A Talk About “The Talk”

“Some of us see it,” my 21-year-old son says to me at the dinner table. We’re talking about Ferguson, the demonstrations, all the challenges facing this country.

The inequality.

So many types of inequality.

He starts in on race relations, naming the dead black men and boys in the news over these past months.

I am startled that this is the conversation we are having. His brother has always been vocal on social and political issues, vocal on how the world should “work,” and vocal – in general. This is my dreamer-son, my artist-son, my silent son.

He is silent no longer.

“Some of the kids at school are so far into their bubble they don’t think it affects them,” he says. “We’re so busy all the time, I get it. But they don’t see. The game is rigged.”

As we’re talking, I recall the pay gap figures for women, broken down by ethnicity. White women earn 78 cents on the male dollar; African-American women earn 64 cents*. Do we think this doesn’t matter?

What about the fact that the real median household income for white families in 2013 was $58,270 and for black families, $34,598**? Do we think this doesn’t matter?

And the fact that single parent households headed by women have a median household income, without breaking down ethnicity, of roughly $26,000?

Doesn’t money buy access to better nutrition, better healthcare, better schools, safer neighborhoods – and therefore, less of a rigged game?

My boys were raised by me, a single mother in the urban Southeast. They attended public schools in an area with a significant socioeconomic mix, but white faces were the minority in their classrooms. Many of the white families in our part of the city sent their kids to private school.

I didn’t.

Not when I could have squeaked out the tuition. And certainly not after divorce, when I couldn’t. I believe we have a responsibility to make our public schools as high functioning as we can. That means we stick, we show up, we make it our business – to the extent it is possible – to participate.

I was a public school kid from the Northeast. There wasn’t much money in our household when I was growing up, and my dad was around only sporadically. But my mother, for all her intermittent craziness, consistently placed education and ethics above all else. I am who I am, in part, because of my mother.

While there was little money, I understand clearly that I was raised in an intellectually and culturally elite environment.

As for ethnic diversity, our school district was comprised of Italians, Irish, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and long-time Yankees. There were no black or brown faces in my elementary school, nor junior high. In high school, there was one African-American boy, who, to the best of my recollection, had moved from another part of the country.

“The thing is, there’s so much wrong,” my son says. “We don’t know where to start. We don’t know how to fix it. We don’t know who to believe. Not the media, that’s for sure.”

This is our first real conversation since he returned home after the semester’s finals, not even 24 hours earlier.

I am pleased that my son is increasingly aware of the world around him. That he’s thinking for himself. That his predominantly white (affluent) surroundings in his northeastern university are not turning him away from what he knows in his bones, from allegiances he’s had since childhood, from his hybrid roots and experience – born and raised in the South, of a New England mother and a European father, of three languages though we largely spoke English, of two religious traditions.

Of my two sons, his brother skews more Euro-kid, while my younger son has always been more stereotypically American.

Our household was different from that of my boys’ friends for many reasons, including the contradictions of few trappings of success, yet high-end ambitions.

But fear was never part of my sons’ upbringing.

Financial fear? Sure. But fear of bodily harm – just for being who they are?

Never.

Before divorce, there were trips to Boston to see my mother, and trips roughly once a year to Europe to visit grandparents and cousins. After divorce, there were trips twice a year to New England when both boys would see their father (and my mother until she passed away), and only the occasional trip to Europe to see family for my younger son, though my elder went more often.

New England is very white. The part of Europe where my ex’s family lives, likewise.

Money has been tight for years and consequently, the pressure was on for both my kids to perform academically in order to win scholarships.

That would be their way out of the financial stranglehold that has held us for more than half of their young lives. They earned those scholarships. They made their way “out.” Or more precisely, they will in a few years time — with a bit of luck.

Our friends?

Everyone interesting, respectful, funny. With few exceptions, not adults.

Kids. I loved the kids. Their energy, their attitudes, their values.

His friends?

Mexican, African-American, Bulgarian, Irish-American.

But my sons will never know the fear that some of their pals no doubt live with. Their friends, these boys they have grown up with, these boys whose mothers I know and one of whom I was close to for years. How could I be ignorant of what these mothers had to teach their sons — to be wary of authority figures? To fear the police?

How could I be so blind? How could I be such a lousy friend?

My children had a rainbow of friends including the girls they went out with. I told myself this was good and as it should be; bit by bit, the world was making peace with our diversity of colors.

Apparently, I saw what I wanted to see. And never was this more clear to me than when I read Dana Canedy’s article in The Times, “The Talk: After Ferguson, a Shaded Conversation About Race”.

This is about the talk that an upper middle class journalist has with her son, this African-American mother of a light-skinned black child, an eight year-old, with whom she must explain what is a terrible truth in our society. She writes:

I hadn’t fully processed that someday my son would be seen as suspect instead of sweet.

Ms. Canedy describes her situation, her preparation for “the talk,” and her son’s response. Read her words.

Some of the comments on the article at The Times were shocking to me, for example in their assertions of reverse discrimination. Other commenters expressed feeling “heartbroken.” I understand that response, but I felt anger, stupidity at my own cluelessness, and sickened that this is where we are when some of us, people like me, once assumed we made more progress than we have. I feel foolish for not recognizing the inherent protection my boys enjoy – simply by virtue of pigmentation.

As our talk about “the talk” was winding up at the dinner table, my son says:

“These past weeks, I suddenly realized, I’ve been living in a bubble of white privilege that I didn’t see.”

This from my son whose friends are at Dartmouth and NYU and Duke and University of Georgia and University of Wisconsin and Boston University – white friends, black friends, brown friends. Were all but the palest raised in the shadow of fear that Ms. Canedy describes?

My only taste of this appalling reality is this: gentle mentions to my boys about not being Christian though we live in the Bible Belt; the need to pay attention. And that’s a far cry from mothers teaching their children always to defer to a cop, never to talk back, never to raise a hand or make a sudden gesture.

What do I tell my son, who raises the question again of where to start? How to topple so many systemic barriers to fair play, constructed and sustained over generations? How do the mothers of sons do something more than “hug it out” then return to our respective worlds – mine, for example, even with its stresses, infinitely safer than so many families of color?

I tell my son it’s possible to improve things, because I want him to believe it. I want his friends to believe it. I want to believe it.

I would like to think the mother who wrote the article I cite may, one day, believe it as well.

I may be nothing more than another “liberal” white person in a cocoon, unable to change a damn thing. Unable to ever really understand. And all I can think to do is write, question, read, listen, learn, and keep writing, questioning, reading, listening and learning.

If you are a parent, read Dana Canedy’s article. It will break your heart, and it should make you angry. I am at a loss. I am ashamed. I want to turn my anger to something – anything – productive. And so I address mothers, and specifically mothers who, like me, may not see the privilege they assume is there for everyone.

It is not.

Like my son, I ask: Where do we begin, how do we fix it, how do we become a part of this absolutely vital change when so many entangled systems are involved?

 
*Source, More Magazine, September 2014, cited in linked post.
**Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the U.S.: 2013