“It’s a picture of someone in the water and he’s drowning.”
She is giggling so hard she is having a hard time getting the words out.
“That person is standing on the side and he’s not helping… it’s… I can’t stop laughing… it is the funniest thing I have ever made.”
She is laughing so hard she falls out of her chair.
I am curious as to how we got a place where my barely 7 year old daughter is finding joy in a drowning child, and so I ask her to think on it for a minute. After all. It’s not just any picture. It’s a picture on the front of a birthday card that she’s made for a party she’s about to attend. And the struggling stick figure is its intended recipient. I know so because she’s written his name and made an arrow pointing to his frantic stick hands.
The funny bit is supposed to be the person looking and not helping. But… it’s not funny. Really.
She starts crying almost immediately.
“Why are you crying? Are you sad? Are you embarrassed?”
She is crying and cannot stop and so we sit for a while until we can continue.
It is a funny thing to recognize your child self in your own child. It is the brand of funny that comes with a side of horror and knowing. And so, I know, that unless I interrupt this pattern of handling shame in my small daughter, she will learn how generations of White Women before her have stuffed it down, used it to absolve themselves of their own missteps and ultimately weaponized it at the expense of others. I explain to her that when I feel embarrassed, I fill with shame and I try to make myself very small. Sometimes I can’t help but cry. Crying is not the problem, I tell her. But only crying is not okay. We must move through crying into another place.
And so we sit.
“Do you think it is funny kind or funny mean?”
She is not ready to stop crying.
“Hey. This is a small problem we need to solve. And you are having big feelings. And sometimes those big feelings are something we call Fragility. Girls sometimes use their big feelings to act fragile so that they don’t have to work to solve real problems or fix things when they’ve hurt other people. Sometimes we never learn what we are doing and so we grow up to be Big People who create Big Problems that we don’t have the tools to fix.”
She stops for a minute. Then starts again.
So I just sit some more.
(I will stop and acknowledge that there have been times when I would give up and ask her to take some time in her room and maybe revisit it later, or maybe not. There have been times when I would get annoyed or frustrated and this would become something unproductive and would, in fact, reinforce the shame. This would not be that time.)
It takes a solid half an hour but we get through what Fragility means and how she’s gonna fix that damn birthday card.
Later in the day she brings it to me and cannot stop laughing because she’s made it even funnier and now there’s a hedgehog and a barfing rainbow and this card is really killing it.
I ask her how she feels about our conversation. She says she feels pretty good to be on the other side of it.
I tell her I’m proud of her that she’s able to have hard conversations. I tell her that this will make her a better sister and a better friend and a better problem solver. I tell her that she has a responsibility to listen and be thoughtful if someone asks her to do better. I tell her it will come up a lot in her life because she is White and people will try to give her a way out of difficult situations but that she should not take them. She has a responsibility to not take the easy way out. She has a responsibility to interrogate her Fragility.
She does not know what Interrogate means.
I was a classic liberal, which meant I was clueless, but thought that I wasn’t. I grew up in poverty and was an angry feminist so I could tell you in vivid detail about my experiences of oppression. But I had never ever been asked or even considered my experience of privilege and how I’ve benefited from somebody else’s oppression. In fact, being white helped me navigate the barriers of classism and sexism. For me, the awakening came when I took a position as a diversity trainer, going to lead primarily other white people in conversations about race, and I thought that I was qualified. So through that job, for the first time in my life, I was working side by side with people of color who were challenging the way I saw the world. A key part of being white is that I could be a full adult with a college degree and never have had my world challenged in any significant way by people of color. And I was like a fish being taken out of water. So that was the first step. And the second was going out into the workplace, standing by the side of people of color, trying to talk to rooms filled with hostile white people about racism, and how their hostility was impacting the workplace. I don’t really know how to put language to how intense that was. How delusional most white people are about racism. How hostile.
She believed the natural world was familial. She saw our stories and myths as realities, and regarded every thing as a property worth protecting. I no longer know the beauty in that mindset; I only felt the power of it when I was in range of her. She felt a sense of belonging in the mountains, and would go alone to fast for several days at a time. No cavern or dark bothered her. She built her own fires, cultivated her own spaces, and never took from the land without making an offering first. It was a practice of power—as I know power to be: knowledge and understanding, with certainty and without shame.
Because of this history, black women have had to inhabit a different understanding of motherhood in order to navigate American life. If we merely accepted the status quo and failed to challenge the forces that have kept black people and women oppressed, then we participated in our own and our children’s destruction. In recent years, this has become especially evident, as dozens of black women and men have had to stand before television cameras reminding the world that their recently slain children were in fact human beings, were loved and sources of joy. The mothers of those killed by police or vigilante violence embody every black mother’s deepest fears: that we will not be able to adequately protect our children from or prepare them for a world that has to be convinced of their worth. Many parents speak of feeling more fear and anxiety once they take responsibility for keeping another human alive and well. But black women especially know fear—how to live despite it and how to metabolize it for our children so that they’re not consumed by it.