Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

This Started Out as a Love Story

Hard nutty cheese.  Musky red wine.  Candles drip on the lapis blue cloth on a table by the sea.  A black cat sits on my lap and I let it.

It is just you and me and the cat.  It’s dark.  The candles flicker in the warm breeze.  Our music is the roar of the waves as they wall-by-the-seacrash against the wall by the sea.  I am perhaps most in love with you in this moment.  Our hearts suspended together.  Breathing in peace, an ocean away from home.

Home.  Where bills need to be paid and alarms are set.  Where the light over the kitchen table dims our dreams.  Where expectations and household maintenance avert our gaze away from each other and the content of our hearts.

What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to be with you again like that—with hard cheese and a bottle of wine.  We tried.  Romantic restaurants in other towns.  But a black cat never sat on my lap again.  And you never want any wine.  And the cheese just stinks.

Another Racist Day at the Soccer Field or Two Bad Uncles

My son, Ben, played soccer for a racially diverse club team more than 20 years ago.  The Croation Eagles had Latino kids, African American kids, and kids of just about every white European heritage possible.  Ben was one of the few members of the team who was actually of at least partial Croation heritage.  The BS the kids of color had to put up with was deplorable.  On numerous occasions I heard parents from opposing teams drop the N bomb and call the Latino kids spics.

The Croation Eagles team parents did our best to shield our kids but the slurs from the opposing teams continued.  And our parents weren’t always well behaved either.  One of the moms on our team actually screamed “You must be on the rag,” to a female ref at one game.

I really did think it was going to be better by the time my two grandkids played soccer. Last winter, Ben was coaching his boys Noah and Ezra’s 10 and 8 year old teams in indoor soccer through the local rec department.  During Noah’s game, one of the Latinas on Ben’s team, Breeza, accidentally collided with Vickie, a white girl from the other team, accidentally knocking off her glasses.  Vickie picked them up.  Breeza asked her if she was okay.  Vickie nodded yes and the game continued.  No big deal.  Noah’s team won.  The onlookers and players started heading for the door

Vickie’s uncle, a young guy of about 20 wearing a neck brace that we later learned was because of a drunk driving accident, started talking smack to Ben.  “So I guess it’s easy to win when you teach your team to play dirty,” with lots of cussing for emphasis.  It became clear that it was the “aggressive” Latinas like Breeza that he had a problem with.  Ben told him to watch his language in front of the kids and suggested they go outside the school to talk.  They did.

Vickie’s uncle immediately throws off his neck brace and pulls out a switch blade posturing for battle.  Shocked, Ben said that if he wanted to fight him he needed to lose the knife.  A crowd gathers around.  Vickie cries.  Her mother yells to the uncle, her brother, to quit and come home with them.  There’s lots of commotion but finally, the uncle stalks off.

Everyone was upset.  But if there was anything good about the situation, it was that I got to watch my son in action.  He stayed calm and coached Ezra’s soccer game immediately after the incident.  He talked to his sons about how men behave.  “Tough guys don’t use weapons and don’t start fights.”

He said really thoughtful stuff about how they should be kind to Vickie because none of this was her fault and not to let anyone else be mean to her either.  That Monday at school, Vickie told Noah that she was really sorry for what happened, that she didn’t want anything bad to happen to his Dad.  Noah hugged Vickie and told her that she didn’t do anything wrong, just like his dad told him to.

This spring, Noah and Ezra, now 11 and 9, left rec soccer behind and joined the fabulously diverse teams of the Club Deportivo Aztecas (Aztec Sports Club) along with Breeza and her friend Nonny.  These girls are a force to be reckoned with.  All last year during community rec soccer, all the boys whined that no one could get past Nonny.  And Breeza, I saw her take a ball in the face and just keep moving.

The families are friendly, sharing food and carpooling.  There’s lots of Spanish and English flying around and we’re all learning from each other.  The kids are respectful and the coaches are smart and caring.  It’s a poor team compared to some of the big clubs.  We have one field at local elementary school compared to clubs that have more than a dozen fields, a concession stands and bathrooms.  We don’t go to a lot of tournaments.  But the Aztecas are affordable and inclusive and we like that.  I thought everything was pretty hunky dory.

But then this happened at the Aztecas versus a big club game last weekend.

Nonny’s uncle lit up a cigarette.  Within seconds, a tall man I assumed was a parent from the opposing team demanded that he put it out.

“This is a kids soccer field.  There’s no smoking.”

Nonny’s uncle, a slight man with a long scraggly brown ponytail, said something like, “I don’t see any signs,” and suggested that he mind his own business.  And he put out his cigarette.

The tall guy, the kind of good looking well dressed and groomed guy that has the arrogant glow of privilege, wasn’t satisfied.

