A book series I loved as a child, The Moffats, includes an incident in which Jane Moffat hides from the Chief of Police, afraid that he’s there to arrest her. Eventually she’s found and confesses her fears, and he assures her that police are for her protection. Most children are constantly aware that there’s something they’ve done that they shouldn’t, so a rules-minded child like my daughter might also be afraid when she sees an authority figure. The opportunity to reassure her, “Police are your friends,” just came up this week. I didn’t take it. How could I?
Mookie was telling me about a friend who’s scared “of everything.” Like what, I asked. “The dark . . . monsters . . . she’s even scared of policemen.” Really? Scared of police? “Yes,” Mookie said. “But police aren’t anything to be scared of. They’re here to help us.”
This is how these opportunities arise. How do we talk to our kids about race? As the issue arises, and it will, all the time, if we’re listening. How do we talk about police brutality? The same way we talk about any other difficult subject: honestly, at their developmental level, and with faith that they can handle tough information if they know we’re here to help them. People with black children have to have these conversations as a matter of survival. My white child needs these conversations, too, for the survival of her soul. After all, what we teach in church and our home is that other people’s troubles are our troubles, and that unfairness is wrong whether we’re the ones who got the smaller slice of cake or the bigger one. That when we notice that someone’s being hurt, we have to do something about it, and that if we’re not noticing, we have to pay better attention.
So I would love to be able to say to her, “You’re right. Police aren’t anything to be scared of.” But I’d be lying. So I said, “Police are supposed to be here to help us, and usually they are. But sometimes they do really bad things.” I wish I could report the whole conversation, but I can’t remember the details. I know we touched on how people make assumptions based on other people’s color, and that police do that too, even though they shouldn’t, and how that means that some people have to be scared of the police, too, instead of knowing they can turn to them for protection. (Is her friend’s fear well-founded? She’s Latina; her parents immigrated here; maybe someone in the family is in the U.S. without papers. I stayed off that topic, not wanting a thoughtless comment from Mookie to give her friend any more real monsters to fret about.)
The subject will arise again, just as it arose when she was sitting on my lap when I learned that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be charged, and couldn’t help from gasping and sighing.
(“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“A teenage boy was killed by a police officer, and he isn’t even going to be arrested.”
“Why did he kill him?”
“I don’t know. We’ll never know the whole story, since there isn’t going to be a trial now.”
“But he was just a teenager!”)
It will come up because it just keeps happening.
(In a tiny flat in London, bent over with pain from the news from home: the decision by a Florida jury. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“A man should have gone to prison because he shot a boy. But he isn’t going to go to prison.”
“Why did he shoot him?”
“I don’t know. He says it’s because he was scared. Some white people think that someone is dangerous just because he’s black.”)
Just like the time before and the time before that. The girl her age who was killed by a Detroit cop who burst into her home firing a submachine gun, whose killer won’t even be charged with manslaughter; the Cleveland boy a few years older whom the police killed only two seconds after jumping out of their car. It will keep happening. The opportunities to talk about it won’t run out, and I won’t always know what to say, what to ask her, how much to tell her. I just know that nothing in our values as parents and people allows us to tell her, even implicitly, “You don’t have to worry about this because you’re white, and blond, and female, and not poor.” It’s our world, and our worry, all of us.
When Jane went past [the Chief of Police’s] house, she was careful not to step off the sidewalk onto the lawn even one little inch. She tried to remember always to walk, never to run, lest the Chief of Police take her for a thief running from the scene of her latest crime. But she never walked too slowly lest she be arrested for loitering. (Eleanor Estes, The Moffats, 25)
I’d love to tell my daughter that that’s the amusing paranoia of a child. But it’s too close to the real experience of millions of her countrypeople: not paranoid, not childish, not amusing.