I am driving away from the curb and one of my younger sons takes my phone and picks a playlist he knows I will like because I am driving them somewhere that they want to go. We have a tacit agreement, familiar to many parents: they will pretend they do not like the music they have turned on and in turn, I will pretend not to notice when they quietly mouth the words beside me.
When the Stay at Home orders came from our state we shut down our lives in every way except for the ways that we could manage from in front of a screen. Both of us could keep our jobs. We figured out a predictable routine for “doing” school and managing a house full of people who all generate a lot of physical chaos. Our children understood the seriousness of the pandemic and we were relieved to see how quickly they fell into each other. For the first 6 weeks I left a short note for each of them on the wall every day: what you might eat, what you have to get finished, two small ways you can help. It was not easy, but it was easier than I had imagined it would be.
In our family, I was most worried about my Black children, who would now be effectively quarantined from a life they have created that revolves mostly around Blackness. At this point in their adolescence their participation in this life is able to operate mostly apart from us, their white parents. I am relieved and joyful when I think about it, and while it is not perfect, it is good. This worry remained but was softened with a wondering about what their lives would look like if we were able to mitigate the amount of whiteness they were exposed to in a day. They attend “diverse” schools, but the diversity is centered in and controlled by white staff, students and systems. It seemed that all we would need to do was give them permission to turn off their google meets. I began to wonder if their easy transition into this time– even while doing school and helping around the house– was because they did not have to manage so many white adults and children in real time. (I mean, I knew this was true, and I could have predicted it, but it felt like that moment in Mary Poppins where the wind is literally changing and Mary comes floating through the air like some kind of oracle….) When the date came for my son’s fifth grade promotion livestream arrived it was achingly clear. With the exception of one adult, he did not want to see or hear anyone. “I can Facetime my friends. I talk to them on the Playstation all the time. Please turn it off, I don’t even want to hear these people.”
I resisted the urge to try to convince him otherwise.
My actions to interrogate and unlearn the things that I thought I knew– often reckless and sometimes traumatic– have nonetheless slowly embedded themselves as instinct. My biases still sit there and I still do wild shit and I still wake up to the occasional shame spirals, but increasingly it is stymied with silent alarms: “why are you feeling this?” “where does it hurt?” “you can just stop” “is this about you?” “you can’t fix this, you just have to sit with with it.”
I think this is what my friend Rebecca means, in part, when she talks about the embodiment of abolition– where the practice of unlearning whiteness has become a part of who we are on a cellular level. And it is what I think of when I try to imagine what liberation looks like for myself and my children. It is the moment that Paul realizes that he has made decisions prioritizing the racialization of our family and not given a second thought to giving up things that bring him joy. It is feeling with my whole body the cruelty of this world and still holding a personal and collective responsibility to find a way through. The road stretches out before us.
It was, as it turns out, not my Black children that I needed to worry about. This moment of semi-isolation destabilized both my youngest and my oldest and created space for them to come apart. They had not had to create the same kind of buffer and connection to who they were outside of their daily routine of school and sports and casual interactions. My oldest, specifically, was not able to disappear into a rhythm where he was only seen when he wanted to be. Yes, this is partly personality. Yes, it is also the malleable nature of whiteness– the choice of where and how we show up and where and how we are seen. We realize we are fighting generational DNA of patriarchy and racism. We see his commitment to binaries. Our failures persist.
We have planted a large garden. Paul has muddled his way through his first sewing project. I have acted as a security blanket in my role at work and learned how to clumsily retwist my son’s locs. My oldest is learning how to bake and is training for a marathon. My youngest is learning how to weave. One of my sons is training hard for a yet unknown basketball season. My other son watches birds with me on the front porch.
We have marched and we have held space.
Sometimes my children pretend to hate us or each other and I will try to pretend not to notice. I did not used to have capacity for this kind of pretending, and sometimes I still do not. They all mourn a beginning that they did not choose and I am trying to imagine a world where all of their choices are possible.
If I had read Emily Bernard’s article in the New Yorker 15 years ago, I might have sighed a heavy sigh but not read it as a reflection of my family or my work, but as a window into someone else’s. The gift of time and intention is all together corny as a slogan, but in my case THE GIFT OF TIME AND INTENTION is saving my life. The first time I read it I shook with awe and familiarity.
The Purpose of a House— Emily Bernard
“My daughters were suffering from the echoes of their three years in middle school. Their days inside were still and peaceful; the memories were dynamic and vivid. Communication as a road to healing was something that I believed in—something I knew I needed to model if I wanted them to believe in it, too. Human connection. Making meaning out of suffering. Breaking down barriers and insisting on a common humanity through truth-telling.
And then George Floyd died, and the world was, once again, invited to watch the destruction of a black human being. The video was made by a courageous teen-age black girl. It was a triumphant, essential act, and one that will likely cost her for the rest of her life.”
I am sending this article to all of my children’s teachers this summer and sharing it with our principals and every White parent I know and generally shouting it into the void. I think it would be most helpful, if you are White, to read it out loud to your partner or your child or over the phone to your friend or to your pet. Feel the weight of these words.
“The system that killed George Floyd and the system that raised and educated the cop who killed him are the same. And in the same way that folks are tired of the viral Black death—protest—fake trial—acquittal—rinse and repeat cycle, I am tired of folks acting like there’s no direct connection between the schools where White children sit and the street corners where they choke out Black life.”