One morning as I am summoning the energy to stand up, my daughter comes into the room and asks under bed-matted hair and sleepy eyes, “Momma, why do white people not like black people?”
I can’t even type those words without hot grief rising. My daughter is five and she mostly sees the world as good and beautiful and safe. She is also multiracial and as I have had the profound honor of telling her when she asked that she is both black and white, I have done so soberly, understanding that from that moment forward, whatever she hears in the news or in conversations, whatever she sees depicted on screens or in books, whatever she picks up around her in unspoken attitudes about black or white she will internalize.
Some of her curiosity is from an innocent place: she wonders why her Daddy’s skin and eyes are darker than hers. She sweetly holds her arm up next to his and crinkles her face in question. She smiles when we tell her that her skin is like her mother’s and her blue eyes come from Grandmothers on both sides. But there is another reason she is curious.
There is a palpable tension swirling around us right now; issues with race are not new, but they are inflamed. I am angry that the things I can’t protect her from—attitudes and rhetoric among them—are reaching her now. At five. Couldn’t she have just a few more years of thinking that everybody loved each other?
So I am tasked with what every parent must do: pull back the curtain on the ugliness of a world we try to make safe and beautiful for our children. And my kids will have to reconcile things I never did as a young white girl from California. When my daughter asks me that question it is not mere childlike musing, she is wondering why part of her is not supposed to get along with the other part.
With a sunken heart I try not to react to her question, but hold her hand through her processing.
“White people don’t not like black people, sweetie. Some people are just scared of people different from them so they do mean things, but that’s not all people.”
She thinks about it for a moment and then says, with finality, “I wish everyone were just black. Then nobody could be mean to each other.”
This is where I have to tell her that we humans are not as wonderful as she thinks we are. “Baby, I’m sorry, but even if we all had the exact same skin we would find other things to be afraid of. Maybe eye color or hair color or toe size.”
She seems disappointed with my response and tries to come up with a way that every human could be exactly alike. I tell her the same old diversity stuff I heard as a kid: that the differences aren’t the issue, and wouldn’t life be so boring if everyone were the same? I tell her that the problem is that we’re scared of what we don’t know and the only remedy for that is to get to know.
“Why did you ask that, baby?” She shrugs sheepishly. I know why, though. It’s because of the snippets of news stories about police brutality or racist remarks from politicians she catches, the exhibit on Black History at the MLK Day family event where she looked at shackles that held slaves, the sermons we’ve heard addressing race relations wherein the color line was clearly laid out.
Maybe I haven’t shielded her enough—in moments like this one I feel that way—but maybe it’s good that while she still believes in Magic, still trusts people, still thinks that the world is basically good, she is seeing some of the worst of humanity, too. Maybe this will shield her from the shock that can overcome a person. We tell her all the time that people are not all good or all bad, that everyone has to make choices and that in our family we do our best to choose Love. That our heroes are those who choose Love, too—especially those who choose it when it gets them into trouble.
I wrote this quote out for our family to memorize. It’s from the Talmud—we aren’t Jewish, but this seems to sum up everything I’ve learned in life so far: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
So we look for Now things. We volunteer and we go to rallies centered around justice and attend classes to learn more about how to help with the big stuff. We also make notes for our friends and show kindness to our little brother. We do our best to love the people right in front of us and do the next right thing. We apologize and forgive each other. We put flowers on the kitchen table and laugh full and loud when the baby makes silly faces over dinner.
I am fumbling around with all of it. Motherhood has re-introduced me to the highest beauty life has to offer and the deepest horrors as I realize that I will have to teach them about Slavery, about Jim Crow, about the Aryan Nation history just miles from where we now live. About the fight for women’s rights, about human trafficking, about refugees and immigrants, about all the wars we’ve fought, shootings in schools and malls, the many varied ways humans innovate how to oppress and kill each other…
As I watch my beautiful, trusting, tenderhearted little girl process these big ideas and figure out her place in all of it, I find myself doing the same. And at the end of every day I tuck my babies in their beds and sing them their song and clean up our little home so we can all wake up to a fresh day. When they ask me questions I answer them and I try to fill the spaces between even the hardest revelations with kindness and humor and all sorts of love.
My heart aches the rest of the morning after my daughter asks me that question, but hers doesn’t. She still has the uniquely juvenile ability to set down the heavy things when they get too heavy. She moves on before I am ready to be done talking about this and I have to accept that I will not be able to address all of it at once, that this is a long game, a lifelong pursuit. She runs down the hall to play with her brothers and lead their games of astronaut princesses and dinosaur family. She sings made up songs and laughs with all gusto and cries big, loud tears and without trying she teaches me what it means to be human: black, white, or otherwise.