweety.”

She muttered some blasphemous reply as she stomped into the bathroom. I heard the shower start at 9:05. The final exam started at 9.

I have spent years warning of consequences to such actions. If you screw up, then you will pay.

But Village, dear Village, you’ve made a liar out of me. There are no consequences. You’re making me out to be the fool. Already this school year, this daughter is graduating, even though she earned a mark of 39 in her Grade 12 required English. Without talking to me first, the teacher made a ‘judgement call’ and gave her a 50. Even after she missed or was late 44 classes out of 78. Even after she hadn’t handed in her final assignment on time. Even after I had spent months using every tool in my chest to try to get her to school on time. (The third morning she slept in after I imposed a $10 fine for every morning she was late, she rolled over, threw a $10 bill at me, and tucked back under the covers.) But she needs to graduate with her friends…

She has a part-time job. They love her. She’s an excellent worker – I’ve taught her how to clean. But she’s late 3 out of 4 shifts. But that’s okay, because she just doesn’t get paid for the time she’s late.

So when the school phones me this morning at 9:30 asking where my daughter is, I am thrilled! Ah ha ha! BUSTED!! supermomPlease, school, feel free to lock her out of her exam. Feel free to dock her grade for the marks she misses because of it. Send her home. I’ll deal with her. But please, let there be some consequences!! And yes!!! have the Principal call me back!!!

The next phone call I get is from the daughter herself, within an hour. I smile as I see the caller ID. I breathe, because she’s going to be upset, having to confess to me that she’s blown off a whole course. It’s about time. I will be stern, but understanding. I will bring the lesson home.

“Hello,” I answer carefully, keeping my voice as neutral as possible.

“Hi Mom, it’s me, can I go to my friend’s house I’m done my exam and everyone’s going over there to celebrate that school’s over and then I’ll be home later to get my uniform and you can drive me to work but first I have to stop at the bank, OK?”

“Oh, and what happened with the exam then?”

“Oh, Mr. So-and-So said I shouldn’t be late and that exams are really important and all that and then I just went and wrote it. It was pretty easy I think. I probably passed.”

Pffffft!!!!!

defeatedAnd so Village, there you have it. So long as you’re not willing to back up my best efforts to make my kids accountable, to make them live up to their responsibilities and potential, so long as you’re willing to let them get away with everything, and tie my hands behind my back in the process, she’s all yours. I’ve done what I can. I’ve given it everything I’ve got. But I needed some help.

Good luck.