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.