My nine-year-old son jumped from tree to tree, hiding from me and laughing as he and I walked to my work in downtown Bismarck. I laughed with him and drank in his bright eyes and captivating smile as he played without any inhibitions. Then he whipped his hands together to form a weapon and wielded it at a passing squirrel. Adrenalin hit my stomach and I yelled. He stopped and looked hurt. I caught up with him, put my arm around his shoulders and we continued to walk. “We need to talk about something important.” “What’s wrong, mama?” “You can’t pretend to have a gun and shoot at squirrels.” “Why, mama?”
I hate the fear I felt that day. In an instant, I choked up at the injustice. My son’s friends’ moms don’t have to ask them to stop pretending to shoot squirrels. In raising our first four kids I only ever had to yell out to them if they were about to run into the street. When they were young they climbed trees, looked in store windows, trespassed on large fields to chase butterflies, and attempted to take candy from the store without paying. I taught them right and wrong as each lesson presented itself. But, I was never afraid to do so. I was offered grace from grocery store clerks and property owners as we discussed how tough parenting can be.
“Mama, what did they say?” I swallowed my tears and clenched my fists at the slurs the man screamed at my daughter as he drove by us on the sidewalk. “Mama?”
She was on a day pass from the pediatric behavioral hospital in the small Kansas City bedroom community where she was doing the hard work of reconciling a past of neglect, abandonment, and abuse. We were simply taking a walk and talking. I kept walking and told her he clearly didn’t know us and his comments weren’t worth our time. How can she heal from her past when strangers were continuing the abuse? What do I say to her to give her the strength and courage she needs to stand up for herself?
“He did what the two cars in front of him did and the man didn’t yell at them, Mama. But, it was so embarrassing when he yelled at us.” “What did he say?” “You said we can’t say those words.”
Our oldest son had agreed to pick up our daughter after school and he found himself in a traffic jam. The two cars ahead of him opted to do a U-turn that involved driving part way into a driveway. Our son followed them. The homeowner sat quietly on his porch watching the daily pickup routine at the nearby elementary school. This man didn’t react when the cars ahead of my son used his driveway to get out of a tight predicament. But as soon as our son’s front tire crossed over onto his driveway the man stood, turned red, and yelled for our son to get the hell off his property. His language was racial and I refuse to even write it here.
I have seven children. Four are white and three are black. And I’m saddened by the fact that I don’t need to tell you which children I’m talking about above. But, I’m also saddened that I lack the context to respond to the hatred directed at my kids. I let them know they are loved for who they are. I encourage them to never back down from injustice. I teach them black history the best I know how and surround them with adults from their birth country as well as adult African Americans. But, it daily burns within me to do more, to learn more, to admit my mistakes, and to acknowledge my lack of understanding. I couldn’t love them any more than I do right now. But, because I love them it is my job to also educate myself about what they suffer due to no fault of their own.
I have added #blacklivesmatter to my social media posts. I have reshared powerful articles and posts about racism. I have stood up for them when needed. I even apply sunscreen to their dark skin because I know it will burn even though I can’t see the burn. But, none of that is enough. Because I am white, I need to do more. I need to understand more.
I don’t know what it is like to be the only one in a room who is a different color. I don’t know how it feels for the neighbor’s grandmother to glare at me as I go through the back door of my house because I forgot my key. I have never had someone ask to touch my hair or my skin because it is different. I am privileged and I need to own up to that.
So, my precious kids, I am sorry. I’m sorry that I haven’t come close to being the person you have needed me to be. I don’t know how to teach you to stand up against prejudice and hatred. But, I promise that I won’t ever stop learning and growing into the strongest ally you’ve got.
How about you? Are you also privileged? I invite you to walk with me and learn how to be an ally, not just an empathetic bystander.
First, you will need to acknowledge that you have implicit bias. It’s okay, we all do. We were raised in surroundings that were not our choice. If you grew up without diversity, it’s not your fault. But, you have a lot to learn. Admitting that is a great start. Start today by taking Harvard’s Project Implicit test. The results will give you a measurement of where you are beginning your journey to becoming an ally. Your results should startle you. Mine did.
You will need to educate yourself on the history of racism and whiteness. It is not pretty. But, make yourself read it. See yourself in it. Let the tears flow for the injustice of all of it. Don’t stop. Read every last word of it. Then teach it to your kids and other youth. Ask questions when you don’t know the answers. Don’t ever assume. Ever.
You will need to say something. Intervene when someone is being racist. It will be uncomfortable, and even a bit scary. But, don’t just walk away. Say it’s wrong. Look the person in the eye and say it isn’t right and it needs to stop. Don’t back down. And whatever you do, don’t be silent.
You will need to do something. Donate to the Let Us Breathe Fund, Equal Justice Initiative, The National Urban Fund, or other organizations who are tirelessly working to bring about racial justice. Support those who are speaking out. Engage only with businesses that don’t support systemic racism.
And finally, you will need to become anti-racist. Racism exists. Therefore, we can’t just say we aren’t racist and do nothing. If we are not racist then we are anti-racist and we need to daily learn what that fully means.
My kids need me to do something. I need to work towards being part of the answer to their whys.
I’m ready to go. Are you coming with me?
Sue Skalicky is a writer, speaker, and pursuer of abundant life. Over the past 30 years, she has worked as a medical photographer, photojournalist, leadership trainer, writer, and teacher. She has worked with the Navigators and Heartbeat Ministries, and has written for several publications including Discipleship Journal, The Small Group Network, Christianity Today, The Casper Journal, and The New York Times. She is currently the program coordinator for Humanities North Dakota. Sue has published two books, Change For a Penny and The Silent Sound of Darkness. Sue has lived one adventure after another with her husband Dave for the past 33 years, fumbled through parenting seven of the best kids in the world, and seeks to get away with as much as possible with her nine grandkids. Sue is passionate about teaching and inspiring adults and youth worldwide.