Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
about microaggressions is hard. It’s hard for the person constantly having to bring up the abuses against them,
and it’s hard for the person constantly feeling like they are doing something wrong. But if you want this to stop—if you want the deluge of little hurts against people of color to stop, if you want the normalization of racism to stop—you have to have these conversations. When it comes
to racial oppression, it really is the little things that count.
HEN MY EIGHT-YEAR-OLD SON IS NERVOUS ABOUT
something, he often moves silently back and forth at the doorway to my bedroom, where I do most of my writing. If I don’t notice him within a few seconds, he’ll very lightly knock. When he’s not nervous, he just bursts right in with no pretense of manners. We are not usually a house that knocks. But when
he’s nervous, he knocks.
That evening, I looked up at the sound of a hesitant little knock at my doorway and saw the little brown face of my worried boy.
“Mom?” he said, barely audibly.
I smiled warmly, “Come sit down, baby, tell me what’s up.”
My son sat at the end of my bed and fidgeted for a moment before saying in an almost scared voice, “Mom, I don’t want to go to my assembly at school
My son loves school. He cries at the end of every school year, and jumps for joy at the end of summer. He tries to never miss a single day or any school events.
“Why, baby?” I asked, concerned.
“My music teacher says that if I don’t sing the national anthem and say the pledge of allegiance that the veterans will be mad at me,” he said, almost in tears.
I was confused for a moment,
but then I remembered that Veterans’ Day was coming up. “Are veterans coming to your assembly?” I asked.
He nodded, “Yes, and my teacher said that if I don’t say the pledge they will walk up to me and yell at me and ask ‘why aren’t you saying the pledge?’ and they’ll be hurt because they fought in a war for me and I won’t say the pledge for them.”
Before I could say anything, my son set his
jaw and said, “But I won’t say it.”
My son had already spent plenty of time explaining to adults why he didn’t want to say the pledge of allegiance anymore. He had first told me months earlier, after the same nervous dance at my bedroom door.
“Mom, why do we say the pledge of allegiance at school?”
I was surprised, because even though the recent protests by NFL football quarterback Colin Kaepernick
refusing to stand for the national anthem had been all over the news, it was not something I’d discussed with my eight-year-old. Although I’m a very politically active and aware person, I try let my kids be kids and focus when I can on basic intersectional kindness instead of news of complicated public resistance.
But I gave my son a brief history of the pledge of allegiance. He asked a few questions
and I answered them (with a Google check or two on my phone). Then he took a deep breath and said, “Mom, I don’t think I should say the pledge of allegiance anymore. Would that be okay?”
All activists want their kids to magically turn into badass activists, but I wanted to make sure that this was a decision my son had come to after some thought, and that he had the reasoning to be able to defend
that decision. I asked him why he didn’t want to say the pledge.
“Because I’m an atheist, so I don’t like pledging under god. I don’t believe in pledging to countries, I think it encourages war. And I don’t think this country treats people who look like me very well so the ‘liberty and justice for all’ part is a lie. And I don’t think that every day we should all be excited about saying a lie.”
So when my son came to me the second time, I’d thought we’d worked this pledge business out already. I emailed my son’s teacher about his wishes to stop saying the pledge, and the teacher followed up with my son in a supportive conversation and they worked out a compromise. The class recited the pledge of allegiance just like they always did every day and my son respectfully listened but didn’t
join in. When it was his turn to lead the class in the pledge (kids alternate leading the pledge to teach confidence and leadership skills), he would lead the class in a poem instead. Now, after all of that effort to explain to me and his teacher why he didn’t want to say the pledge, he was being required to say it by a different teacher. I was shocked at the thought of any teacher working so hard
to intimidate my eight-year-old into compliance, but I looked at my son’s face and knew that his mind was made up.
I patted his knee and said, “I don’t want you to miss school just because your teacher wanted to scare you. He doesn’t understand why you don’t want to say the pledge, but that’s his problem. You’ve already explained it to your teachers. No veterans are going to yell at an eight-year-old
boy in the middle of an assembly, and if they did, they would be really mean people. But I will make sure that if you go to that assembly and you don’t say the pledge and you don’t sing the national anthem, nobody will yell at you.”
He nodded, went to school, and was silent.
I was once again amazed at how much strength and fight was in this little boy already.
As a parent of a child of color,
you try to shield your kids from the harsh realities of the world when you can, while preparing them for the ugliness that they don’t have the privilege of being kept safe from. I remember the look of heartbreak on my son’s face when our neighbor across the street said that our Black Lives Matter sign was “racist against white people,” not knowing that my son had picked it out himself.
time, my son told me that his dad had said he could never play with his toy gun from his spy set outside. Best to keep it indoors, he was told.
“Mom, dad said that a boy was playing outside with a toy gun and a cop shot and killed him,” he said to me, looking for confirmation of his dad’s argument.
That sentence, out of the blue, was like a gut punch. I had spent months trying to not think about
the image of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down at a park by a cop who did not recognize the humanity and childhood of a little boy. A boy who’d been left to die on the ground, while his sister, who ran to help him, was body-slammed and handcuffed.
“That’s true,” I had to say, “That happened.”
“But mom,” my son asked, “My stepbrother plays outside with toy guns all the time. How come my
dad never told
I didn’t realize it was possible for my heart to break more than it already had. His dad (a white man) had likely never had to consider these possible consequences of toy guns until he saw his little brown boy playing with one, and had to change family rules to accommodate this new reality for him. I had to look at my beautiful son and say, “Well, that’s because your
stepbrother is white. And cops are more likely to recognize that he’s a little boy playing, and that the gun isn’t real. I’m so sorry honey. I know it’s not fair. Not every cop would think your gun is real, but it’s not worth the risk, and your daddy wants to keep you safe.”
