What we’re saying when we can’t say BLACK.

Yesterday, when I picked up my 7 year old after school, he jumped in the car and blurted, “Mom, something bad happened on the bus.” Our normal routine is for him to tell me three good things that happened during the day, but I could tell this wasn’t the time to refocus him and instead asked what had happened.

“I was sitting by these two boys and one of them said the other one could come to his birthday party, but I couldn’t because I’m brown.”

I managed to subdue the Mama Bear which wanted to rage out and responded to him calmly with, “Oh, buddy. What did you do?”

He proceeded to tell me about how he told the boy it wasn’t fair, about how he told the bus driver, about how the bus driver told the other boy what he’d said was mean and gave Isaac a different seat.

“I just didn’t think that would ever happen to me,” he mused aloud, “but I guess I was wrong.”

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As a parent, watching your child experience woundedness is painfully humbling. We do what we can to empower and shelter, but they will experience the world for all of its horrors and splendors and we are unable to completely control the manner in which these events fall upon them. It broke me, hearing in his words the hurt mixed with surprise.

I would wager that the child on that bus has already heard, whether at school or home, that we do not judge others by the color of their skin. And yet, here we were in the car, talking over the racist comment my son experienced on his elementary school bus, so what went wrong?

It is important to note here that I am white and my son is black. In the 5 1/2 years since I’ve been his mama, I’ve seen how greatly we white people struggle in verbalizing thoughts about race. We are comfortable discussing Martin Luther King Jr. but in personal dialogue, my son’s race is often omitted to the point of awkwardness. When we talk about black people, the word ‘black’ is often whispered or stumbled over for fear we are somehow unintentionally offending the person or people of whom we speak. We want to be respectful, but we’re often doing more harm than good despite our intentions.

If we, the adults, can’t get over our fear of risking the occasional foot-in-mouth comment and instead resort to referring to my son in hushed tones or stumbled words, our children will hear what we say but see what we do, thus understanding that while we SHOULD treat all people with equality, in actuality there is embarrassment and distance to be applied when we talk about race. (The same could be said for people of a different faith, culture, gender/sexual orientation, physical difference, or those with special needs.)

I called the school and explained the situation. I asked if the child’s teacher could please have a discussion with him and reiterate how hurtful it was to exclude another student because he was black, and I hope they say the word. I am trying to teach my son to be proud and comfortable in his own skin, but it’s terribly difficult for him to believe me if the example being set around him is one of discomfort and whispered tones.

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