A cautionary note on children as protesters
“The talk” has become a rite of passage. It’s that moment when parents sit down with their black and brown boys to explain to them the limits of their freedoms and how their conduct in public places will not be given the same laxity as that of their white peers.
In the past months, more white colleagues and friends have shared with me their expressions of surprise and sincere condolence as they have come to realize how racialized parenting has become.
But I have a cautionary note. We cannot afford to make our children part of the spectacle. It is a risk that is not always worth the lesson. It does not always produce the result we anticipate.
I wrote about the spectacle 20 years ago in my book “Codes of Conduct”:
“Early in 1981, I joined the members of my AME church in our small Michigan community as we wrapped black armbands around our children’s slender arms and solemnly marched from Sunday school to the church service expressing our collective grief over the murders and disappearances of black youth in Atlanta. Their tiny figures were dwarfed as they entered the massive sanctuary, and their procession on the winter Sunday echoed for me, back to the decades-old anti-war and civil rights marches. … We had chosen our children as a visible symbol … branding them with our understanding of the lesson we knew they would learn despite our intervention …
“The event was well-intentioned. … Our purpose had been to help them understand their membership in a national community … who cared about our common dangers. We wanted our children to know of our activist history and their legacy and to feel secure in the presence of their parents and community elders. We could not guess, nor did we anticipate, that some of them could feel dangerously vulnerable and could come to associate that vulnerability and fear with the color of their skin.
“Although our cause was not malicious, I hold all of us responsible for those whose psyches we injured that winter — those who felt just a little more exposed, a little less strong. Not all of our children come with the resilience it takes to survive color in America. … I look back at the event in Kalamazoo knowing that today I would warn against ritualizing the insidious power of racism.”
I revisit these words today as I see children carrying “Hands up, don’t shoot!” signs — babies, really, who may have just learned to read, protesting the killing of an unarmed black teen.
I revisit them as I see our children on Ferguson, Mo.’s front lines with their tiny hands raised in a gesture that should never ever be a part of their realities, much less their symbol systems.
I revisit these words today when I think about how my own children read their involvement in that Kalamazoo march so differently. My 5-year-old daughter thought it a fashion statement, that the arm band matched her black patent shoes. My 4-year-old son asked if it would help the kidnappers recognize him and if he would be next.
What we miss, when we introduce our children to this dimension of our nation’s cultural and racial histories, is their human right to the evolution of their moral lives. In their young lives they can process right or wrong, not justice and injustice. We cannot expect them to parse the history the way a mature, adult thinker can do, and we must give them some unfettered time to develop their characters without fear of the ways their skin color will mark them.
Given the dangerous realities of racism, the time for “the talk” will certainly come soon enough. But there is also a time when we might consider giving them a moment of childhood bliss with its freedoms, its innocence, its experience — the possibilities and potentials of their futures rather than its perils.
It’s extra difficult for black and brown parents. These many years and decades later, with one child blessedly here and another tragically gone, I can say it is worth our consideration to give them more time outside of the vulgar histories of racial disparities and structural inequalities.
If we can shield their joy, we may have done more to prepare them for what seems today the inevitable era of their precarious vulnerability to bias.
Karla FC Holloway, the author of “Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature,” is the James B. Duke Professor of English, and a professor of law and African-American Studies at Duke University. This column first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.