My son looked at me with tears in his eyes and nodded, then silently walked away.
My son thought about the pledge of allegiance
and he looked at this country and he decided that he didn’t want to say it anymore.
“I don’t think this country treats people who look like me very well so the ‘liberty and justice for all’ part is a lie. And I don’t think that every day we should all be excited about saying a lie.”
“Well,” I said, “That’s a good enough reason for me.”
WAS BORN IN THE
TO BE EXACT
the promise of the Cosby family. If you worked hard,
you could achieve anything. If you were smart enough, you’d find yourself choosing between Hillman and Yale! Yes, racism still existed and you would occasionally encounter a close-minded fool who would ruin your day with his outdated notions of race. But racism was just that—outdated—and what you would expect, if you played by the rules, was
a good life largely unencumbered by the color of your skin.
But the promises of the ’80s did not prevent the crack epidemic or the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which helped militarize our police force, introduced mandatory minimum sentences for crimes more likely to be committed by black and brown offenders, and rapidly expanded prison sizes to accommodate the massive
increase of black and brown bodies brought in by a criminal justice system now incentivized to see black and brown people as criminals. The promises of the ’80s did not stop the mass incarceration of the 2000’s on. The promises of the ’80s did not stop families of color from being disproportionately devastated by the housing crisis and the great recession. Even Cosby himself would turn out to be
a promise horribly broken. While many in my generation and older had hoped that the election of President Obama would signal some realization of those earlier promises, it is our children who have had to inherit all the ways in which those promises fell short.
We raised our children with the confidence and the audacity to reach for what the promises of the ’80s told us our children should be
able to achieve. Our parents taught us to strive for the middle-class comfort, safe schools, and steady work that they had fought so very hard for. Because of previous generations, we were able to give our children a freedom that we never had.
And our children took that freedom to high school and college and they realized how little difference our striving has made to the outlook on their futures.
We raised our children not knowing that by the time they became adults, one in three black men would be likely to see prison, that they could expect to have one-thirteenth the household income of their white counterparts, that they would see hundreds of black and brown men and women shot and killed by cops every year with no recourse. We raised our kids with all the audacity and hope of generations
of protest and progress, and the world expected them to be happy with the sorry state of things as they actually are.
But our kids have seen that, no matter what individual progress we make, no matter how good we strive to be, the system remains. Our kids have seen how every compromise we made over the decades has been turned against them now. Our attempts at respectability have been turned into
barriers to recognizing our humanity. Our focus on exceptionalism has been used to justify the murder of the less exceptional. Our focus on allowing “good” people of color to join the ranks of “good” whites has allowed a criminal justice system to swallow up an entire generation deemed “bad.”
Our children see how they are allowed in the best colleges, but only if they live in a neighborhood that
has enough public school funding to help them get there. Our children see how once they get into that college the curriculum will still teach and promote the history, culture, and politics that keep
them oppressed. Our children are seeing their parents lose the homes they worked so hard to afford due to racist lending practices of banks who will never face consequences for their illegal deeds.
Our children see how no matter how hard they work, no matter what they accomplish, they could still be in the next viral video as they are gunned down by a cop at a traffic stop. Our children see that, as the world is now, they have nothing to lose.
And our children are remembering how many times we told them that they could do anything. Our children are remembering every time we talked about
the civil rights movement and the fight for justice. And they are fighting.
Our children are fighting school systems that teach from racist and colonialist narratives. Our children are fighting the exploitation of student athlete programs. Our children are fighting the language that perpetrates oppression. Our children are fighting to be seen as human beings without any precondition. And our
children are fighting for more than just themselves. They have also inherited the vision and accomplishments of disability activists and of Stonewall. Our children believe that justice for people of color includes
people of color. And our children are not willing to let anything slide.
Our kids are fighting for a world more just and more righteous than we had ever dared to dream of. The debates
we have about gay marriage, transgender bathroom rights, immigration, whether it’s “all lives matter” or “black lives matter” have been largely settled in the social world of our youth and they are looking at us dismayed and perplexed at why we just don’t get it. In the days after the election of Donald Trump,
my older son and a few hundred of his classmates walked out of class and marched to
city hall. They were angry and frightened. They had been working so hard to build a better, more inclusive world, and we adults had just royally fucked it up for them. My son sent me video of the protest and I posted it online. Quite a few adults commented: “Shouldn’t these kids be learning instead of protesting?” But they had been learning, far more than we apparently had, and that was why they were
It can be inspiring and also disconcerting to witness our youth in action. They often ask for things that we were brainwashed into believing was “too much to ask for.” Trigger warnings? Non-ableist language? Inclusive events? As the newer generation casts us aside it is very easy to find yourself feeling old and… wrong. What happens when the youth roll their eyes at principles we’ve
spent our lives fighting for, when they’ve decided that they are not only outdated, but oppressive?
And this is important to remember, for all of us. No matter what our intentions, everything we say and do in the pursuit of justice will one day be outdated, ineffective, and yes, probably wrong. That is the way progress works. What we do now is important and helpful so long as what we do now is
what is needed now. But the arguments I was having in college are not the arguments the world needs now as I prepare to send my son to college. And if I refuse to acknowledge and adjust to that, all I’m doing is making things harder for a generation that would really like to move things forward.
I’ve learned as a parent that I will never fully agree with or understand my children—especially as
they get older. But
like I did with my mother, they will find their own way. It is my job as a parent to help give them the platform they need to build their way on, or to smash once they’ve decided it doesn’t work for them. It is my job to keep them safe and support them in the path they choose to take and provide whatever resources I can to that end.