“When you’re a guest in our house you follow our rules.”

That comment sparked a conversation between Nonny’s uncle and Nonny’s mother in Spanish.  And then the shit hit the fan.

“Speak American.  You’re in our country, at our soccer field,” said Mr. Privilege.

“Hey this is my America too,” said Nonny’s uncle.

Mr Privilege said something like “you don’t act like it.”

It was like he lit a match.  Nonny’s mother unleashed a firestorm of cuss words.  This is what happens, I thought, when weeks and months and years of the constant drip, drip, drip of racial insults and stereotyping finally ignite.

And there was plenty of fuel flowing from Mr. Privlege…”You people this and you people that…”

One woman came over to take video of Nonny’s cussing mother on her cell phone.  Another woman gently walked up to her and asked if she was drunk or high.

There were so many people standing around gawking that it was hard to tell who was there to support Nonny’s family and who was there to watch the side show of a Latino family melt down.  Mr. Privilege stormed off somewhere to “file a formal complaint.”  It was whispered in the crowd that he was on the board of the soccer club.

Ben was the only person who came up with a way to end the stalemate.  He simply invited Nonny’s family to join ours.  To the gawkers, Nonny’s mom said, “We’re going to go sit with the cool people.”

Noah and Ezra’s other grandmother, Char, welcomed Nonny’s mother to our group by saying, “Nonny is so tall.  Where does she get her height?”  I intervened with “So now we’re going to call her (Nonny’s mother) short!”  People chuckled and a tenuous calm was restored through the rest of the game.

Up until then, the families of both teams had been interspersed along the spectators sideline of the field.  Slowly lawn chairs continued to be rearranged until all of the Aztecas families were on one side and the big club on another.

After a hard fought battle on the field, the Aztecas won!  6 to 5.  Of course, Nonny’s uncle couldn’t resist giving the finger to Mr. Privilege who shook his head and looked away in disgust.

When the teams came around for the ceremonial round of high fives, both sets of parents congratulated both teams although Nonny’s uncle needed a little encouragement.  I was grateful that the kids had been too busy playing a competitive game to pay any attention to what their idiot families were doing.

I’m sure that not every adult associated with this big club was in agreement.  And it’s true that Nonny’s uncle shouldn’t have been smoking and her mother should have tried harder to contain her rage.  But as Ben says, “tough guys don’t use weapons,” and I can think of no sharper weapon than the racism Mr. Privilege and the smug group of parents wielded on this fine sunny afternoon.

Toe Nails

Ezie's footI hold my grandson Ezie’s foot in my hand and pull away his sweaty sock while he watches The Amazing World of Gumball, his favorite cartoon.  When he was a toddler, he would dangle his foot in front of my face so that I would hold it to my nose, breathe deeply and toss it away in mock horror at the atrocious odor.  His feet smelled like sweet baby powder then and he’d giggle uncontrollably at this game.  “Do again,” he’d squeal.

Now his eight-year-old feet really do stink like boy dirt and he merely tolerates my need to play with them.  I examine his toe nails.  So like his father’s, my son Ben.  The rounded big toe’s nail is wider than it is long.  All the others are completely uniform.

I remember holding Ben’s foot while he watched Pee Wee Herman, peeling away his sock and being horrified that his toe nails had grown so long that they were curving over the ends of his toes.  So, I clipped them and this became a ritual.  Holding his feet and clipping his toe nails while he watched TV.

What I didn’t know then was how much I would miss it.  How much I’d long for those sweaty socks and toe nail clippings, that sticky face and matted hair, lethal farts and urine dribbles.

You don’t tickle even good friends or hold their feet, examine for excess ear wax or head lice.   These things are a sign of family intimacy.  The bond between children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents.  It’s about trust and innocence.  It’s easy and messy and stinky and good.

And very one-way.  Kids grow up and don’t want to be touched and groomed.  They clip their own toe nails.  But grandparents and parents get old and can’t clip their own toe nails any more.  My friend Jill makes a weekly stop at her parents’ home to clip their nails.  She’s the only person I know who takes on such a saintly responsibility.

When my grandmother was alive, I witnessed one of my cousin’s kids spend a whole hour gently playing with the loose skin on grandma’s upper arm as they sat together in the back seat on a long car ride.   She looked so relaxed.  The only time I’d touched her in years was to slap a mosquito on her forehead.

Touch.  It’s such a basic human need.  A family intimacy that cannot be replaced by the clinical touch of professional caregivers.  I’m going to start touching my parents more.  I’m going to linger in my mother’s parting embrace instead of fleeing for the door.  I’m going to sit on the couch very close to my dad with my hand on his knee and whisper into his ear.  But I think I’ll still leave their toe nail clipping to a pro.