My parents never sat me down for a talk on racism. They taught me through in-the-moment training. The first lesson came when I was six or seven years old. My mother pulled her blue 1975 Chevy Nova into a parking space marked with a wheelchair.
I noticed after we got out of the car. “Momma,” I said while pointing to the sign. “This is a handicapped space.” (Handicapped was an acceptable term in the early ’80s.)
“Black people are handicapped.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward our destination.
Her words replayed and gained meaning over the years as I experienced prejudice and racism on my own. I heard them whenever my achievements were credited to affirmative action instead of my abilities. They whispered from the aisles of department stores when cashiers followed me while those with fairer skin slipped merchandise into their bags. They rode on the tail end of every racially charged insult and hovered in the atmosphere whenever I was the only person present with brown skin.
Black people are handicapped.
I’ve struggled with the when and how of sharing this message with my children. Mini Me was due to start fourth grade last week. The death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests have directly impacted her. The start of the school year was postponed for at least another week.
I’m good with the delay. That the world is not all that different from the one my mother described to me 33 years ago, and I hope the protests in Ferguson will help bring about change. Mini Me wouldn’t understand. Our dialogue on racism needed to start now.
Before I talked with her, I needed to decide how much information to share. At nine years old, Mini Me walks the line between little girl and preteen. Certain concepts require more age and experience for comprehension. Plus she’s deeply sensitive. Her capacity for empathy will place Mike Brown on her heart for weeks. She’ll lose sleep. Just when I think the moment has passed, she’ll ask a new question and begin the process anew.
I opted to build up details over time. I told her that school was cancelled for the rest of the week. She started to cry. I told her that school administrators were concerned for students’ safety.
“Why?” she asked.
I told her Mike Brown was killed by a police officer. I explained many people, including me, were upset about it. Some expressed their frustration by protesting around the city. But when those involved, citizens and police alike, are angry and scared, more bad things could happen.
“Why is everyone so mad?” she asked.
“There are people in with world who think we aren’t as important because of our brown skin, so they treat us differently.” I braced myself for tears, but I got anger instead.
“We’re no different than anyone else!” she yelled.
“No, you aren’t.” I said. “And that’s what the protests in Ferguson are about. People are speaking out against what they think is wrong.”
“Do you think I can change things when I grow up?” she asked.
“Yes.” I said. The road to change is long, complex, and painful, but I figured we talked enough for one day. Plus, it was close to bed time.
I don’t know if I waited too long to talk to her about this. I don’t know if I told her too much or not enough. The only thing I know for sure is that I can’t stop talking.