On January 19 of this year, there was an interview on NPR with Dr. James Douglas, President of the Houston, TX branch of the NAACP. The interviewer asked him if people have forgotten about the gains made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His response was fascinating to me. He used the analogy of taking antibiotics to get rid of an infection. The symptoms may disappear, but not the infection.
I don’t know how to talk to my kids about racism and racial justice. My hope is that they’re growing up in a different time, so they will just naturally not be racist. Having grown up in Atlanta, GA, my family, just one generation removed from my children still speak with passive-aggressive prejudice (“I’m not racist, but…”) My rationale is, I’m not going to be like that, so it will be easier for my kids not to be racist.
Dr. Douglas would say we might need to work a little harder. His solution is not a stronger antibiotic; it is to keep taking it until the infection is gone. That requires action. Our awareness, as parents, that the Civil Rights Movement happened, is not enough to teach racial justice to our kids. We have to talk about it.
We have to talk about it? Is that what Starbucks was trying to do with their #Race Together campaign? Did that work? Honest conversations with strangers as they brew my cinnamon dolce latte? I will say in some ways it’s easier to talk to strangers about those big issues. I’m not responsible for their character, or their actions. My kids, on the other hand, now there is where I should be considering the importance of a conversation.
My son was seven when JACKIE & ME was playing at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where I used to work. I didn’t take him to see it, even though we would’ve gotten complimentary tickets. It wasn’t just because he was two years younger than the age recommendation. I was afraid he would be bored. He’s not into baseball, and as a white kid (red hair, blue eyes, about as white as you can get) it wouldn’t be relevant to him. And, if I’m being honest, he’s very sensitive and inquisitive, and I didn’t want to talk to my seven-year-old about why Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to play baseball.
We don’t want to bring our kids down, right? We trust that they’re absorbing it. Photos of groups of kids almost always include many ethnicities. Their school has several Latino and African American students, and the Disney channel has lots of public service announcements about treating kids fairly. Shouldn’t that be enough?
When we are around family, we like to show off how comfortable we are with my son’s African American best friend, or our neighbor who has two moms, but then around our kids, I find myself avoiding it. My tactic is to act like the qualities that make them different aren’t there. It’s safest to stay ultra-generic. When asked why G down the street has two moms, it’s easiest to say “you know, all families are different.” When I’m asking about someone at school, I find myself describing him saying, “that boy, he’s a little shorter than you, he was wearing a blue shirt today, his hair is curly…” then my son easily offers, “is his skin brown?” It’s such a relief, I don’t have to admit to noticing that his skin is brown.
Pardon my French, but WHAT?!!!
Here’s the thing about JACKIE & ME. I now realize this is going to be the easiest, least awkward way for me to share with my now-nine-year-old that racism is a real thing, and I hope it upsets his sensitive spirit a little. The world is different than it was in 1947, a few years after his grandparents were born, but there are still times when a boy with brown skin is going to have to work harder just to be treated fairly.
As far as my other concern, that he would be bored? JACKIE & ME is not a history lesson. It’s a magical time travel play, for heaven’s sake! There’s a reason why the Dan Gutman book series is so popular whether you like baseball or not. Joey Stoshak (the titular “ME”) is a very relatable kid, who is dealing with real kid grief in the present and the past. He has a Nintendo DS just like my son, and we can talk about how that must’ve looked to a kid in 1947. Then we can talk about why Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to play baseball. And we keep taking the antibiotics until the infection goes away.
JACKIE & ME runs through May 17. This play has been delicately sculpted in the hands of DFW’s most talented professional theater artists just for you and your family. Please don’t miss it.
To listen to the complete interview with Dr. James Douglas, click here.